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Can Taiwan produce a world-class tipple?
ILAN, Taiwan — Six thousand miles from Scotland's chill, one bold company is attempting what some consider the impossible: Producing a top-shelf, 100 percent distilled- and aged-in-Taiwan single-malt whiskey.
After the success of Japanese whiskies, Taiwan is hoping to follow in its Asian cousin's footsteps and prove that it too can produce a world-class tipple.
It's called "Kavalan," named after an aboriginal tribe that once roamed this misty, mountainous part of Taiwan's coast. And it already has plenty of critics.
It's too expensive, gripe the naysayers. Locals will never go for it. And Taiwan's climate is all wrong.
Ryan Lin, a project manager at Synovate Taiwan, said Taiwanese choose whiskies to "show status" and would shun local products in favor of Johnny Walker, Macallan and the like.
"This is the key driver," said Lin. "Normally Taiwanese people who drink whiskey will choose a very famous brand, to show their taste. So few people will choose Taiwanese whiskey."
Taiwan's drinking habits have changed as it's gotten richer, with many here increasingly consuming Western spirits. Cognac was all the rage in the 1990s, followed by single-malt whiskeys.
Market researcher TNS Taiwan says whiskey is now the second-most popular category of spirits in Taiwan. Twelve percent of those surveyed had imbibed whiskey in the previous three months, compared to 12.4 percent who drank Chinese spirits, including sorghum-based kaoliang and "yellow spirits" or huangjiu.
Andrew Do, an associate director at TNS Taiwan, said that Taiwan's whiskey drinkers would balk at Kavalan's price tag, about $60 per bottle. "For a non-aged whiskey, to me, that's kind of ridiculous," said Do. "For that price you can buy a really good Scotch, even a single-malt Scotch."
Single-malt whiskey snobs insist a product must be aged at least three years to be worthy of consumption.
But during a tour of Kavalan's distillery, blender Ian Chang defended his product against that and other criticisms. Taiwan's climate is an average of 25 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than Scotland's, said Chang.
"The hotter climate means you can make a good whiskey in a shorter time," he said. "To smell like Scotch and taste like Scotch, it takes only two to three years in Taiwan."
But he acknowledged that "it will take time for consumers to understand." He's also doing road shows in China — a key target market — to better educate consumers there.
Chang said Kavalan is well-positioned to ride the trend of more quickly-aged whiskies, made fast to meet surging demand in emerging markets such as China, Brazil and Russia.
Ben Chuang, editor of the Chinese-language Wine & Spirits Digest, is bullish on Kavalan's chances in China.
"The Chinese mainland is so near, so if they need whiskey quickly and easily, Taiwan whiskey is the best choice," said Huang. "And in China, they don't know much about whiskey. So Kavalan has a very, very big opportunity."