The goal of company executives, newly returned from New York and San Francisco on a huge marketing offensive, was to raise awareness the world over of a whiskey with complexity and depth made in a hot climate. South Korea and Indonesia were the newest pit stops to their world tour.
In three months, Kavalan will test new ground in another mature market, the US, with a launch planned before the New Year.
Meanwhile, Russians, named by the Economist this year as the world’s biggest drinkers consuming a high of 18 liters a year, are an emerging market where a rising, image-conscious, middle-class is increasingly preferring whiskey as their drink of choice, Chang says.
“Vodka has become the drink of the past — a drink for older generations,” Chang says. “All our research pointed to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, white collars, as well as the young in general moving toward Scotch or new-world whiskies.”
According to state-owned Russian daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, imports of whiskey rose by 66 percent last year, illustrating the huge potential of the Russian market.
Chang recounted the moment in the Moscow tasting sessions on Feb. 15 that he tuned into the BBC in his hotel room and heard the announcer say: “Ten minutes ago a meteorite hit Russia.”
A lake near Chebarkul, a town in Chelyabinsk region had that morning been the landing spot for the meteorite.
“This is a sign Kavalan is destined to be a success in Russia. We’re going to make a huge impact on the market,” Chang told the Russians.
Kavalan’s global impact is a testament to how zeal and hard work can make the unattainable possible.
“When we first started out, people told us a Taiwanese whiskey just wasn’t possible: You simply couldn’t make whiskey in a hot climate,” says Chang, who was trained in Scotland and England, and has been based at Kavalan’s Yuanshan Township (員山), Yilan County, distillery for the past seven years.
The heat, rather than being a handicap, is a catalyst, Chang says.
“The whiskey matures faster, because it extracts flavors from the ex-bourbon and sherry casks more quickly,” says Chang, as he walks down the aisles of stacked oak barrels slumbering on the expansive site on the outskirts of Yuanshan.
About a dozen years ago, drinks giant and biotech company King Car Group (金車) had been monitoring whiskey exports and could not help noticing that Asia, and Taiwanese in particular, were drinking an increasing amount of imports. Established whiskey labels were using this emerging trend to offset the “plateauing effect” of slow growth in developed markets: Scottish Whiskey Association figures two years ago recorded a huge 44 percent jump in Taiwan’s whiskey imports between 2010 and 2011, second only to Brazil, before easing slightly last year.
King Car had already decided it wanted to tap into the sharp increase in Taiwanese demand for the status symbol drink. The firm began the process of extensively researching and finally, in 2006, producing Taiwan’s first homegrown tipple, confounding the critics.
Next door, the NT$100 million (US$3.4 million) giant’s chemistry laboratory — handmade by Scottish manufacturer Forsyth — is where Kavalan produces 4 million bottles of single malt whiskey from scratch every year.
The most striking part of the elaborate laboratory are the four copper stills — shaped like thin-necked vases and polished to a high shine — looming one-and-a-half stories tall.