Let's Talk Kavalan with Kaitlyn Tsai - Global PR Officer & Brand Ambassador for Kavalan
The success story of Kavalan is indeed a marvel - Kavalan Distillery did something no other distillery can lay claim to. It singlehandedly lifted a country (or region) to official designation as a whisky producing region. This is even more incredible considering that Kavalan had only completed its distillery in 2006 and only started making whiskies in 2008. We talk more about the story of the Kavalan Distillery in our Distillery Spotlight.
We talk with Kaitlyn Tsai, Global PR Officer and Brand Ambassador for Kavalan. Having been named “World Whisky Brand Ambassador of the Year” at the Icons of Whisky Awards 2021, Kaitlyn's story is as unexpected a marvel as the story of Kavalan.
Kaitlyn Tsai - Global PR Officer and Brand Ambassador for Kavalan
88 Bamboo: Hi Kaitlyn! We can’t wait to begin on our journey to learn about Taiwan and Kavalan Whisky from you.
But first, from the bottom of our hearts, 88 Bamboo wishes to congratulate you and Victor on your recent big day! Happy Wedding! Whiskies are fine, but may you have a hangover of love that would never fade away! 祝你們新婚快樂，心心相印！
We now turn to your second love, that is Kavalan whisky!
88B: Before diving into your exciting work at Kavalan, could you tell us a little about yourself and your beautiful hometown of Yilan, Taiwan?
As a bonus, could you also share with our readers an interesting fact or folklore about Yilan that will surprise us?
Kaitlyn Tsai: My name is Kaitlyn Tsai. I was born in Taipei, however my family actually moved from Yilan where Kavalan Distillery is based. As the only county in Taiwan where heavy industry is prohibited, Yilan is known in Taiwan as a haven: lush, green and untouched. My childhood memories are of playing in Yilan County’s lush green rice fields. I visited Kavalan Distillery many times while growing up.
Yilan, Taiwan, where Kavalan Distillery is located (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
In Yilan, you can easily enjoy delicious food, massages and hot springs. You can experience night market culture and feel the warmth and hospitality of Taiwanese. You can enjoy the convenience in towns but also reconnect with nature, on your doorstep, anytime. This is also a place where we nurture the world-class whisky.
That would be a poignant love story of Princess Kavalan（噶瑪蘭公主).
The Eastern Sea Dragon King’s favourite and only child, Princess Kavalan, was in love with General Guishan（龜山將軍）, the gallant warrior in the land. The couple promised to spend their lives together. When the Dragon King learned of their secret, he imprisoned Princess Kavalan who became the greenish Lanyang Plain（蘭陽平原）. He also ordered General Guishan be expelled off the coast, and sent shrimp and crab warriors to push him into the ocean near Yilan. In one last effort to stay close to his beloved the General turned into Guishan/Turtle Mountain Island（龜山島） looking back to the coast calling: Kavalan, Kavalan, Kavalan! Legend has it that as long as we stand on the edge of Turtle Mountain Island and listen carefully to the sound of the waves, it seems as if we can hear the General’s mournful call.
88B: You are Kavalan’s Global PR Officer & Brand Ambassador. This sounds like a huge and important responsibility! You have clearly done a fantastic job educating all of us about the history, heritage and craftsmanship of Kavalan Whisky – being named World Whisky Brand Ambassador of the Year at the Icons of Whisky Awards 2021.
Could you walk us through a day in your life in your role at Kavalan? We are curious to know what you do on a day-to-day basis, and how often your work requires you to travel. Our writer CharsiuCharlie wants to know whether his dream of becoming a whisky Brand Ambassador is achievable!
Also, what is one question any whisky fan should ask when they meet a Whisky Brand Ambassador? What is a memorable hilarious question you have been asked as a Brand Ambassador?
KT: Of course he can!
Normally, I work about 8 hours a day at the distillery/our headquarter office, catching up with some emails in the morning, nosing some samples with our blending team between 10am and 12pm. After then, I might have virtual media interviews, brand trainings or masterclasses scheduled to do.
The Kavalan Distillery where Kaitlyn works (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
I had been travelling a lot for ambassadorial trips since I joined Kavalan in 2017. Usually I spend less than 6 months a year in Taiwan. Pack, unpack, repeat. Although working with such a busy schedule everyday I keep learning new things everyday from my job. I think this is probably “the dream job”.
Questions you should ask a whisky ambassador is “What’s the best whisky you've ever tasted?” Or “Which whisky’s taste will remain in your memory forever?”
The most memorable hilarious question I was asked was: "Are you of legal drinking age?” I know that they are just kidding.
88B: We imagine there are many aspects of being a Brand Ambassador that are challenging, such as a busy schedule, having to travel often and having to maintain a high level of enthusiasm when you conduct events.
Could you share with us what is the one coolest thing about your role, and what keeps you going? What is a tip you would give to aspiring Brand Ambassadors out there? And secretly do you get to try all of Kavalan’s new launches that have yet to be announced?
KT: At the beginning of every event, I always start by introducing Kavalan as a single malt whisky from Taiwan. Until today, I still cherish this opportunity to let as many people as possible learn about Taiwan through enjoying Kavalan Whisky.
My favourite aspect of the role is introducing Kavalan by engaging with our consumers worldwide and guiding them through the history, craftsmanship, unique aromas and flavours they can experience. I am so delighted to see people change their minds to be more open-minded to world whisky after tasting Kavalan.
(Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
Yes, I do get to taste all the new launches before they are released! That is also the best part of my job, tasting those amazing Kavalan whiskies/gins that yet to be announced. It’s great I can also provide my own feedback on the samples to our blending team.
88B: Unlike many others in the alcoholic drinks industry, you have an interesting background in film. Early on, you spent several years in the film industry and produced films, and even worked with award-winning directors to produce Taiwan From Above 2, a film that showcased mind-blowingly stunning natural landscapes of Taiwan.
How did a film producer find herself become the Global PR Officer and Brand Ambassador for a whisky distillery like Kavalan? How does your colourful experiences help you in your current role of bringing the beauty Taiwanese whisky to a global audience?
KT: Before joining Kavalan, my career was in the film industry.
I was hired by AboveTaiwan Cinema and took part in two projects: an award-winning environmental documentary film “Beyond Beauty—Taiwan From Above II” and a feature film about an air ambulance rescue team. Tragically, the director Chi Po-lin died in a helicopter crash while carrying out aerial filming.
After completing the memorial exhibition and concert for director Chi, I returned to my hometown in Yilan. I thought through why I had a deep passion for the sequel of “Beyond Beauty—Taiwan From Above.” Because the movie can let people around the world know more about this small but beautiful country. They will be astonished by the natural beauties and also saddened by some dark places on this island. It is also a wake-up call to develop people’s awareness of environmental protection as well as Taiwanese cultural identity and a feeling of Taiwanese cultural awareness.
In 2017, it happened Kavalan Distillery was recruiting a brand ambassador. I knew there were so many invisible champions in Taiwan with excellent products, but few who could speak for them. It would be amazing if I could be that person to represent Kavalan, spreading and sharing the flavour and story of our unique Taiwanese whisky with the world.
Therefore in the past 4 years, before the outbreak of COVID-19, I travelled to more than 10 countries and conducted hundreds of whisky tastings and masterclasses. At the beginning of every event, I always start by introducing Kavalan as a single malt whisky from Taiwan. Until today, I still cherish this opportunity to let as many people as possible learn about Taiwan through enjoying Kavalan Whisky.
88B: Nestled in the pretty cloud-shrouded mountains of Yilan, Kavalan was only built in 2006, but has gone on to beat Scotch single malts with over a hundred years of history during blind taste tests. It has been named the World’s Best Single Malt several times and now has over hundreds of awards from wine and spirits competitions.
Suffice to say, Kavalan is the dark horse of the whisky world which surprised many when it outperformed rivals other traditional whisky-producing regions.
What would you say is the secret DNA that the founding team at Kavalan possessed that allowed them to beat the odds and achieve such success? What ensures that Kavalan continues to succeed for many more years to come?
KT: For about half the year, Taiwan is brutally hot and sticky. Densely covered with palm trees and betel nut trees, it's lashed by monsoons and torrential rains. Before Kavalan, no one thought whisky could be matured in a place like this. After all, Scotch is made in the kind of cold climate where age leads to maturity. Kavalan changed all that, making quality about maturity, and not about age.
Kavalan turned our weakness into a strength. During the nearly 40-degree highs of summer, the whisky sleeps in its oak barrels on high-speed extraction, expanding and grabbing flavour compounds from inside the walls of the casks.
During the winters of close to 10 degrees, and when the Pacific breezes are most influenced by Siberian winds, the whisky is on enhanced oxidation, sleeping and contracting.
Cool winds enter the five-storey warehouses through open windows. They circulate around the barrels. Meanwhile, inside the casks the whisky is contracting, or “breathing in” Pacific breezes. All the while it’s amassing and locking in all the tantalising flavours it has extracted from the wood. These extraction and oxidation processes sync together to create an unmatched kind of ageing, unique to Kavalan.
(Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
I would say what ensures our success is the pioneering spirit, following your dreams and insisting on the best. Going back to the beginning, when Chairman Mr TT Lee wanted to have his own distillery, he wanted Kavalan whisky to be rich in sub-tropical fruitiness and floral fragrance, and of world class quality.
To reach that goal, we set up a state-of-the-art lab under Dr Swan focused on innovations in quality and flavour. An example of what has come out of this lab is the first-of-a-kind STR (shaving-toasting and re-charring) method within the first few years of our launch. This was how we created the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, which went on to win the World Whiskies Awards’ ‘World’s Best Single Malt Whisky’ in 2015.
88B: Kavalan owes its great quality to the incredible cask innovations of the late Dr Jim Swan, the talents of Master Distiller Ian Chang and Yilan’s unique subtropical climate. The first bottle of Kavalan also came out at a time when there was no such thing as a “Taiwanese whisky”.
In your opinion, what makes Kavalan’s flavour profile different from the typical Scotch or typical Japanese whisky? What song would you use to characterise Kavalan’s flavors?
KT: I would say alongside the yeasts, there is our water. We located our distillery in Yilan County for Taiwan’s purest water source, Snow Mountain. In fact, just behind our distillery, we can tap some of its abundant, cool and pristine natural spring waters. Snow Mountain is Taiwan’s second largest mountain at more than 3800m high. Our water is not only very pure, but remarkably smooth with a natural sweetness because as it makes its way down Snow Mountain, it’s naturally filtered through hard and tightly packed layers of earth rich with minerals. The water ends up absorbing a super potion of minerals, which creates the best conditions for our yeasts to ferment and create flavour.
We also use two kinds of dry yeast, one is to maximise the production yield converting sugar into alcohol, the other is to give the desirable subtropical fruity flavours such as pineapple, banana and green apple, etc.
When you taste Kavalan, you’ll find it is incredibly smooth, mellow and creamy with a rich fragrance of tropical, fruity and sweet characters. In particular, apple and mango, and also orchids, which are native to Yilan County, Taiwan. These flavours are thanks to the very best raw materials, casks and technology, as well as good old human determination.
88B: Taiwan is known for giving birth to the boba tea (泡泡茶), pineapple shortcake (鳳梨酥) and delicious local food like beef noodle soup (牛肉麵).
As a pioneer of Taiwanese whisky, how does Kavalan decide what flavours should go into a Taiwanese single malt? What Taiwanese influences does the team turn to? (E.g. Does the team consider Taiwanese culinary preferences, food pairings or Taiwanese drinking culture?)
KT: Many people say that Taiwan is a kingdom of fruit. Fruits such as fresh mangoes, pineapples, bananas, apples, pears, peaches can be found in market throughout the year due to the subtropical/tropical climate and temperate and alpine climates in the mountainous areas.
Going back to the beginning, when our founder Mr TT Lee and Mr YT Lee wanted to have their own distillery, they wanted the characteristics of Kavalan whisky to be rich in sub-tropical fruitiness and floral fragrance that can represent the style of Taiwanese single malt whisky.
Therefore, our late consultant Dr Jim Swan and the team set this as the goal and carried out extensive research into everything required, from the climate and the water resource in Yilan to whisky’s raw materials of malted barley and yeast, as well as the supply of quality casks, and even the adoption of customised whisky-making facilities working within the parameters according to Yilan’s environmental conditions.
88B: Certain combinations of whisky and food really make great pairings. We really enjoyed your creative suggestion of adding some Kavalan Solist Port on a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Could you help us pair some Kavalan expressions to famous Taiwanese dishes?
KT: Gua Bao pairs best with Distillery Select No.1. Tender pork belly matches well with the tropical fruits and toffee flavours from the DS1.
Beef Noodle Soup pairs best with Oloroso Sherry Oak at 46%ABV. The body is very rich, oily and round-bodied. It pairs very well with beef noodle soup to give it a good savoury pairings.
Xiao Long Bao pairs best with Kavalan Classic Old Fashioned! Make your own at home. What you need is simple:
60ml Kavalan Classic
7.5ml Oolong tea syrup
6 drops Orange bitter
Orange peel or cherry for garnish
88B: Master Distiller Ian Chang has once said that Kavalan tries to use as many casks as possible to produce expressions of different character and complexities. Indeed, we see such a diverse range of cask styles from Kavalan, from the classic bourbon cask to Fino sherry, Amontillado sherry, Port cask, rum cask, brandy cask and your famous STR-vinho barrique.
Which bottle would you recommend to someone new to Kavalan, and why?
KT: I would recommend Kavalan Distillery Select No.1. It’s also my favourite daily dram. The thing about this whisky is that it’s a classic, quintessential single malt, very pure and creamy and also very versatile, so you can drink it neat or in various whisky cocktails. In it you get the flavours of rich fudge, toffee, and tropical fruitiness. It can be paired with almost any dish, especially chicken cuisine. So delicious.
The Kavalan Distillery Select No. 1 (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
88B: Which bottle would you recommend to someone who already loves whisky, and why?
KT: That would be Solist Ex-Bourbon. It’s a single cask strength single malt whisky and our single most-awarded whisky. It’s claimed three trophies from top competitions in just two years. It won the worldwide trophies three times in two years in a row (IWSC&ISC 2016&2017). The judges were amazed and described Ex-Bourbon as "banana-pistachio gelato, pound cake, and smoked honey butter" on the nose and "white peach, rose tea, saffron, and coconut cream" on the palate.
The Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
88B: Kavalan’s wide range of single malts caters to a variety of occasions and drinking styles. Could you tell us what expression is best for these moods and occasions: (1) a conversation with a good friend (2) a gift to congratulate someone and (3) a home screening of your favourite film
(Note: We would love to know what are your favourite dish and favourite film!)
KT: When I want to savour a whisky over conversation with a good friend, I will reach for the Solist Port. It’s a single cask strength single malt whisky with powerful rich flavours of berries, chocolate, nuttiness, wood spices and marshmallow sweetness! Its nickname is "liquid chocolate" because of its rich and chewy mouthfeel. This whisky could be well-paired with desserts.
The Kavalan Solist Port Cask (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
Solist Brandy would be a great congratulations gift. It has an orange label. Orange is considered positive in both Western and Eastern cultures. It represents harvest, autumn, warmth, happiness and visibility in Western cultures. In Eastern cultures, orange is a symbol of good health, happiness, love and humility.
For movie night I will take a sip of Kavalan Triple Sherry Cask at 40%ABV. Its aroma is rich in floral and fruity notes with warm woody spices, blooming with the sweetness of berry fruits, honey and toffee. The taste is like melted milk chocolate with the flavour of smoky ebony plum. The flavour changes in the mouth are layered and intricate.
The Kavalan Triple Sherry Cask (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
As for pairing food and whisky, the Kavalan Triple Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky which embraces nine diverse flavours is able to perfectly pair with light seasoning or relatively heavy dishes.
My favourite dishes are Stir-fried Tomato and Egg and Taiwanese style clam with basil. (:
It’s hard to name my favourite film. There are just too many.
- A City of Sadness
- Farewell My Concubine
- Minority Report
- Nobody Knows
- The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful
- The Dead End
- The Last Emperor
- The Prestige
- The Shawshank Redemption
- The Truman Show
- Get Out
- The Message
- The North Sea
- The Shining
- About Time
- In the Mood for Love
- La La Land
- One Day
- 3 Idiots
- Isle of Dogs
- Memories of Matsuko
88B: There are several stereotypes about whisky drinkers. The stereotypical whisky drinker is always a bearded White man who smokes cigars and drinks while he sits on an armchair by a European-style fireplace. Usually he has a dog.
Although this is as much a myth as Santa Claus, many folks still stubbornly believe in this silly stereotype – especially in Asia.
On the other hand, you are a young Asian woman who conducts whisky masterclasses, represents one of the biggest whisky brands in the world and have even won awards for your work in the whisky industry. You can’t be further from the stereotype of an old bearded White man!
Do you find it a challenge to change this perception and get more women interested in drinking whisky? Has this situation changed in the course of your 5 years working as a whisky Brand Ambassador?
KT: It’s quite interesting that the ratio of male to female is 5:4 in the Spirits Research Institute at Kavalan. The number between men and women is actually pretty close.
Beyond the stereotype, it’s been said that women have more sensitive olfactory senses and probably are therefore better at distinguishing the variety of aromas coming from whiskies. But I think whisky should never belong to a single gender. No matter who you are, you are more than welcome to taste whiskies and spread your love and passion in the whisky industry.
I am so glad Kavalan as the pioneer of Taiwanese whisky industry is also taking steps to create a more diverse, inclusive and supportive working environment. I will keep up the good work in my role as a spokesperson for Kavalan—nothing more, nothing less.
88B: If you were to convince our female readers to go for a pour of whisky the next time they have the chance, what Kavalan expression would you tell them to try first and what advice would you have for women who want to try whiskies but are scared they might be too harsh?
KT: I will let them know Kavalan Distillery Select No.2 is worth a try. The No. 2 blends floral and herbal notes, mature woodiness and warm spiciness. It is deeply aromatic. You can discover the notes of white flowers like jasmine and Gardenia. It’s given the mature woodiness and lively spiciness on the palate. The sweetness of melon-like fruitiness.
I’m also partial to something refreshing like a Kavalan Distillery Select No.2 highball.
88B: Many estimates today show that Taiwan is the largest Asian market for single malt whisky - it is only behind two much larger markets, United States and France. Taiwan is clearly a very developed, sophisticated and discerning market for whisky.
Based on your observations, how would you describe Taiwanese whisky drinking culture?
When it comes to whisky, do Taiwanese taste and preferences differ from drinkers in the West, or in other places like Japan?
KT: In the past, drinking in Asian culture was usually related to social occasions and business dinners. Nowadays, with economic development, more Taiwaneses especially young generations are likely to associate drinking with personal occasions and enjoy alcohol purely for fun.
In very broad terms you could say that Taiwanese palates enjoy fruitier, sweeter, smoother expressions compared to drinkers in the West, or in other places in the world.
88B: We recently reviewed and really enjoyed Kavalan’s latest release – the Kavalan Triple Sherry Cask – which we think would pair excellently with Spanish chorizo paella! This past decade, we also been seeing lots of product innovation from Kavalan, including Kavalan Gin, Kavalan Distillery Select Whisky, Kavalan Peated Malt, Kavalan Highball and Kavalan Gin & Tonic.
Could you give us a hint on any exciting releases coming in 2022 or 2023?
What else is in the pipeline for Kavalan in the coming years?
KT: This January Kavalan have officially launched Kavalan Batik Solist Vinho in collaboration with Singapore Airlines, presenting the elegance of the batik motif and the world's best single malt whisky Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique. At the moment the item is only available online on KrisShop.
This year Kavalan will continue to expand our global presence and bring more surprises to excite whisky drinkers. And in the coming years you can expect many more additions to our ranges, and in terms of the different casks used, as well as our gin range. In addition, new peated malt whiskies are undergoing maturation which should satisfy fans in the future.
88B: One final question before we let you go: If someone is new to Taiwan and only has one weekend to spend there, where should they visit and how should they plan their itinerary?
KT: Please find the itinerary below for a weekend in Taiwan!
Taipei City, Taiwan (Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Day 1 - Taipei
Arrive at Taoyuan Intel. Airport
Take the airport metro/taxi/bus to Taipei
Lunch at Taipei 101 Ding Tai Fung
Watch Fly High Over Taiwan @ Breeze Nan Shan 6F
Dinner at Buckskin Yakiniku
Enjoy a fun night @ Kavalan Whisky Bar
Head to Yilan
The Beautiful Yilan County (Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tsai)
Day 2 - Yilan
Enjoy the Hot Spring in Jiaoxi
Head to Taoyuan Intel. Airport
Look forward to seeing you in Taiwan (:
88 Bamboo would like to thank Kaitlyn Tsai for sharing her insights on Kavalan whisky, Taiwan, and Yilan, and for letting us get to know her and Kavalan a lot better!
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