The average person probably doesn’t think of Taiwan when asked where the best whisky in the world comes from. But last year, at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, the Taiwanese distillery Kavalan was named “Distiller of the Year.” It’s a remarkable achievement for a whisky brand that’s only been around for 13 years. A good chunk of that success is attributable to their Master Blender Ian Chang, whose approach to the spirit has produced some of the most innovative whiskies the world has ever seen. We spoke to Mr. Chang on his recent trip to Manila, where he hosted whisky tastings for very select groups of enthusiasts.
ROGUE: So, what brings you to the Philippines?
IAN CHANG: This is officially our first year in the Philippines. Grand Cru has been importing Kavalan for two years already, but to be honest, it hasn’t been that serious from our side. Our management wanted to concentrate on European and American exports. But now, it’s part of our government’s policy to have more business with Southeast Asian countries. So we’ve been focusing on those markets. This should be the first of many trips to come. We’ve been doing tastings all week, letting people try out the product.
ROGUE: And what is the Southeast Asian market like when it comes to whisky?
IC: We think the consumers here are quite mature, in terms of knowledge. It’s just that, for example, here in the Philippines, it’s mostly been blended whisky. It’s Johnnie Walker Black. But even with just the basis of Johnnie Walker Black, it’s much easier to educate the consumers here about single malts. In Malaysia, I think because of the British influence, people are already drinking a lot of single malt whisky. So we’re seeing a lot of good potential in this market.
ROGUE: Do the tastes of the local market come into play when formulating new expressions of Kavalan?
IC: When it comes to the production of whisky, which is quite different from the production of non-alcoholic beverages, it’s mostly to do with our craftsmanship and art. The flavor, the quality of the whisky, will be appreciated by the consumers from any country. At Kavalan, we currently have twenty expressions of our whisky, which is different from any of the other Scotch producers. We don’t do any local research, but what we try to do is give the consumer many choices, so everyone will have his or her favorite Kavalan expression.
We think the consumers here are quite mature, in terms of knowledge. It’s just that, for example, here in the Philippines, it’s mostly been blended whisky. It’s Johnnie Walker Black.
ROGUE: What do you think has been Kavalan’s contribution to the industry as a whole?
IC: There are a lot of innovations. For example, here at Kavalan, instead of having different shapes and sizes of our copper pot stills, we only have one shape. What we do instead is focus on the application on different kinds of casks. For example, tonight at the tasting, we have the Podium and the Vinho Barrique. I think these two are perfect examples of our innovations. The Podium is matured in virgin oak casks. But in spite of that, there is no excessive woodiness. There’s no bitterness or astringency in the whisky. And this is the result of a very special treatment to the casks pioneered by Kavalan in 2009. With Vinho Barrique, we use wine casks from all over the world. But in order to assure consistency of quality, no matter where in the world the casks come from, we put the casks through a process we call STR: shaving, toasting, and recharring. Whether a cask is from California or Australia, the end results will be very similar after maturation.
ROGUE: Kavalan is released without an age statement. Are you still finding much resistance from consumers due to the perception that aged whiskies are better?
IC: Before we started to produce whisky, Mr. Lee, our owner, was told by everyone he knew not to get into the business. Everyone told him that you can only produce quality whisky with age, and only in colder climates. But his approach was that once you have the know-how and adapt to the local climate, you can make changes to the process to produce quality whisky. The reason Kavalan doesn’t have an age statement is because the climate in Taiwan is subtropical, similar to the Philippines. And this has a huge impact on the maturation speed of our single malt whisky. Our main priority is actually to slow down the maturation. I remember very clearly when we launched our first whisky, the Kavalan classic, no Taiwanese domestic consumers wanted to buy it because they all still thought that age was what mattered most. So, what we’ve been doing is talking to consumers by holding masterclasses like this, to get across the idea that age is about transformation. Because of the heat, it transforms much faster. And over the last 13 years, we’ve won many awards for our whisky at prestigious events. So, it seems that the world is beginning to recognize that age statement is just a reference. You have to take into account the local climate to make sure the number is meaningful.
If you are a producer in colder climate, age statement is still very important. But for people like Kavalan, or other new players in India, it just isn’t necessary.
ROGUE: There seems to be a growing trend among even Scottish distillers to release non-age statement whisky. Do you think this is partly because of Kavalan’s success?
IC: I think so. The whole whisky industry is booming really fast. Traditional players don’t have enough time to supply the demand. And when they see Kavalan is doing non-age statement whisky, they think that it can be a trend for the future.
ROGUE: So, is there still a place in the future for age-statement whiskies?
IC: I think so. If you are a producer in colder climate, age statement is still very important. It shows to consumers the time of maturation, and that means transformation. But for people like Kavalan, or other new players in India, it just isn’t necessary. We just need consumers to understand this concept.
ROGUE: What’s next in store for Kavalan?
IC: We constantly innovate. Every one or two years, we will launch new products. Two years ago, we started production on our own peated new make whisky. That should be ready next year. In addition to that, we have a single malt matured in a very rare cask from somewhere in the world. We have plenty of surprises in store for our consumers.