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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Kavalan Tasting with the SCWC

Two weeks ago, I attended a Kavalan single malt tasting hosted by Southern California Whiskey Club.  While Kavalan has become at some European retailers, it has not yet made it to the US.  Thus many many many thanks go out to Chris and Michael R. of the SCWC for coordinating this rare opportunity.

Usually at whisky tastings, quarter-ounce pours are rushed into one's glass one after the other.  That's why I usually don't write anything about the events I attend.  But at this tasting, we were allowed generous pours and a lot of time to mull over the whisky.

Here they are in order of sampling:

Kavalan - 40% ABV - $85-$105 ex-VAT w/shipping from Europe
Lots and lots of caramel in the nose and mouth.  Hot cereal, like cream of wheat or oatmeal, on the nose.  Buttered bread and dried grass in the palate.  Brief finish.  Very mild overall.  An easy drinker, but also nearly characterless without the caramel.

Kavalan Concertmaster (Port finish) - 40% ABV - $85-$105 ex-VAT w/shipping from Europe
The port is very reserved, shows up mostly on the nose. Candy sweet on the palate with molasses and orange peel.  Some of that orange note appears in the nose as well.  Bitter cough syrup on the finish.  It's a sweetie, might be good for cocktails?

Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask - B080616146, bottle 219/225 - about 4 years old
55.6% ABV - $145-$195 ex-VAT w/shipping from Europe
Both very spirity and lots of charred American oak.  Sugar cookies on the nose, along with some baking spices. Vanilla and ethyl on the palate, going from sweet to bitter and back again. A surprisingly quiet finish with a little bit of malt character.  A couple guys at my end of the tasting table REALLY did not like this one.

Kavalan Solist vinho barrique - W071210025, bottle 53/197 - about 5 years old
57.7% ABV - $135-$160 ex-VAT w/shipping from Europe
(Per Master of Malt, the vinho barrique casks were fashioned from American oak and then seasoned with both wine and red wines.)
Very gentle considering the ABV.  Raisins and other dried fruits on the nose.  Brown sugar and burnt berries on the palate.  More flavor and finish than the previous three.  The wine seemed to overwhelm the whisky but I didn't mind so much, for a change.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask - S060710017, bottle 192/545 - about 6 years old
58.6% ABV - $160-$195 ex-VAT w/shipping from Europe
Dark chocolate and cinnamon candy in the nose.  Lots of chocolate on the palate, sometimes with cherries, sometimes with figs.  Soft bitterness and more of the cinnamon candy.  A floral finish, with a little more chocolate in the background.  The cinnamon candy notes reminded me of rye new make which made me wonder if this whisky was still too young or if the note came from the cask.  While the chocolate notes were nice, they can't hold a candle to the chocolates in GlenDronach's single casks.

Kavalan Solist Fino - S060814011, bottle 467/529 - about 6 years old
58.6% ABV - $295-$320 ex-VAT w/shipping from Europe
From a big 'ol Fino butt.  While it doesn't hold up to water well, it does just fine on its own.  Toffee, caramel, and flower blossoms on the nose.  A little tart and spirity on the palate, but still held the toffee and flowers nicely. Most substantial finish of the bunch.

A lot of superlatives have been printed about the Kavalan single malts.  And while there's no accounting for taste, I do wonder if some folks need to step back from the AWESOME Cliff for a sec.

The fact that a Taiwanese distillery is bottling a single malt IS a great thing.  I'm all for supporting distillery growth around the world, even if many of those distilleries are mimicking the Scottish approach to whisky.  That "approach" ain't bad, so I'm not complaining.  It is also impressive that when following said approach, an international distillery makes a totally palatable product (see: Amrut, Three Ships, Mackmyra, or any Japanese distillery).  Under the supervision of Jim Swan (who also consulted on Kilchoman's malt), the Taipei distillers have made a very Scotchy single malt.

I also like the fact that Kavalan is playing around with different kinds of casks.  The fact that Kavalan bottles quite a number of single casks is great too.  AND AND AND some of these whiskies will end up for sale at US retailers, probably next year.

Good stuff, right?  And the writers who have lavished praise on Kavalan's malt are much more experienced than I.  And while these writers are paid for their opinions, I do not think they are in the tank for Kavalan.  I just think the excitement is a little much for very young whisky that goes for very large prices.

Very young whisky isn't necessarily bad whisky.  Wonders have been worked at Kilchoman (again, props to Jim Swan) whose 4, 5, and 6 year old whisky can compete favorably with much older malt coming from its famous neighbors.  The Springbank folks are also making some fine young stuff at Glengyle via their Kilkerran brand.  And I personally like a little bark and bite in my whisky, before years of active oak tames the dog.

Add into all of this the potential for batch variation......

My god, how many disclaimers must I list before writing the following?

I was underwhelmed by the entire Kavalan lineup.  And I have good reason to believe that at our tasting, I was amongst the majority in that opinion.  My fellow drinkers were a mix of newbies, anoraks, and professionals, each with their own past experiences and preferences.  A few folks liked the basic single malt as a guilty pleasure.  A couple folks liked the sherry cask, though the Fino seemed to gather the most votes.  But I didn't see or hear anyone get WOWed by any of these.  Which is okay.

While I am not rating these six whiskies, I lean closer to the grades (or a step lower) given them by Whiskyfun and LAWS as opposed to those given by Whisky Advocate or the Whisky Bible.  The two 40% ABV whiskies were inoffensive and would fit into the NAS starter malt market.  The bourbon cask was educational, allowing me to find out what a 4 year old whisky tastes like at cask strength.  The final three weren't half bad with the Fino probably ranking the highest.  But subtract the hype and the brand -- how about a blind taste test! :) -- and I'm not sure how well these stack up on the whisky market at large.

And then the prices.  Take another look at those prices, which will probably remain similar when Kavalan comes to The States.  What you're paying for is not necessarily the whisky.  You're paying for a very pretty distillery in the Republic of China.  You're paying for processes and ingredients that are more expensive in Taipei than in Rothes or Louisville.  You're paying for taxes and tariffs.  You're paying for the unique experience of drinking Taiwanese whisky.

But think of all the other great whiskies you could be buying at those prices...


  1. Still the potential is there. I would imagine Kavalan might develop into something good around the 10-12 year mark. Granted this is what all the young distilleries should strive for.

    My parents were both born in Taiwan so I'm especially proud to see single malt coming out of the country. I have an uncle heading over there soon so I'm hoping he'll track down a bottle or two (he's also a whisky enthusiast).

    1. Kilchoman is actually an interesting case. I've heard it argued that they may be better off sticking with younger whiskies as they seem to have hit a sweet spot. Maybe they'll improve with more age, but a) it's not a given and b) the prices they'll likely have to charge could be astronomical. Admittedly, they also have the crutch of peat to help them - though that may be a double-edged sword if the peat reek Klichoman fans have come to know and love goes down significantly in older expressions.

    2. Eric, yeah I'm wondering the same about Kavalan's malt when it gets that age. I also wonder the same about Kilchoman, as Jordan pointed out. Not sure what the prices are over there, but I'll bet your uncle can get those bottles at a better price in Taiwan-- minus tariffs, minus shipping, though adding in tax. He may also find better batches...

    3. Jordan, I was thinking about that as well. What if Kilchoman actually peaks at 5-7 years due to where they make their spirit cuts? I think we've seen from Longrow how the peat can recede with time forcing the rest of the malt (and oak) to stand up on its own.

      And I don't doubt that Kavalan will have a peated malt in the market within the next few years.

    4. Interestingly, Kilchoman is also planning on doing unpeated whisky, so we'll have to see how well it does at a young age compared to their peated whiskies. Admittedly, I've had young unpeated single malts that were actually pretty good, but it requires finesse and luck.

    5. That would be interesting indeed. Has potential for a new Kilchoman brand. If the unpeated malt doesn't work, they might want to keep it quiet. I'd try it no matter what.

  2. Interesting. I have large'ish samples of a few of Kavalan's whiskies on the shelf and look forward to comparing notes in a few weeks.

    However, if I may be forgiven for linking to one of my own posts, I think Amrut is also the beneficiary of a lot of grade inflation. See the fourth and fifth paras of this post: http://www.myannoyingopinions.com/2013/04/29/amrut-special-reserve/

    1. I almost bought a bunch of those whiskybase Kavalan samples, not sure if those are the ones you've got. I still may get the single cask ones to see if other batches/casks are better.

      Your Amrut post is great, thanks for the link! Their regular lower-priced range is really good. I like Fusion a lot. But I do concur with the Sanskrit word regarding the maturation equivalency. Would love to get one of their special editions but, as you noted, those prices are bananas considering they're probably 3ish year old malts.

      Is the Kadhambam your favorite of the fancy bunch?

    2. I like the Kadhambam a lot (at least the batch I have--that's the other thing about Amrut; there's a lot of batches of all their whiskies) but I liked the Intermediate Sherry a lot too. I still have a large reference sample saved from that bottle--should review it sometime.

      The fact of the matter is I do think Amrut makes very good whisky. It's just that I think some/a lot of people upgrade them too quickly from very good to great for reasons not entirely to do with what's in the bottle: enthusiasm for something new and different; the convoluted ways in which they make most of their special releases (somehow this is not found to be offensive in the way that Ardbeg's gimmicks seem to be); and probably also to some extent the fact that the Amrut reps/importers are very well networked in with the whisky community. I think the dude from Purple Valley Imports is on some sort of tour of the US hosting sessions for bloggers, clubs etc..

    3. Ah yes, that importer must be the Whiskyraj guy I've read about in other blogs. I think there's larger backlash against Ardbeg due to their LVMH ownership. Plus sometimes it seems as if there's a bit of a rejection of the old school everything-distilled-in-the-seventies-by-Ardbeg-is-amazing cult. Meanwhile Amrut rolls along framing themselves as a small underdog succeeding in the scotch market against all odds. And/or Whiskyraj and Co.'s networking, as you mentioned. Whether or not Ardbeg and Amrut deserve their current reputations can be questioned but the latter's PR team appear to be more successful right now.

      Kadhambam does look fun, though I understand the batch variation issue. I look forward to the Intermediate Sherry review.