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From insecticides to whisky: How a Taiwanese brand became a global favorite

Posted September 14

It goes down smooth and sweet, like honey.

Often compared to fruit jam, Kavalan is an easy whisky to like, especially for the uninitiated.

The Taiwanese brand's most popular varieties are matured in sherry casks, making it particularly appealing for those making the leap from wine to whisky.

"We didn't want our whisky to taste like medicine," explains Lee Yu-Ting, CEO of Kavalan's umbrella company, King Car Group. "It's very easy to go down."

Kavalan was a dark horse when it first came on the global scene 11 years ago -- until the Taiwanese whisky beat three Scotches and one English brand at a blind tasting held on Scotland's famed Burns Night in 2010.

"They said it was impossible," recalls Yu-Ting.

Hundreds of awards

Produced in the countryside of Taiwan and now available in 60 countries, Kavalan has since won more than 220 awards.

More recently, it won the International Wine & Spirit Competition Worldwide Whisky Trophy 2017 and the International Spirits Challenge Trophy for two years in a row, in 2016 and 2017.

Kavalan hopes to produce 9 million liters this year, making it one of the largest single malt whisky distilleries in the world, comparable in size to the oldest official Scottish distillery, Glenlivet.

"Being Taiwanese sets them apart," says Tommy Keeling, a market analyst from IWSR, a London-based world database on the alcoholic beverage market.

"On the plus side it offers something new and different to a whisky connoisseur ... while on the negative side, there are some consumer prejudices to overcome."

The early years were admittedly difficult, says Yu-Ting, who knew his brand could not compete with whisky aged 12 to 21 years.

So instead, they aimed to learn as much as they could and didn't rely just on local ingredients. Though production takes place in Taiwan, the distillers are from Scotland, the pot stills from Germany and the barrels from Europe and America.

Today there are 18 different varieties of Kavalan -- from sweet to dry. At the sprawling Napa Valley-like distillery, there's a tasting bar along with a DIY blending station, where one can play mad scientist with test tubes and blend a bottle to taste.

Humble beginnings

For Kavalan, it all started with mosquito repellant. In 1959, Yu-Ting's father Lee Tien-Tsai sold pesticides for his company, Chu Chen, but felt it was limiting. So he moved into beverages.

In 1979, he started the King Car Group, selling root beer. In 1982 he started producing Mr. Brown, a popular canned coffee with a hard-to-miss mustached mascot. Its associated cafes are the local version of Starbucks, with venues found on corners all over Taiwan.

Since then, King Car has diversified, selling everything from shrimp and orchids to bottled water and whisky, pushing Tien-Tsai into Forbe's 2016 list of "Taiwan's 50 Richest."

"To go from insecticide to something to drink is very difficult," says Yu-Ting, smiling.

Not a typical Scotch

Reflecting Kavalan's deep roots in Taiwan, the early bottles were shaped like Taiwan's tallest building, Taipei 101. It's name is taken from an aborigine group that used to live in the area.

"Taiwan is one of the world's largest single malt markets -- tied with France behind the US -- and is thus a very developed and sophisticated market," says Keeling.

The distillery is based in Yilan County, south of Taiwan's capital, Taipei. The area's high temperatures (averaging 33 degrees Celsius in the summer) and sweltering humidity accelerate the interaction of the liquor with the wood barrels.

The maturation process is cut down by a third, from four to six years versus the 15 or 25 years of its Scottish counterparts.

While the process is faster, the amount of whisky produced is much less. The "angel's share," or amount evaporated during the process, is much more, pushing the prices of Kavalan higher, from $70 to $600. Scotch typically loses 2% in evaporation, whereas Kavalan loses 12%.

In recent years, Asia has become a hotspot for whisky distilling, with Kavalan joining Japan's Suntory and Nikka, plus India's Paul John and Amrut.

"The Asian-style whiskies are so popular because they don't have to adhere to any rules or restrictions," says Adam Teeter, founder of VinePair, a New York City-based site about drinking culture.

"Unlike Scotch, which has very stringent requirements regarding what actually makes the whisky a Scotch, in Asia producers are able to be inspired by single malts while still experimenting. Experimentation can lead to incredible results, and that's why people are interested."

So what's next for Yu-Tin, now that he's conquered the global whisky market?

High-end beer.

"I wanted to do something new," says Yu-Ting. "If we were to follow the me-too pattern, it has no meaning."

Kavalan hosts a free daily distillery tour. For more information, go to www.kavalanwhisky.com.

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