Travails of whisky-making in Taiwan

The world of Scotch whisky lost one its great behind-the-scenes practitioners this month.

Dr. James Swan died Feb. 14 at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was 75.

As a drinks industry consultant to wineries, breweries, whisky blenders and distillers, Swan was a highly sought after expert.
Among the many distilleries around the world Swan helped get off the ground and whip into shape, are Israel’s Milk & Honey Distillery, the Welsh Whisky Co. (Penderyn), the Dublin Distillery Co. and — perhaps mostly famously — the Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan.

Kavalan is located not far from Taipei. The distillery is a subsidiary of the Taiwanese multi-billion dollar King Car Group, and took its name from the indigenous people of the Yilan County.

Construction of the distillery was completed in 2005, it released its first bottling in 2008, and by 2010 it had earned headlines by beating three Scotch whiskies and one English whisky in a blind tasting organized to celebrate Burns Night (a Scottish cultural festival celebrating the life of Scottish poet Robert Burns).

The Kavalan Distillery went on to earn awards and accolades from Whisky Magazine, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, the World Whisky Awards and the Whisky Advocate, among others. A few years back, in the one lengthy interview I was fortunate enough to have with Swan, he explained some of the hurdles involved in making whisky in Taiwan.

First, the extraction from the wood occurs too easily and so having the product age for long periods would cause overextraction, which makes a whisky seem too woody,. Second, the process of oxidation of the whisky in the cask adds complexity to a maturing whisky, but is inversely proportional to temperature, so the hot climate makes the cask maturation far more challenging to get right.

Third, maturation normally allows for the slow subtraction by the wood of the negative spirit and cereal-type flavors, but since the hot climate greatly shortens the maturation period, getting this right poses an additional challenge. Therefore, all of the whisky production processes, from mashing to maturation, need to be altered to suit the hot climate.

For example, experts adjust the portion of the distilled spirit that they collect for whisky; they use less of the back-end (the “tails”), for instance, because they know they won’t be aging it for very long, and that part of the spirit run takes longer to purify out as it interacts with the oak cask.

Or, they shave off inner layers of used wine casks to get rid of the unwanted active acids and flavors that would otherwise be overwhelming with such brief maturation. Since certain thickness layers of the wood have absorbed the less desirable components of the wine in greater concentration, they simply shave those away very precisely, to help keep the good and get rid of the bad.

Suffice it to say that Swan not only knew his stuff, but also helped produce absolutely stellar whisky over his multi-decade career. So I toast his memory with a fabulous dram of:

Kavalan, Ex-Bourbon Oak, Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky (46 percent abv; $130): Although this is just a diluted, if less expensive, version of their stellar “soloist” ex-Bourbon barrel release, this expression is awesome whisky with aromas and flavors of vanilla, nutmeg, banana, creamy barley, mango and citrus, white chocolate and fresh coconut, with a medium, rounded and somewhat fruity body and a long, complex and satisfying finish of spice and tropical fruits. This is amazingly good whisky. L’chaim!

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