Taipei (Taiwan News) — As many head into Yilan, less than two hours away from Taipei by bus, they seek out the coast and hot springs in nearby towns. Just outside the city of about 100,000 in Yuanshan Township, however, is Taiwan's premier whisky distillery—Kavalan Whisky, owned by King Car Group and named after the indigenous group that inhabited the region.
The distillery offers visitors a free tour and a sample of its classic single malt whisky. Guided Mandarin tours are available every hour, while English tours require an online reservation.
The Kavalan distillery has become more popular since 2010 when it won its first international awards, the more prominent of which was the gold medal for its Solist Sherry Single Cask Strength single malt at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The same organization awarded Kavalan Distillery of the Year in 2015. The company has since won more awards for its Solist series of whiskies.
Although it prides itself on the Solist series, its classic single malt is still its best seller as it’s more affordable for most consumers. The classic single malt was first released in April 2008 as the distillery was opened to the public.
With the addition of the second distillery in December 2016, as well as the third production line earlier in the year, Kavalan targets to produce 10 million bottles of whisky in 2017 for distribution in 60 countries. The company has also repurposed its German stills to produce gin, which it may release this year, though no official timeline has been set.
Kavalan has developed its own method for treating casks for the whisky-aging process, all the machinery for which is made in Taiwan. Unlike some whisky distillers, Kavalan does not use climate control during maturation and adds no coloring for consistency. The lack of climate control leads to greater evaporation during maturation, thus a lower yield, making the final product more valuable.
The climate in Yilan also allows the whisky to mature faster, thus bringing the final product to market after four to five years.
While all casks are imported from various countries—primarily in Europe and the US—the company continues to only use natural spring water from nearby mountains. It also imports barley and yeast for the distillation process.
Walking through the grounds and No. 1 distillery, visitors are treated to the detailed process of whisky-making and history of the company, starting with the distillery plan in 2002 and official opening in 2005. Kavalan opened its No. 2 distillery in December, but it isn't open to tours; visitors can walk around the outside and peer in through the large windows adjacent recently-planted cherry blossom trees, which will make for a more pleasant walk in the spring.
Upstairs in the Mr. Brown Café is a tasting room for visitors who wish to sample more than just the free dram of Kavalan Classic. For NT$400, visitors can sample a dram of any four of the 18 expressions that Kavalan distills (most opt for the four most expensive Solist expressions).
After walking through the distillery and learning about the whisky-making process, visitors are treated to a 15-minute film about the King Car Group at the convention center. For those unfamiliar with the company, it extends well beyond spirits and Mr. Brown Coffee—it invests in biotech research and aquaculture as well as rural education development.
Also inside the convention center is an art gallery that hosts regular exhibitions by local artists as King Car founder Tien-tsai Lee is a patron of the arts.
For visitors seeking a different experience, the distillery offers a personal blending session. Those who pay NT$1,500 (US$47) can blend their own 300 ml of whisky as a souvenir. Customers are allowed to taste their creation during the blending process.
For visitors who arrive in Yilan earlier in the day, King Car Group has an orchid farm a short taxi ride from the distillery (there is another orchid farm in Jiaoxi). The garden closes at 5:00 pm, so it's better to go there before touring the distillery in the afternoon.
A 15-minute walk farther down the road is Jim & Dad's Brewery, for anyone looking for a beer after sampling whisky. Small glasses of draft beer are NT$50 and the brewery closes at 6:00 pm.
Classic Single Malt
This smooth flagship whisky is most consumers’ introduction to Kavalan. It has a mild hint of tropical fruit to add to its sweeter tone.
A more delicate and floral whisky, though at a higher proof than the classic, this expression has a sweet aroma and light burn.
This sherry cask whisky is more mellow than the Podium expression, though it possesses an aroma of toasted almond and hazelnut.
Another sherry cask whisky with a more bold, roasted aroma and smoky flavor with a hint of vanilla.
Solist Pedro Ximénez
Thought this sherry cask expression has a lighter burn than the Amontillado and Manzanilla, it also has more of a seaside briny note.
Getting to Kavalan Whisky Distillery
Take the Kamalan bus from Taipei Bus Station to the Yilan Bus Transfer Station (80 minutes; NT$129) or the Capital Star from Taipei City Hall Bus Station (NT$120). The Kamalan bus also stops near the Technology Building MRT.
From the bus station, take a taxi to the distillery for about NT$280 (25 minutes), or bus 752 (50 minutes; NT$20) from Yilan Train Station to Yuanshan Farmer’s Association stop. Be aware that the bus runs infrequently and the last bus back to the train station is before 7:00 pm. The buses are frequently late.
Kavalan Whisky Distillery is located at No. 326, Sec. 2, Yuanshan Rd. It is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday to Friday and until 7:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday.
The final tour is at 4:00 pm and no reservation is required for Mandarin tours. The guided tour is about 70 minutes.