Kavalan Solist "Vinho Barrique", Cask Strength
Fruity and Spicy
Note: We have assigned every bottle we review to one of five Flavour Camps, based on the most dominant flavours found. The Flavour Camps are : (1) Fragrant and Floral, (2) Fruity and Spicy, (3) Malty and Dry, (4) Rich and Round and (5) Smokey and Peaty. To learn more about each Flavour Camp, please click here.
Ah… Kavalan’s Vinho Barrique from its premium Solist Cask Strength range. What better a way to dip your toes into the category of World Whisky than to start with the bottle that brought Kavalan, and Taiwan, onto the whisky world map!
After all, it was this expression that clinched the crown for Kavalan at the 2015 World Whisky Awards – named the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky.
Kavalan has always been somewhat of a dark horse in the whisky world. For a distillery that was only established in 2008, you could see why Scotch purists didn’t appreciate Kavalan showing them up.
After all what is more validating than your whisky being featured on the silver screen? Can you spot the bottle of Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique? (Image Source: Billions)
But to relegate Kavalan to a fluke would be a huge misnomer, the Taiwanese distillery had figured something important - “we don’t want our whisky to taste like medicine” says Albert Lee, who founded the distillery with his father.
Kavalan has focused on crafting whiskies that are compared to “fruit jam” – light, smooth, fruity and delicate; it was designed for easy drinking.
Region: Yilan County, Taiwan
Distributor: Original Bottling (OB)
Classification: Malt Whiskey
Style: Single Malt
Cask: American Oak Wine Barrels (STR)
Behind the Label
Every distillery has behind it a story, but Kavalan’s one was particularly challenging. Belonging to the coffee group King Car, Kavalan’s founders, Albert Lee and his father, had long dreamt of producing their own whisky.
Albert Lee built Kavalan from scratch with a dream to produce the world's best whisky. (Image Source: Forbes)
But alas, Taiwan had been governed for close to a century by their state agency, the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (or “TTL”), which controlled all domestic alcohol sales, and are the force behind the wildly popular Taiwan Beer.
This was highly lucrative and raked in more than $2.5bn USD annually for the Taiwanese government.
TTL, behind the popular Taiwan Beer, had monopolised alcohol production and sales for close to a century.
But as fate would have it, Taiwan would join the World Trade Organisation in 2002, requiring the government to embrace free market ideals and allow for an open alcohol market.
Kavalan struck fast and hard, getting the distillery ready in just 9 months and had brought on a SWAT team of whisky experts to create the perfect whisky.
This wasn’t easy by any means, as its location, Yilan County, while blessed with Taiwan’s purest spring water from nearby snow mountains (which gives Kavalan its silky smooth creamy texture), was also exceptionally hot and humid.
Yilan County's climate is a major driving force for Kavalan's flavors. (Image Source: Forbes)
It is for that reason that you won’t find any age statement Kavalans as the ambient atmosphere causes rapid evaporation but also a much accelerated maturation.
As a result Kavalan’s malt is aged three times faster.
This also creates an intense highly-octane flavored whisky and coupled with their unique distillation methods, produces fruity yet deep and complex flavors.
And of course, true to Asian tradition, there is an emphasis on blending, which Kavalan does all too well.
You can read more about Kavalan in our WhiskyDex here.
The Solist range of Kavalan has been bagging awards and securing its top shelf status. (Image Source: PR Newswire)
The premium Solist range, and specifically the Vinho Barrique, represents the pinnacle of Kavalan’s achievement as it was uniquely paired with American Oak wine barrels that have been toasted and recharred. This ramps up the intensity of the casks influence by increasing the surface area in contact with the malt.
What is created is thus a superbly complex fruity malt tempered by a contrasting oak-y tartness that balances it out, bottled at its natural cask strength.
Colour. To be completely honest with you, I have never seen another whisky with this shade of red date/goji berry colour. It is a reddish hue that is also very translucent.
A popular traditional dessert in Singapore/Malaysia, it is a sweet soup (iced/hot) made with longans, barley, gingko, winter melons and takes on a red tint from the use of dried red dates. (Image Source: Burpple)
For those in Asia, you may be familiar with the dessert Cheng Tng – it shares a similar shade. Officially the color is listed as deep autumn gold, but I’d say on the more standardised whisky colour chart, it looks closer to “Vintage Oak”/”Burnt Amber”.
Nose. The nose is very distinctive and you’d think it would be more wine-y given the cask used for maturation, but not so! It starts off with very active wood, at first sharp with freshly shaved cedar or pine, very bright but fades quickly. Deeper aromatic woody notes start to form – teak and sandalwood. There is a slight bit of incense and heavier ash-y notes with much more depth.
The nose transitions from bright fresh wood shavings to deeper ashy polished wood. (Image Source: iStock, Taiwan News)
Below that, as you let the dram sit, the fruit jam notes begin to show up. Cherry, raspberry, pears, plums, blackcurrants - very deep fruity notes. These are the sort you’d find with marmalade, jams, compote, or even baby food. Cooked fruits where the water has been boiled off and what is left is a much more concentrated and the fibres have broken down to release more sugars and aromatics.
A wonderful berry compote rounds out the nose. (Image Source: Jamie Oliver)
Here and there, there are some very light notes of nutmeg, vanilla pods, hazelnuts (alittle reminiscent of freshly opened Loacker biscuits).
The palate, the fruitiness carries through, which is really delightful, very consistent with the nose, the same berries and stone fruit – blueberries, cherries, blackcurrants. It reminds me of when I was a kid and used to look forward to my daily allowance of a single cup of Ribena made from concentrate. Really brings back some fond memories.
A blackcurrant cordial that is just childhood summertime vibes. (Image Source: Chez Us)
It’s quite refreshing and punchy, not really too heavy on the palate, keeping in mind that it is bottled at a much higher proof as it’s natural cask strength.
There’s also a good amount of spiciness which contributes to the refreshing quality it has. White pepper, ginger, it is alittle prickly alongside some oak-y woody dryness that adds some tartness with the tannins that I assume is from the wine-seasoned casks used for maturation.
This works to balance each other out, where you have deeper sweeter jammy notes on the one side and then mete with a slight peppery tartness that cuts through before it becomes cloying.
It is on the whole a fairly intense but easy to drink malt so feel free to add some drops of water if you need, it holds up quite well.
Deeper earthy notes of bittersweet Manuka honey are a nice comforting touch. (Image Source: The Conversation)
The finish is fairly long, carrying through the same sweetness and spice (as we categorised it Fruity and Spicy, it certainly embodies that label). To be more specific, the sweetness comes close to Manuka honey. It also has a drying quality to it as it recedes, bring to mind polished leather and Loacker biscuits again (hazelnut praline crackers).
Hazelnut praline finishes us off with this wonderful dram. (image Source: Lazada)
This is the third time I’ve sample Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique and it has never ceased to amaze me in that it is as far from Scotch as you could go. It truly is World Whisky. Kavalan has taken the entire Whisky category and made it their own. And for that you could really understand why Chuck Rhoades from the hit series Billions (played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti) states in a matter-of-fact fashion “The Taiwanese do it better than the Scots these days”.
(Image Source: The Elysian Bar)
The Solist Vinho Barrique is a complex yet intense malt – the liquified embodiment of Mozart’s symphonies. Like the Symphony No. 40, you have a harmonious intermingling of peaceful melodic notes that lures you into believing in some sort of predictability and then jolting you into much sharper intense tempos. There is never a dull moment.
On the one hand, the sweeter jam notes are deep, providing a really likeable foundation, and then the peppery tartness livens things up by intensifying the pace, almost a briskness to it.
Yet on the whole, it remains very structured and holds up well on the palate and is smooth and creamy, really easy to drink. Of all the whiskies I’ve tried, this is one I’ve felt a few bottles could be wiped clean in a single seating. It is a celebratory dram of sorts in fact – Kavalan has certainly hit the mark on what they’ve set out to achieve.
Taiwan's Snow Mountains give Kavalan's drinkers a true taste of Taiwan and is responsible for Kavalan's smooth, creamy, easy-to-drink character. (Image Source: Taiwan-Adventures)
While I can understand the furore from Scotch purists, I must say, you should certainly try this before knocking it, it is good stuff. It redefines conventional ideas about what whiskies should taste like and rightly so! – It is a whisky made for Asians by Asians, what did you expect?
This is the World’s Best Single Malt for a reason.
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