Behind the bottle: Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique

Taiwan’s most famous whisky brand has enjoyed a meteoric rise. We take a look at how family-owned Kavalan earned its place on the whisky stage, and how its Solist Vinho Barrique expression captured hearts of whisky lovers around the world

Words by Millie Milliken

kavalan solist vinho barrique

Say the word ‘Taiwan’ to a group of whisky lovers and ‘Kavalan’ won’t come far behind. The single malt whisky brand from Yilan County has been turning heads for a number of years, accruing a myriad of medals and awards along the way. Impressive stuff considering that Kavalan whisky has its roots in a household cleaning company.

In 2005, the King Car Group broke ground on its distillery, its launch driven by owner Tien-Tsai Lee’s deep love of whisky. Due to the red tape around alcohol production in Taiwan at the time, it was a passion project that was two decades in the making. But once approved, they wasted no time: just nine months after construction work began, Kavalan’s stills were ready to make single malt whisky.

The idea of making a local whisky in the style of a Scotch was met with derision

For a Scotch whisky-loving country – the biggest consumer of the drink in Asia – the idea of making a local whisky in the style of a Scotch was met with derision. ‘People thought we were crazy,’ says Kavalan brand ambassador Sandra Tsai. Yet seventeen years later, Kavalan is synonymous with the art of ageing single malt whisky in sherry casks – from fino, amontillado and Pedro Ximénez, to manzanilla, moscatel and beyond.

The company has nearly 30 expressions to its name, sold in over 60 international markets, and is proud owner of a distillery that gets over one million visitors a year, surely a strong measure of the cult status the brand has managed to secure in such a short space of time. And there’s no doubt that its Solist Vinho Barrique expression, a cask-strength single malt aged in ex-wine barrels and which launched in 2010, has significantly aided Kavalan’s rise to whisky fame.

kavalan solist whisky

The origins of Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique

Getting Kavalan off the ground wasn’t easy, explains Tsai. When Lee’s company entered the food and beverage market in 1979, he noticed the potential to make single malt whisky; but it wasn’t until Taiwan joined the World Trade Organisation in 2002 that he and his son, Yu-Ting Albert Lee (now the brand’s CEO), could get to work.

‘Mr Lee and his son wasted no time and led a research team to Scotland, Japan and other major whisky producing populations,’ explains Tsai. ‘The goal was to create the blueprint for Taiwan’s whisky industry.’

They didn’t go it alone – in fact, they enlisted the help of the ‘Einstein’ of single malt whisky, the late Dr Jim Swan. With such an unusual setting for making single malt – with four sub-tropical climates, plus a humidity that’s 10 to 15 degrees higher than that of Scotland – Swan was instrumental in helping the family customise their facilities, as well as introducing his coveted STR (shaved, toasted and recharred) cask process.

Come 2006, Kavalan Distillery was up and running: ‘Our new make was born at 3.30pm on 11 March,’ says Tsai. ‘It was a historic moment.’ What followed was experimentation with predominantly ex-sherry, ex-Bourbon and STR casks, leading to the launch of the inaugural Solist series, a range of single cask whiskies bottled at cask-strength – and the Solist Vinho Barrique saw the brand’s first dive into ageing whisky in wine casks.

kavalan distillery
The Kavalan distillery has been producing whisky in Taiwan since 2006

What goes into making Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique?

All of Kavalan’s expressions begin with imported barley from Scotland and water from the nearby Snow Mountain and Central Mountains. ‘Behind the distillery is the Snow Mountain, which at 3886m is the second highest in Taiwan,’ explains Tsai. ‘The water goes through mineral-rich earth, which creates optimal conditions for our yeast to work and for our creamy mouthfeel.’

Speaking to senior blender Zerose Yang, it’s clear that the production of Kavalan is a slick and strict operation. ‘In terms of the production process, it’s necessary to achieve optimal interaction with the copper during distillation in the customised lantern-shaped stills,’ he says. ‘Few distilleries can achieve our flow rate and time of slow distillation – condensing through cold water, the fruit aroma can be locked into the distillate.’ Indeed, after double distillation, the new make spirit comes off the stills with sub-tropical fruit notes, like mango and banana.

central mountains in taiwan
The Central Mountain range in Taiwan, a source of water for Kavalan's range of single malt whiskies

When it comes to the climate, cask selection and storage is of paramount importance. ‘Kavalan harnesses the temperature and humidity changes of Lanyang [Yilan] Plain in a subtropical climate,’ Yang explains. Around 98 percent of Kavalan’s casks are American oak, selected as they impart fewer tannins than French oak, a plus when it comes to ageing in heat.

Storing the casks in its five-story warehouses is another matter: ‘It is very hot outside and temperatures translate to 40 degrees,’ explains Tsai. ‘We came up with a strategy of storing different sizes of cask depending on the floor. On the ground floor we do 200l casks, while on top there are different types of sherry butts, around 500l, so we can balance the maturation of different sizes of cask.’ Come winter, the distillery’s north-east location means that the temperature drops to around 7 to 10 degrees, allowing cold air to circulate around the casks and maximise oxidisation – and in turn, flavour.

The result is a mix of vanilla and dark chocolate on the nose, moving to more citrusy and peppery notes, with a fruity, chocolatey finish

When it comes to the Solist Vinho Barrique (‘vinho’ meaning ‘wine’ in Portuguese, ‘barrique’ referring to the type of barrel), Kavalan’s single malt is aged in STR American oak casks that once held both red and white wine, before being bottled at cask strength. The result is a mix of vanilla and dark chocolate on the nose, moving to more citrusy and peppery notes, with a fruity, chocolatey finish. It comes with no age statement, but looking at the awards that ensued after its launch, that’s not deterred the whisky fans and critics.

kavalan leopard cat packaging

How did the design come about?

Kavalan’s icon status carries through to its branding. The vertical alignment of the three ‘As’ in its name is a visual representation of its pursuit for quality, while the square shape of its first release, the Classic, was inspired by the then-tallest skyscraper in the world, the Taipei 101. The Solist Vinho Barrique follows the more regular bottle design of Kavalan’s range but has featured some fun limited-release artwork over the years – as seen in its 2021 leopard cat gift set, that not only came in a striking box but also with the addition of a leopard on its bottle.

It’s not been shy of getting its brand in front of consumers, either. In 2016, Kavalan took over 11 billboard screens in New York’s Times Square in a bid to excite the American market. This was bolstered in the same year by the Solist Vinho Barrique featuring in an episode of US TV show Billions, a placement Tsai assures was not sponsored by the brand. When Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, pours his wife a glass of Kavalan Soloist Vinho Barrique, he utters the sentence: ‘The Taiwanese do it better than the Scots these days.’ The reference put the expression temporarily out of stock.

What’s next for Kavalan?

Kavalan’s momentum shows no signs of slowing. Work began on its third maturation warehouse in September 2020, and when it’s completed it will bring with it the ability for the team to age even more whiskies. The producer will also be looking to grow its global presence, with Mexico and Panama its most recent new export markets.

Perhaps most excitingly, though, is the news that maturation of a peated new make spirit is already underway, meaning a peated Taiwanese whisky isn’t far from being a reality. Let’s see if the Taiwanese really can do it better.