The alcoholic drink most people call Scotch has been around for hundreds of years.
According to the Scotch Whisky Association of Great Britain (known as the SWA), there is an entry in Scotland’s tax records from 1494 that shows an order of malt used to make 1,500 bottles of something called “water of life.”
The SWA says this means distilling was already a part of daily life more than 500 years ago.
Whisky is produced all over the world, and there are many variations.
For example, some whisky is aged in barrels that used to hold wine, beer or bourbon. Other than in Scotland, there are well-known distillers the United States, Japan, Australia, France and other countries.
Judges have been choosing the best whiskies in the world each year since 2007 at an event called “World Whiskies Awards.”
The title for world’s best single malt whisky was won by Scotland four times, Japan three times and Australia once. Then in 2015, there was a big surprise.
The best whisky in the world came from Taiwan.
It came from a distillery called Kavalan, owned by King Car, a big beverage company.
A view of the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan.
The name of the winning whisky is Solist Vinho Barrique. That means it is aged in a barrel originally used for wine.
If you want to buy this whisky, be prepared to spend more than $100.
Distilling is the process of producing and extracting alcohol by combining roasted barley (known as malt) or another grain, with water and yeast. The reaction of the yeast with the other ingredients is called fermentation. That is how alcohol is produced.
The mixture is then heated, and the alcohol, which evaporates before water, is captured and cooled, producing whisky.
The whisky is stored for many years in barrels before it is bottled and sold. The barrels are usually crafted from oak, and their insides are toasted, or burned slightly by fire. This adds flavor and character to the whisky. Most of the time, the longer a whisky is aged, the better it tastes. Because of the aging time, an older whisky is usually more expensive than a younger whisky.
A view of whisky stills inside the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan.
There is a world shortage of old single malt scotch, according to a recent story on CNNMoney. That is because over the past 10 years, a lot of people started buying aged whisky. But distilleries did not prepare for the boom in popularity.
And since you cannot produce an 18-year-old Scotch in half the time, there is a shortage that may last for another 10 to 15 years.
This is a problem for whisky fans.
But whisky from Taiwan provides a solution. Whisky experts say the warm and humid weather in Taiwan helps whisky mature faster. That means it may taste better than a whisky of the same age made in a cooler climate.
Ian Chang is the master blender for Kavalan. He says Taiwan’s climate is perfectly suited for making whisky.
"With the heat in summer and the cold air in winter we can make sure that we have plenty of extraction and oxidation and the whisky is therefore very mellow and very mature in a very short time.”
Ian Chang, the master blender at the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan.
Another whisky reviewer, Jim Murray, called Kavalan’s original single malt whisky the “Asian Whisky of the Year” in the 2015 edition of his book called Whisky Bible.
These awards are making Kavalan whisky popular in the United States. It has only been available for two years.
Bill Thomas owns Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. It is a restaurant known for its large whisky collection. It has more than 2,000 bottles.
Thomas says he does not have very much Kavalan whisky in stock because the demand is too strong.
"It’s available here, but we only get really some of the basics. A lot of their premium, they have like different levels of whisky, and a lot of their premium stuff, we’re not getting here. We’re not getting all of their finishes, or not in enough quantities for us to keep it on the shelves. We’ve got a couple base ones. Their sherry wood, their cask strength, which are fantastic, but we would love to get access to the complete breadth of all of their whiskies. And I think that will come, but I think demand has outpaced their production right now.”
Chang says Kavalan is aware that some places in the U.S. do not receive very much of his whisky right now. It is available in 38 of the 50 states. In two years, about 27,000 bottles have been sold. He is hoping that number will rise as the whisky becomes available in more places and more people learn about his brand.
The distillery is trying to increase production to meet the demands in North America and around the world. Chang says one problem with exporting to the U.S. is that different rules about alcohol in each state make it, in his words, “a bit difficult to import our whisky into the U.S.”
Voice of America Learning English went to the recent WhiskyFest event in Washington, D.C. to see what people know about Kavalan whisky.
Representatives of distillers pour whiskey at the WhiskyFest in Washington, D.C.
It was the first taste for some.
Mickey Kaminsky of Baltimore came to the event to try a number of rare whiskies from all over the world.
“So, it’s very smooth. You can taste the wine influence. It’s a very gentle single malt. Very gentle. You easily drink this. Very nice. It’s not superb.”
He thought he might buy a bottle of Kavalan in the future.
Kyle Kennedy is from Georgia. He came to the event and made a special point to taste some of the different Kavalan whiskies.
Mickey Kaminsky tastes Kavalan whisky at the WhiskyFest in Washington, D.C.
For example, there is an original single malt, and some aged in barrels that once held wine, sherry, port and bourbon. The alcohol content, or proof, differs, too. Varieties of whisky from the same distiller are called expressions.
“Really, I’ve got to say after going to a few other places, it didn’t stand out. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It just didn’t leave a mark like some of the other things that I’ve tasted before.”
Cassie Fullington is part owner of a bar in State College, Pennsylvania called Local Whiskey. She was at WhiskyFest looking for new whiskies to offer her customers. She had not tried Kavalan before.
“Not too sweet. It’s very mellow. It’s very nice to drink. I would probably introduce it to somebody that was just starting to drink scotches. If they were converting from bourbon to scotch.”
View of various bottles of Kavalan whisky at the WhiskyFest in Washington, D.C.
Ian Chang says there are some challenges ahead. But he and Kavalan are happy with the way the whisky has been received in North America so far.
First, the distillery must find a way to send more bottles to the United States. Second, it needs gain fans at home. Chang says drinkers in Taiwan find the whiskies from Scotland to be more exotic. And finally, he and his colleagues need to keep teaching people about why whisky from Taiwan can taste good.
“We don’t really feel like an underdog. But we understand that there are consumers who don’t understand why Kavalan can be produced in the heat of Taiwan. And therefore we think that it takes time for us to communicate with consumers. We are very confident that once they have tried it they will like it. And therefore I think that it just takes time for the global consumers to know about Kavalan.”
I’m Dan Friedell.
And I’m Caty Weaver.
Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.
Are you surprised that a company from Taiwan produces one of the best whiskies in the world? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
malt – n. grain, especially barley, that is soaked in water and used in making alcoholic drinks (such as beer and whiskey)
distill – v. to make (a liquid) pure by heating it until it becomes a gas and then cooling it until it is a liquid again; to purify (a liquid) by distillation
single malt – n. a kind of whiskey that comes from one place and that is not blended with other kinds of whiskey — often used before another noun
proof – n. a measurement of how much alcohol is in an alcoholic drink
expression – n. a variation of whisky that is different from another
underdog – n. a less powerful person or thing that struggles against a more powerful person or thing (such as a corporation)
consumer – n. a person who buys goods and services
extract – v. to remove (something) by pulling it out or cutting it out
evaporate – v. to change from a liquid into a gas
toast – v. to make (food, such as bread) crisp and brown by heat
boom – n. a rapid increase in growth or economic success
oxidation – n. the process of combining with oxygen
exotic – adj. very different, strange, or unusual
variation – n. something that is similar to something else but different in some way — often + on
mature – v. to continue developing to a desired level
mellow – adj. having a pleasing rich flavor that develops over time
sherry – n. a strong wine with a nutty flavor that is made especially in Spain
port – n. a strong, sweet, usually dark red wine that is made in Portugal
rare – adj. not common or usual; not often done, seen, or happening