...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ghost of Whisky Yet to Come? Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask S090122079 Taiwanese Whisky

I skipped right over Ghost of Whisky Present because I'll be damned if I have to drink Laphroaig Select again.

To the future!

There are so many new whisky distilleries being built all over the world that I've given up trying to keep track of them.  With the Scotch whisky undergoing a market correction, and American whiskey probably doing the same within the next few years, I'm not sure there's a market for all these new distillers.  In Scotland alone, 20-30 distilleries were greenlighted (and more than a dozen older distilleries expanded) during the peak of the market and are now producing their spirit while export numbers continue to shrink.  Who's going to drink all this new stuff?  The Chinese and Indian middle classes?  I wouldn't bet on the Americans.  The newbs can price their whiskies as luxury -- you know, avoiding the shrinking middle class -- I suppose, aiming for the US wealthy, but that sector is pretty larded up already.

One new distillery whose single malts arrived at just the right peak time is Taiwan's Yuan Shan Distillery, producers of Kavalan single malt.  Their single casks hit the international market in 2011-2012 to much critical acclaim from both the everything-is-always-amazing crowd to the oldschoolers.  That high regard has continued right up through this year's Malt Maniacs Awards.  Thus Kavalan has established its roots before Nu Whisky arrives, giving it a better chance in whatever form the market takes next.

I have consistently disagreed with all the Kavalan raves, not to be a contrarian dick but because I actually had the opportunity to try six of their whiskies in 2013 and was completely underwhelmed.  Their $100 40%abv NAS whiskies were crap when neat, possibly only good for cocktails.  The $150 4yo single bourbon cask was a hot mess disliked by most of the folks at the tasting.  The $175 6yo sherry cask was so-so.  The $150 5yo Vinho barrique was decent.  The 6yo Fino cask was actually close to GlenDronach quality, but it was priced at more than $300.  Thus I had no idea what all the fuss was about, and was happy to not be tempted by very expensive whisky.

More than two years have since passed and $150 for barely legal whisky has become more prevalent and is, sadly, no longer shocking.  Positive reviews from more reliable sources, such as a couple Malt Maniacs who have relatable palates and also an actual maniac, inspired me to give it another go.

Distillery: Yuan Shan Distillery
Owner: King Car Group
Brand: Kavalan
Region: Yuanshan, Taiwan
Type: Single Malt
Age: 6 years (January 22, 2009 to March 9, 2015)
Maturation: "Sherry Cask", probably a sherry butt
Alcohol by Volume: 57.8%
Limited Release: 559 bottles
Samples purchased from the Whiskybase shop

Its color is cherry syrup.

Enormous sherry on the nose: walnuts, raisins, dried cherries, and cherry snow cone syrup.  Soon a beef broth note develops and expands.  Maybe some mint too.  After 20+ minutes it picks up an earthy dried hay note and maybe some fresher fruit.

The palate has big sticky grapey sherry (almost a PX).  Chocolate and a mild herbal bitterness.  Hints of burlap and soil.  It's quite hot, but still drinkable.

Grape jam and dark cherries in the finish.  Caramel and chocolate (or maybe mocha?).  A little of the palate's decent bitterness.

WITH WATER (46-48%abv)
Raisins, vanilla, and baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) on the nose.  A little more fresh stone fruits now.

The palate still has an ethyl bite.  Taste-wise there are raisins, plums, maybe limes too.  A little peppery and a slight mineral note.

All sherry stuff in the finish.  Plums, grape jam, and black pepper.

This is good sherried whisky.  Due to all of the heat and humidity near Taipei, the whisky feels like it's several years older than your usual 6 year old Scottish single malt.  And the sherry is loud Loud LOUD.  Since Kavalan isn't held to the SWA's laws, I wonder if the producer utilizes paxarette or includes a generous quantity of sherry right in the cask at the start.

Like Tuesday's very different whisky, the nose is the star of the show.  The palate (and definitely the finish) feel muted after the nose's technicolor vibrancy.  But it swims decently, which is nice.  Overall this whisky might be close quality-wise to Glenfarclas 15 and GlenDronach 15, at least on the nose.  That's the positive side of things.  (For a very positive opinion, yes, see MAO's review from last week.)

On the other hand, if you're in the US, getting your hands on a bottle of this will cost you around $150 (with shipping), and that's only while the Euro is weak.  To me, the quality and price still do not match, probably by a factor of two.  But if spending $150 on a bottle of tempered brown poison is a regular occurrence for you, then have at it.  It's good.

Availability - Europe only
Pricing - $150+ if you're having it shipped to the US
Rating - 87


  1. Compass Box came up with a "this is not luxury whisky" whisky. Kavalan should embrace the opposite tag line: "This IS luxury whisky!".
    As with all luxury goods (brands), the quality of Kavalan is generally better than average and following the luxury model, the prices FAR exceed the quality.


    1. Hi portwood! The thing is, they're expanding their distillery's production capacity to 9 million liters by the end this year (2016), which is freaking huge, larger than all but 7 Scotch distilleries. So rarity and scarcity will either no longer be something they can factor into their pricing or they'll conveniently ignore it.

  2. " Since Kavalan isn't held to the SWA's laws, I wonder if the producer utilizes paxarette or includes a generous quantity of sherry right in the cask at the start."
    Don't discount the possibility Scotch distillers are still performing similar tricks despite the SWA's rules.

    There appears to be more sherry matured whisky from "first-fill" casks than is possible given declining consumption of real sherry. To my mind, one - or both - of two things is happening:
    - distillers are seasoning casks with fake sherry (wine produced locally, like "sherry" produced for the local market by Forty Creek in Canada). Re-char tired casks, fill with a few litters of "sherry", spin at high speed to soak the wood, drain, fill with spirit; and/or
    - similar thing is happening in Spain. Bodegas are maturing second grade sherry to season wood for the distilleries then dumping the resulting dregs ... or making vinegar, or distilling for brandy or industrial alcohol ...

    Just my conspiracy theories but I don't trust the distillers - reminds me of MAO's analysis of Glendronach's single casks ;-)


    1. #3 is closest to what's going on. There are companies devoted entirely to producing custom sherry casks for the spirits industry as the casks used for maturing sherry aren't what distillers want. I don't really see anything wrong with that, since the custom casks come relatively close to replicating the transport casks that were in favor until the early 20th century.

    2. Technically, I think, the casks aren't supposed to have any leftover sherry rolling around in them, but I've found that some distillery employees/reps (after a few drinks) will tout the wetness of their sherry casks.

  3. I have the same feeling about the Solist Vinho Barrique; it's good. It's not $200 US good, and it's not even $125 US good. And, it's certainly not single-malt-of-the-year good (those who give credence to such claims be damned!). But, a solid effort indeed.
    Kavalan's not so popular where I live, so short of buying a full bottle, it's difficult to have a taste of the different expressions. The Solist Vinho Barrique is likely the last full bottle of Kavalan I'll ever buy...

    1. Hi Will! I wonder if there are any Japanese shops that would do a Kavalan tasting or online retailers that ship samples to (or within) Japan. Like you, I doubt I'll have many more opportunities to try Kavalan again. I don't foresee ever buying one of their single cask bottlings due to their ultra-luxury pricing. And I won't buy any of their regular range due to quality issues and pricing.

    2. Certainly, there's always the buy-a-sample-online option. Also, Hasegawa Liquors in Tokyo Station and Isetan in Shinjuku offer tastings at reasonable prices, though that depends on which bottles they have open, or are willing to open for the purpose of sampling.