Go big or go home…what does that phrase mean to you? It’s often heard in ads about sports drinks or pickup trucks, something about determination and grit. For me, it implies plotting a course of action, then having the tenacity to bear it out even if there are challenges that seem daunting. In other words, try and dare to fail. When applied to whisky, to me it’s not being timid about going after the big flavors. Big, bold Kavalan whisky doesn’t shy away from its environment…it embraces the warm and wet climate of Taiwan and forces its whisky to be excellent.
I had the pleasure of attending a whisky tasting seminar this week at Gordon’s Main Street (in Waltham, MA) hosted by Ian Chang, Kavalan’s Master Blender. He led us through a lineup of Kavalan’s main expressions as well as higher-end pours including Gordon’s Single Cask. Ian’s soft-spoken delivery didn’t mask his obvious pride and devotion to these products and Kavalan itself. It was a master class about whisky distilling in Taiwan, its history, and how Kavalan has adapted the distilling process to take advantage of the microclimate.
In a nutshell, Kavalan pays attention to very small details every step of the way, from the ratio of grain sizes when milling, to precise vat temperatures during fermentation, to tasting the wine from the casks they plan to reuse for maturation their new make spirit. Even the location of the casks within the maturation warehouse is strictly monitored to ensure a specific maturation rate. As a multistory building in a very hot and humid climate, Kavalan uses different sizes of casks on different floors – small 200L casks are on the bottom floor where the temperature is about 80°F in the summer, and the casks get larger as you climb the floors so the large sherry casks (500L) are on the top floor where it’s 107°F. The spirit in larger casks matures at the same rate as the smaller casks due to this temperature difference, so after 4-5 years all the product on the different floors will be almost even in terms of maturity.
So what does all this attention to detail get you? Big, bold, viscous, oily…all words used to describe the fruity and floral nature of all Kavalan’s expressions. No shrinking violets, these – each one makes you stand up and take notice. Full disclosure…I’ve tried and posted my reviews of four of these pours already (Classic, Concertmaster, Ex-Bourbon, and Sherry Oak), and once again my impressions were different this time. If you’d like to see my original and revised tasting notes for those expressions, please visit Hurry up & wait and (Re)Visiting Friends.
Okay, enough with the small talk…let’s go taste whisky!
Classic (43% ABV)
- Nose: vanilla, caramel, tart green apple, tropical fruit, banana
- Taste: thick, creamy, vanilla cream, tropical fruits, warm spices, cooked fruit
- Finish: warm spice rises, well blended, cinnamon lingers
- Comments: fragrant & fruity, thick & chewy, pleasant burn at the end
Concertmaster (43% ABV, Portuguese Port cask)
- Nose: minty, muted nose, raisins and plums, hints of banana
- Taste: thick body, raisins, black currents, baked gingerbread
- Finish: cinnamon, ginger finish, lingers long & strong
- Comments: rich & fruity, sweet & spicy
King Car Conductor (46% ABV, similar style to Classic)
- Nose: caramel, vanilla, cooked fruit, tropical fruit, banana, pineapple
- Taste: thick, spice hits quickly, very sweet, almost evergreen, very fruit & spicy
- Finish: fades quickly from evergreen to warmth
- Comments: really commands attention while drinking
Ex-Bourbon Oak (46% ABV)
- Nose: cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, brown sugar, plums
- Taste: medium body, gingerbread, burn rises quickly, caramel, cloves
- Finish: fades to soft muted cloves & nutmeg
- Comments: burns more but is mellow, flavor intensifies as you drink
Sherry Oak (46% ABV, Oloroso sherry butts, small batch)
- Nose: rich fruit, intense nose, raisins, coffee caramel
- Taste: very thick, dark coffee, raisins, caramel, molasses cake
- Finish: fades to rich raisins, soft baking spices
- Comments: sweet, sherry bomb, can almost chew it
Vinho Barrique (57% ABV, cask strength)
- Nose: prunes, roses, dark chocolate
- Taste: extra thick, high spicy heavy cream, molasses
- Finish: white pepper fades slowly, ginger, tannic at the end
- Comments: so thick & rich, feels elegant, layers of rich flavors
Ex-Bourbon Gordon’s Single Cask (58.6% ABV, cask strength)
- Nose: classic bourbon nose, caramel, cinnamon, toffee
- Taste: medium body, spicy, maple candy, evergreen
- Finish: white pepper fades to gingerbread & warm baking spices
- Comments: more bourbon-like, less body but cleaner flavor
Pedro Ximenez (56.3% ABV, cask strength)
- Nose: clover, vanilla, cotton candy, caramel, light raisins, dark chocolate
- Taste: very thick, high spice menthol, prunes, sharp edges
- Finish: fades to menthol & black pepper, cloves
- Comments: thick & fragrant, sweet, a dessert whisky, hits hard
Many times in my life I do try and dare to fail (note the existence of this blog!). After all, what is failure but a way to learn how not to do something? Go big or go home…bold Kavalan whisky is definitely not going home.
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!