The Whiskey Diaries: Scotland in Taiwan

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."

But he also said it was too expensive for Taiwanese.

Richard Ma, a spokesman for the King Car Group, which makes Kavalan, suggested that the company may offer lower-priced whiskeys in the future. But he said the high price reflected the company's faith in its product.

"We're in this for the long term — not just five or ten years, but 100," said Ma. "By insisting in our belief in our whiskey, consumers will eventually realize it's worth it."

King Car began building the distillery in 2005, just three years after Taiwan's government opened the domestic spirits market to private companies. It began distilling in March 2006, and sold its first bottles a year ago.

Chang, the blender, said Kavalan is specially tweaked for Taiwanese tastes. While Westerners prefer a dry, "not so sweet" taste, Taiwanese like an oily, smooth texture with some sweetness, he said. Kavalan is chemically engineered to boast hints of mango and green apple, with a cinnamon note that's "unique to Taiwan whiskey," said Chang.

Kavalan gets its malt barley from Scotland, because Taiwan is too humid to grow and dry it. The water comes from a natural underground spring 200 feet below the distillery.

Kavalan's warehouses boast 30,000 barrels for aging. About 40 percent are recycled, oak Kentucky bourbon barrels, preferred to European oak barrels because they have fewer tannins, said Chang. (More tannins makes for a more bitter, drier whiskey).

Chang said Kavalan already picked up some awards, and is shooting for two gold medals at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London in July.

"This is still early days for Kavalan — we have a long way to go," said Chang. "But we want to convince Taiwan consumers that whiskey doesn't have to be foreign to be good."

"Taiwan can make a good whiskey. We just need to have a little faith and confidence in ourselves."