Sat, Aug 29, 2015 - Page 12 News List

World-class whisky in the barren heart of Yilan

Nestled in the middle of northeast Taiwan’s sprawling rice fields, Kavalan Distillery — which has taken top awards for its single malt whisky — offers free tours and samplings for visitors

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

Whiskey is stored inside oak barrels imported from the US at Kavalan Distillery in Yilan County.

Photo: Dana Ter, Taipei Times

The drive along Highway 7 in Yilan County’s (宜蘭) Yuanshan Township (員山) appears to lead to rural nothingness. Acres upon acres of sprawling rice fields roll by our car window, while every few meters, a comely, but odd-looking, two-story house peeks out from behind rows of lopsided palm trees. In the distance are thundering mountains stretching high up into gray rain clouds.

It appears that the inhabitants of Yuanshan have developed an ingenious way of sustaining themselves. Besides rice, there is no sign of any other crop or livestock. Not even a 7-Eleven or other convenience store can be seen — just one shoddy betel nut stand after another. A couple of lonely temples where old Taiwanese men with black globs for teeth — probably a sign of decay from decades of betel nut chewing — congregate to escape the heat.

“Are you sure this is the place?” I ask my friend as our GPS leads us down a narrow road surrounded by a field of ferns.

‘TIS THE SEASON TO DRINK WHISKEY

After nearly a year back in Taiwan, I’ve learned many things. Namely, that being stranded in the middle of nowhere without food is normal, and that I go to great lengths to find decent alcohol — whether it be a bottle of craft beer in an old sugar plantation converted into a live music house, a swig of Aboriginal rice wine at a festival to appease wandering spirits or, in this case, a glass of award-winning whiskey in the barren heart of Yilan County.

Looking at my surroundings, it’s hard to believe that this is where the world’s best single malt whiskey, the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, is made. But lo and behold, the nutty, caramel-and-vanilla-infused single cask strength was bestowed the grand title by the World Whiskies Award earlier this year, beating long-standing contenders from Scotland and Japan. Evidently, Taiwanese are not just experts at betel nut chewing. They appreciate a good tipple.

Named after the Kavalan Aborigines who once inhabited the nearby plains, Kavalan Distillery (噶瑪蘭酒廠) opened in December 2005. Since claiming the coveted award, the distillery has seen a steady increase in visitors from Taiwan and abroad. It may look like there’s not another soul in sight on Highway 7, but the distillery says around one million visitors a year make the trek to enjoy their free whiskey sampling and their bilingual tours.

The distillery is separated into several buildings, including a visitor center, a tasting room and the main distillation building. While the facade resembles a sprawling Northern California country club — vast patches of well-trimmed grass and grandiose buildings with big lobbies — certain touches remind you that you’re still in Taiwan. The most striking among them being a tawdry silver-and-blue Christmas tree in the tasting room, a massive Mr Brown Coffee on the upper level of the tasting room that serves rubbery chicken and children running around the distillery, pointing at jars filled with whiskey and begging their parents to buy one.

FROM BARLEY TO BARREL

Along the pathway linking the main distillery and the visitor center are hand-painted barrels of scenes around Taiwan done by local artists. Yu Ching (尤淨), the brand ambassador for Kavalan Distillery, greets us in the lobby of the visitor center before taking us on a tour of the distillery.

“A lot of people in Taiwan just like to drink and ganbei (乾杯),” she tells me, referring to the Chinese expression to down your entire drink after clinking glasses.

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