Kavalan Finds Further “Ginspiration”

Kavalan Gin is described as being smooth and fragrant, with toffee and raisin notes. Photo: Jules Quartly

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.

A food conglomerate that makes acclaimed whisky has introduced a Taiwan-flavored craft gin that is set to make a splash on the rocks or in cocktails.

Pure spring water flows from Snow Mountain (Hsuehshan) and seeps into the sedimentary rock aquifer at the foot of the massif on Lanyang Plain in Yilan County. The water is drawn from a 25-meter deep well in the neatly landscaped grounds of Kavalan Distillery to create a malted barley, single-base spirit that is triple distilled and flavored with “botanicals” (ingredients derived from plants) – most notably juniper.

Water in, gin out. It sounds simple – but succeeding is a major achievement, especially given Taiwan’s sub-tropical climate and short history as a distiller of Western-style liquors.

Kavalan Gin is the latest spirit to bubble forth from Kavalan Distillery, just an hour in the car from Taipei, in Yilan’s Yuanshan Township. Although the company’s award-winning whiskies are world renowned, the move into craft gin came as a surprise to many in the liquor business.

Usually a distillery masters the basics by producing simpler spirits, such as gin and vodka, before moving on to the complexities of whisky, which contains up to 300 flavoring compounds. Creating new traditions, however, has become something of a habit for Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang.

“We’ve taken a different path from several other distilleries that launched a gin product before they launched their whisky product,” Chang says. “At Kavalan Distillery our original and ongoing purpose is to produce world-class single malt whisky. We now also produce gin!”

Kavalan Gin was released on October 1 this year and the timing was opportune, considering that gin is experiencing something of a renaissance. According to the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, the UK – the world’s biggest gin exporter – registered record sales of £532.3 million for 2017, 12% higher than the previous year.

“We could say it’s a happy coincidence,” says Chang. “However, we did notice that the gin category in general has shown very good growth potential.”

The resurgence is due in part to the large number of craft gin makers popping up all over the world, from Cambodia to South Africa. Craft spirits makers are defined by the American Distilling Institute as independently owned distilleries that distill and bottle the spirits on-site and have annual sales of no more than 52,000 cases.

This definition certainly fits Kavalan Gin at this stage, given its current reliance solely on domestic sales. These are not likely to be high in a market that traditionally favors brandies, cognacs, whiskies, and Chinese spirits – though younger drinkers are more adventurous and cocktails with gin mixers are becoming popular.

Eventually Kavalan plans to offer its gin worldwide. Once the product is registered and “gradually launched market by market,” production is expected to ramp up considerably, Chang says.

When Kavalan Gin does start appearing on bar shelves around the world, it will face considerable competition. At the Annual Spirits Tasting of the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) held in London in July 2018, the number of gin entries overtook Scotch whisky for the first time ever.

There are an estimated 3,500 (and rising) gin brands on the market, with 600 new varieties alone entered at the IWSC, which was a third higher than the previous year. Total gin sales in the UK could even exceed Scotch by 2020, according to IWSC forecasts.

London Dry

The principle reason why gin is making such a strong comeback on the world’s drinking stage is that small distilleries – craft or artisanal gin makers – are refashioning the definition of so-called London Dry.

At this juncture, a short history lesson is required. Gin is essentially a juniper-flavored spirit and was first regarded, in the Middle Ages, as herbal medicine. Though Italy and the Netherlands both have strong claims to have invented gin, its popularity exploded in England during the first half of the 18th century – and ever since then gin has been associated with the country, from Hogarth’s pictures of a gin-soaked London to sundowners of gin and tonic (G&T) during the British Raj.

The “Gin Craze” in the 1700s was responsible for riots and serious social problems; gin was called “Mother’s Ruin” for good reason. It was made cheaply and illegally, with additives such as turpentine and sulfuric acid injecting a kick that also made it a severe health hazard. Flavorings and copious amounts of sugar and honey were added to make it sweeter and therefore more palatable.

After distillation methods were improved and the gin trade regulated to assure quality, unsweetened London Dry became the standard-bearer of the spirit, through brands such as Gordon’s, Beefeater, and Tanqueray. It was only about a decade ago that contemporary gins, with new flavorings and terroir, became fashionable.

Technically and in accord with European Community regulations, London Dry gin must be distilled from a neutral base spirit of agricultural origin and cannot be less than 37.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), with no artificial flavorings or colorings added after distillation, while the overriding flavor must be of juniper berries.

In practice, however, definitions are being stretched to accommodate experimentation. Sweden’s Hernö gin brand, for example, adds botanicals such as lingon berries, vanilla, and meadowsweet. It doesn’t taste like your classic London Dry gin at all, though the production process is much the same.

As Beefeater Gin Master Distiller Desmond Payne noted at the IWSC competition: “Over the last few years, gin has experienced global success, and I’m not surprised the IWSC saw its highest-ever level of entries to this category. This newfound growth is being driven by millennial drinkers who are attracted to the artisanal nature of gin and its wide range of botanical flavorings. That focus on provenance and taste has propelled its popularity and we’re seeing distillers testing the boundaries of gin like never before – there really is a gin for everyone.”

Kavalan Gin

Ian Chang says the inspiration for his gin was to achieve a Taiwan identity, which is why he opted for local botanicals such as zesty kumquat peel and musky red guava, with flavorful dried star fruit. These are mixed with coriander and aniseed to provide sweetness, plus the obligatory juniper berries.

At 40%, Kavalan Gin is at the lower end of the ABV scale in terms of strength. The emphasis is on friendliness and freshness, highlighting the rich, fruity flavors rather than going for a knockout punch.

“I wanted Kavalan Gin to be refreshing and elegant,” Chang says. “Imagine taking a dip in a crystal pool on an intense summer’s day. That’s what I had in mind for the experience of drinking Kavalan Gin.”

The backstory behind the production dates from the early days of the distillery, which was built in 2005 and produced its first drop of “new label spirit” on March 11, 2006 at precisely 3:30 p.m. – a date and time Chang says he will never forget.

The German stills installed in 2008 proved not to be a fit for whisky, but were repurposed and found to be perfect for gin. Photo: Jules Quartly

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.

“We bought these massive German stills to produce a new make for Kavalan whisky from 2008 to 2010,” he says. “We found the new make was too pure at around 90% ABV and there wasn’t much room for texture and flavor compounds. After discussing this with our late consultant Dr. Jim Swan, and the management team, we decided to stop using the German stills.”

“However, we realized they could still be perfect for producing clear spirits on a larger scale,” he recalls. “We carried out research and development on the base spirits, botanicals, and gin recipes, and in 2018 we officially started producing Kavalan Gin.”

The production process begins by milling barley and mashing with the famed spring water, followed by the addition of yeasts for fermentation and triple distillation in the eight German stills. It is then double charcoal filtered and finally blended by adding botanicals, spices, and extracts.

Unlike Kavalan’s whiskies, which are carefully stored in casks and aged, the final version gin is poured into a distinctive, bisected, blue-and-crystal glass bottle, with a raised starfruit lattice design. It’s labeled with a silhouette of the company’s Kavalan Convention Center, boxed, and is ready for retail at the competitive price point of NT$800.

After the launch, tasting sessions were arranged for enthusiasts and bartenders to gauge their reaction. The consensus view was that it was fruity and had boiled guava, caramel, pineapple, cake, and raisin notes on the nose. It was also described as smooth and buttery, with caramel/toffee notes and a fragrant finish reminiscent of Grand Marnier.

Photo: Jules Quartly

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.

My own feeling after drinking it straight was of a clean and light spirit, fruity and characterful, which danced and skipped around the palate. It’s going to be an ideal mixer for some lucky cocktail, probably paired with a high-mountain green tea concocted by a mixologist at one of Taipei’s many excellent cocktail bars.

Chang says the bartenders’ view was that Kavalan Gin “would be welcomed as an addition to the Asian gin collection.” He also allowed that it was similar in style to Suntory’s Roku craft gin, which adds six seasonal and archetypal Japanese botanicals, in addition to eight traditional gin botanicals.

This makes sense because Japan has up to now led the way in Asia when it comes to making fine whiskies. It excels by paying attention to detail, sensitivity, and craftsmanship – thereby inspiring Kavalan to believe it can do the same or better.

King Car

Kavalan is one of those Taiwan success stories where hard work and audacity eventually pay off. Hence the line in the U.S. TV show Billions, where one of the lead characters lovingly sips Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique – hailed by the World Whiskies Awards as the “best single malt whiskey on Earth” – and opines: “The Taiwanese do it better than the Scots these days.”

Kavalan is part of the privately owned food and aquaculture conglomerate King Car Group (金車), founded by Chairman Lee Tien-tsai and now led by his son, CEO Albert Lee. The company was itself spun off from Chu Chen Industrial, which was established in 1956 and produces chemicals, fertilizers, mosquito repellants, and cleaning products.

King Car found a measure of fame and fortune when it launched the Mr. Brown Coffee brand in 1982, selling canned coffee and later opening cafés. In June last year, the company moved on to Bavarian beer and opened the Buckskin brewery in Taoyuan. The aim was to replicate the success of Kavalan whisky by bringing in foreign experts (in this case, Bavarian Braumeister Georg Rittmayer as head consultant), creating award-winning brews, and then ramping up production to drive revenues. Exports are set to begin to Guam, Hong Kong, and China.

It’s an example of how Taiwanese companies are reinventing themselves and moving up the value chain by transforming from being a contract manufacturer, to becoming an innovative brand that is recognized around the world.

The surprising aspect in the case of Kavalan whisky is that the success was achieved so quickly, in an intensely traditional industry with which Taiwan had no previous experience. Aside from Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor, founded in 1952, Taiwan possessed no independent distilleries until Kavalan built its Disneyland-style chateau in Yuanshan.

Bourbon barrels are exposed to fire, which enhances the color and flavor of Kavalan whisky. Photo: Jules Quartly

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.

In fact, it was only after Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 that private companies were even allowed to make spirits. Previously, all brewing and distilling were monopolized under the government-held Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Co.

Taiwan’s supposed disadvantages, such as its subtropical climate, turned out to be advantages. Relatively high summer temperatures accelerate aging, add color and depth, and also refine the whisky by taking a greater “angel’s share” through evaporation. Winter’s Siberian winds assist with oxidation.

The necessary expertise was recruited. Ian Chang joined the Kavalan project because he was a local, had a degree in food technology, and possessed what turned out to be an exceptionally sensitive nose for recognizing whiskies. He was sent to London’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling and was mentored by Scotch whisky expert Jim Swan before production began.

As Kavalan Brand Ambassador Kait-lyn Tsai recalls, “Ten consultants turned us down before Dr. Jim Swan was approached and told us, ‘I don’t know where Taiwan is, but I would like to give it a try.’”

Asked whether CEO Albert Lee was involved in the development of Kavalan Gin, Tsai replies, “Oh, yes, he’s a perfectionist. He tried out all the different recipes and signed off on the final version.”

Having taken the Kavalan Distillery tour and repaired to the tasting rooms, we meet Canadian retiree Grzegorz Skonieczka, who is testing the fruits of Kavalan’s success. Along with his wife, daughter and possible future son-in-law (who both work at Google), he is one of the million visitors a year who make the pilgrimage to Yuanshan.

Skonieczka says he’s impressed but not surprised that Taiwan has managed to master gin and whisky production, considering its tech manufacturing advantages and ability to reinvent itself. “Taiwan is a modern, globalized country and there’s nothing surprising about being able to combine production of whisky and semiconductors.” In both cases, he says, the process seems simple, but is really highly subtle and complicated.

The Perfect Mixer

“Creating a Taiwanese gin was very important to me, just like Kavalan whisky is proudly Taiwanese,” says Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang.

He recommends drinking Kavalan Gin on the rocks, or paired with tonic and other mixers that go together and create an enjoyable drink. Here are his three cocktail recipe suggestions:

Kavalan Ginfonk
Kavalan Gin: 50ml
Thomas Henry Tonic: 150ml
Pomelo Cordial: 7.5ml
Lemon Juice: 5ml

Lost Stars
Kavalan Gin: 50ml
Makao Aromatic Wine Syrup: 20ml
Lime Juice: 20ml
BV White Cocoa: 20ml
Tropic Fruit Puree: 10ml

The Road by the Sea
Kavalan Gin: 50ml
Sherry Amontillado: 10ml
Dolin Dry Infused Bamboo Leaf: 10ml
Coconut Water: 10ml
Coriander Bitters: 2 drops

Warning: Do not serve alcohol to minors. When you drink, don’t drive.