Four months before Edward Snowden made the same journey, Taiwanese Ian Chang (張郁嵐), 38, arrived at Moscow airport from Hong Kong, knowing agents from Veld-21 would be waiting for him.
As with Snowden, truth was stranger than fiction. Veld-21 was there to clinch an unprecedented deal: The import of single malt whiskey from a nation better known for high-tech gadgets into a country known the world over for another spirit.
One of Russia’s largest importers, with a customer base of 212 sub-distributors in 69 major cities across an 18,000km2 expanse stretching from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east, Veld-21 will begin importing Taiwanese whiskey by Russian Orthodox Christmas in January.
The contract will help satisfy what Chang — Kavalan’s master blender and business development manager — says is a growing demand from Russians for whiskey.
Yet the biggest battle for Kavalan is at home where brand-conscious Taiwanese are satisfied buying a cheaper Johnny Walker, rather than an expensive local brand. Kavalan entered an industry arguably more about tradition than taste, in the way that perception can be more important than reality.
So inversely, as a result of its overseas successes, Kavalan says it is slowly gaining traction domestically.
Asked about the high price of its products, the firm says that while it prides itself on the quality of the whiskey, and its weekly and ongoing service to retail customers, it is exploring ideas aimed at opening up the domestic market — perhaps even with a less expensive bottle.
The first time “Kavalan” was uttered in whiskey’s heartland was at an old Scottish distillery in Leith in 2009. The event was a Times of London-organized blind taste-testing in honor of national poet and hero Robert Burns.
When the Scottish judging circle discovered that the winner they had painstakingly selected was first, Taiwanese, and second, three years old, their reaction is best summarized by event chair and whiskey connoisseur Charles MacLean.
“Oh. My. God,” he is reported as gasping.
Now, seven years after the first drop was poured, the whiskey named after one of Taiwan’s oldest Aboriginal communities has scooped 60 medals in international competitions, competing against the world’s best.
These awards matter among drinks corporations. When Kavalan scooped the International Wine and Spirit Competition Asia-Pacific Spirits “Producer of the Year” trophy two years ago and the equivalent “Whiskies of the world” trophy last year, it was the first time it had swiped the highest honor from Japan’s Suntory. The venerable Japanese distiller has been making what is widely considered the best whiskey outside Scotland, in the Scottish way, since 1923.
Bolstered by success, Kavalan last year pushed into a new, offensive phase of development, eyeing expansion. It took root in whiskey’s traditional home the UK, forging a heavyweight alliance with importer Penderyn Distillery and is available in Tesco — Britain’s biggest retailer and the world’s third-largest retailer — the exclusive Harrods Knightsbridge, high-end department store Selfridges and other specialist liquor stores.
The Taiwanese drop is now available in Australia, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Finland, South Africa, Singapore and Hong Kong.