“Come guess me this riddle, what beats pipes and fiddle
What’s hotter than mustard and milder than cream
What best wets your whistle, what’s clearer than crystal
What’s sweeter than honey and stronger than steam.”
— The Humours of Whiskey
It’s not often that we borrow a page out of Faulkner, but this past weekend we decided to make a pilgrimage down the eastern coast to Kavalan Distillery in Yilan. At Pop Rooms our quest has been to bring you the best that this Island has to offer: we have soaked in the hot springs, consumed a lifetime’s supply of bubble tea, even had our fortune told, and now it seemed an appropriate time to go in search of the waters of life and drink from the source.
Kavalan is the indigenous name for Yilan. It means “people of the plains,” and, in some translations, “a land of blessings.” And oh is it a blessing — but we are getting ahead of ourselves. We also enjoy the fact that the name sounds not too dissimilar to Avalon in English. Like some strange echo, it evokes another misty isle of legend where the holy grail and an elixir of immortality can be found.
Now we should inform you from the outset: we are not big whiskey drinkers. We do know enough to distinguish it from rum, vodka, and tequila and other general categories of bad decisions. We certainly know enough to emphatically declare that we are not fans of Kaoliang, or the liver incinerating jet fuel they try to pass off as alcohol on this Island. However, whiskey connoisseurs we are not. Nonetheless, any small amount of research seems to indicate that Kavalan is a fairly decent brand. They did just win the 2023 Distillery of the Year at the International Whiskey Competition and have accumulated seemingly countless other awards over the years.
Although it was likely akin to hoping the Visigoths would appreciate the colonnades and vintages of the grapes, we were still duly impressed with what we found — and that is not just “the waters talking.” At over a million visitors a year the Kavalan complex is immense and feels akin to a small campus or university. It is no mere hillbilly still on the back forty, but a place that was clearly built for education and what appears to be a constant in and out flow of people and products. And as far as the taste goes, even our palette could discern it was a step well above your average gas station Jack.
What does American Country Music and Queen Elizabeth I have in common (aside from their derision of Spanish speaking immigrants)? You guessed it, they are both devotees of “the rotgut.” Don’t believe us? We present to you Whiskeysippi River; “tonight I am going to Maker’s Mark Twain…”
And no we don’t know exactly what that means, but Mark Twain did reportedly say:
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
Like the rest of the Netflixian world over the holidays, we have finally made our way through the saga that was The Crown. While we enjoy a royal drama as much as the next insurrectionist Yank (at times interchangeably pronounced with a ‘w’), we have been thinking how a series on the life of Queen Elizabeth I could be an even more engaging, politically thrilling, and even scandalous endeavor. Yes, Elizabeth II drank (and had reason to), but we would wager a bottle of top shelf Kavalan that her namesake could have toasted her under the table and still been able to walk. In fact, although the Royal Family’s obsession (addiction) with whiskey likely does not start with Queen Elizabeth (James takes the crown especially in that sense), she was believed to have enjoyed a glass or two of the poteen. Whiskey was present in England, Ireland, and Scotland as early as 1495 and there are reports of Elizabeth having a shipment of delivered to the palace in 1541. We secretly love the idea that it was a drink that Christian monks, Scottish highlanders, and an English Queen and so many others could all enjoy and that this weekend we were tasting the world class results of their legacy.
Known as Aqua Vitae in Latin, acquavite in Italian, eau-de-vie in French, aquavit in German, it was also called akvavit in Scandinavian, and uisge beatha in Gaelic. Among other things, the term Whiskey in English is often translated as “the water of life.” This translation comes from the fact that it is made through the process of distillation, a means of refining liquids, that was the fascination of chemists, alchemists, physicians, scientists, and others in the Middle East and Europe for centuries. It was commonly believed that among other things, the process of distilling could bring about a means of achieving eternal life. While we are inclined to smile now, keep in mind these thinkers were watching salt water turn fresh, grain turn to alcohol, etc., it’s not a huge leap to think there to be a means of creating the philosopher’s stone and bringing about a change in the human aging process.
Nonetheless, one of the great achievements that came from these processes of experimentation was the drink we know as whiskey. We are not alone in considering it a decent consolation prize.
“The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it,Robert Louis Stevenson
Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”
Although they did not attempt to make whiskey in Taiwan, the Japanese are generally credited with bringing the first whiskey distillery to Asia. In 1930 Masataka Taketsuru opened the first Japanese whisky distillery in Osaka using the knowledge he gained by working in Scottish whisky distilleries. In the ensuing decades, Japan whiskey would rise on the world stage alongside that made in Scotland, Ireland, England and America. Its distinct terroir set it apart and made for a number of quality flavors. Although Japan saw success, for many years, it was thought that the climate in Taiwan and other parts of Asia were unsuitable for making whiskey.
So stick to the cratur’ the best thing in nature
For sinking your sorrows and raising your joys
Oh lord, it’s no wonder, if lightning and thunder
Weren’t made from the plunder of whiskey me boys.
— The Humours of Whiskey
Kavalan began in 2005 founded by whiskey lover Tien-Tsai Lee. He had long conceived of creating a world renowned distillery on the Island and had studied at distilleries in Scotland and Japan before working with the King Car Group in Taiwan. From 2005 Kavalan’s success has sky rocketed. One of the benefits of the warm climate is that the whiskies mature in a shorter amount of time than those in cooler climates. It also means that the angel share is higher (some say 15% per year but we are skeptical as that would indicate some very inebriated angels).
As far as the tasting notes go, they were so smooth and inspiring that in a fit of inspiration they even moved us to work on a magnum opus: trying to translate The Humours of Whiskey to fit lyrics in Mandarin. Needless to say it might take some time but as Faulkner reminds us, ” the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whisky.” On to another round.
Well if an Irish ballad and plethora of quotes have not convinced you, just know that Kavalan might just be the best place to learn about and try great whiskey in Taiwan.
Similarly to brewery tours in the US, a trip to Yilan can be an incredible way to spend an afternoon with friends (and the public transport in Taiwan is fantastic too so you don’t have to draw straws for the DD honors).
On the note of friends, if you have people coming to the Island and are looking for a day trip, but something not too far, we would suggest surfing in the morning at Wai’ao, taking the bus down to Jiaoxi to soak in the hot springs in the early afternoon, and then making your way down to Yilan for a tasting at Kavalan before catching the train back to Taipei. It could be a wonderful adventure.