Thursday, January 21, 2010

Whiskycast on Japan and the King Car distillery, Taiwan

King Car distillery, Taiwan

I forgot to mention that Mark Gillespie of the Whiskycast podcast (itunes), which is essential listening for anyone interested in whisky, interviewed me in the middle of the New Year festivities over here. I am not sure how much light I shone on Japanese whisky but Mark was his usual professional self while I stumbled over my sentences (link to interview on Mark's website).

Perhaps of more interest was an interview in the very next episode of whiskycast (episode 234, January 10; interview link) with Ian Chang from the King Car distillery in Taiwan. I try to interpret Nonjatta's brief broadly and like to take note of developments in whisky across Asia, the continent which seems to hold the future of whisky in its hands. I must admit I had never heard of King Car before listening to Mark's interview (having only heard of rip offs from Taiwan before) but the company sell four different bottlings of single malt whisky, including ex-Bourbon cask and Sherry cask single cask expressions.

The whisky is still very young (King Car only started distilling in 2006) but it seems to be good. The sherry, ex-Bourbon and "Concertmaster" single malts won Bronze medals in this year's Malt Maniacs awards and Jim Murray gave the sherry version a 90 rating in the 2009 Whisky Bible. The main Kavalan single malt won a silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in March 2009 and a silver medal (best in class) at the International Wine and Spirit Competition. The judges said the whisky had “a delicate, gentle nose … with a sweet sensation making for easy flow.”

That sweet, smooth style seems to be what King Car are aiming at. They did extensive research of the Taiwanese market before launching their products and found that their countrymen preferred a slightly sweeter, more oily taste. Their main challenge at the moment seems to be the relatively hot weather conditions. I found distillers wrestling with similar problems at the Eigashima White Oak at Akashi, Japan's most southerly distillery: the angels' share can be astronomical (I have heard of 7 per cent a year losses in Japan). However, King Car, with help from the British distilling expert Jim Swan, reckon they have it under control. They say, as I have heard Japanese distillers working in these conditions claim, that the warmth also makes the whisky mature more quickly.

Make no mistake, King Car have aggressively ambitious. Andy Chang, a section chief at the distillery, said: “Our goal is to become one of the world’s top five whisky distilleries. And we will prove to the rest of the world that Taiwan is actually an ideal location for making whisky.

“From the very beginning, our goal has been to build a distillery that will stand for hundreds of years for whisky lovers from around the world,” Chang said.

The distillery began operations in 2006 with copper stills made in Scotland and imported malt but, the very next year, another set of stills was imported from Germany. Its total capacity is now a very substantial 9 million bottles per year.

The company behind the operation, King Car Food Industrial Co. Ltd., is no minnow. It has established itself as one of the country's major food and drink makers since its foundation in 1979 and has ploughed 31 million dollars (US) into the distillery at Yuanshan Village in northeastern Taiwan. The single malt's name, "Kavalan", sounds a bit European but in fact comes from the name of an indigenous clan that lived in the region.

With a domestic market that is the sixth biggest in the world (Ian Chang told Mark that the Taiwanese like to drink whisky on special occasions and can down a bottle each in a night) and the potentially huge Chinese market on their doorstep, their future looks very interesting indeed. Currently, over 90 per cent of Taiwan's whisky is imported from Scotland. King Car intends to change all that.

Some quotes and information taken from Taiwan Today. The rest from Mark's podcast. Photograph from King Car website.

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