Richard Barr is a member of the Whisky Israel tasting society , a blog correspondent at times, and a good whisky friend and big whisky lover. From time to time he posts his notes and adventures on our blog.
Having attended Whisky Live shows in London & Madrid, and thoroughly enjoying both, I wanted to experience the show from a different angle. But how do I accomplish that? I could attend the show as a member of the Press since I write for Whisky Israel. It would get me some extra time at the show but aside from that, it wouldn’t accomplish my goal of experiencing the show from a completely different angle.
Then it dawned on me. I’ll contact one of the exhibiting distilleries and ask if I can help them at the show. Kavalan distillery immediately came to mind. It’s their first year at the show. I love their whiskies and would therefore love presenting their excellent range to the attendees. I popped an email off to my friends at Kavalan, and it wasn’t too long before I received a wonderful reply from Joanie Tseng, who is responsible for global business development and PR for Kavalan distillery; “It is absolutely great to have whisky experts like you in our stand, which could be of great help. You are very welcome to work our table at the Show.”
With much anticipation leading up to March 24th, the day finally arrived and armed with about 2 hours sleep, at 4 am I left for Ben Gurion airport and my flight to London. Despite a late take-off, the plane managed to touch-down almost on time. At passport control, I was asked the purpose of my visit. I couldn’t help but answer “WHISKY”, followed by a brief explanation. The nice chap stamped my passport with a frown. I queried as to why the long face, to which he replied he was sad because he couldn’t go with me as he had to work. Score 2 points to the British Border Services.
Just over two hours after landing, I was at the show, standing in front of the empty Kavalan Stand, with 25 sealed boxes. The building was full of chaos. It was not the hustle & bustle of a Whisky Show that I had previously known but rather the organized pandemonium of a construction site, with hammers banging & people dashing about. Just then, Ian Logan, the Global Brand Ambassador for Glenlivet was passing by me. He stopped and offered me a hearty greeting, following it up with a rhetorical “Glamorous, eh?” Ian had summed it up so succinctly in that quick moment, the glamour we see when attending a whisky show takes hard work & sweat. This in turn is a perfect analogy for the greater Whisky business. It takes a whole lot of blood, sweat & tears to transport the aficionado into the glamorous world of whisky.
This being my first show on the other side of the table, I may have been a little enthusiastic and arrived a little early as I was the first person there from Kavalan. Nevertheless I decided to make good use of the time and start setting up the stand. I figured that Joanie & Ian Chang, Kavalan’s Master Blender could rearrange any mistake much quicker than starting the stand set up from scratch, and it beat the alternative; my standing around wasting my eager energy. So I rolled up my shirtsleeves and started opening the boxes. When I arrived at the signage, I carefully assembled the frames and stretched the canvasses till all three signs were put together and a larger than life Ian Chang was smiling back at me, Not the real Ian but his likeness on one of the signs. I then set up bottles of the 7 different whiskies in the Kavalan range and strategically laid out the descriptive brochures. I then condensed the boxes contents so they’d fit under the tables and piled the empty boxes in front of the stand, which were carted away by a couple Whisky Live staff, leaving a beautiful sight to behold. While wiping the sweat from my brow, I thought of Ian’s words again, Glamorous, eh? (It’s important to note that all the while I was setting up, people from several of the other distilleries stopped by to introduce themselves. This was to repeat itself throughout the two days.) At this point Joanie arrived. We discussed the set up and she made a few adjustments. We were ready for the crowds.
Joanie than made some introductions, and this was the first time I met Stephen Davies, the Managing Director of Penderyn Distillery. This was an important introduction as Kavalan and Penderyn had just signed an agreement whereby Penderyn will be distributing Kavalan’s range in the United Kingdom.
Before people had a chance to ask for drams, it was crucial that I re-sampled 8 different single malts that Kavalan brought to the show. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to represent the range with any integrity. So I gave myself a refresher crash course. The six single malts which were available to the general public:
- Kavalan Single Malt Whisky 40% abv
- Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask 40% abv
- Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon 58.6% abv
- Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask 57.3% abv
- Kavalan Solist Vinho Cask 58.4% abv
- King Car Conductor 46% abv
Additionally I tasted the
- Kavalan Solist Fino 57% abv
- Kavalan Solist Peaty Cask Finish 55% abv (as yet released)
With this refresher on the range under my belt, I was ready for the show to begin. Then the doors opened to the press & trade. A surprisingly large amount of spirits professionals, writer & bloggers stopped at the Kavalan stand to sample the whiskies and hear about this Taiwanese distillery. During this time, I started to hone my little spiel, explaining Kavalan’s history & describing each of the 6 whiskies. These industry professionals were both pleasantly surprised & impressed by the whisky. While I can’t go into details, I think it’s safe to say that my friends in the UK will be buying Kavalan from a retailer soon.
A short while later they let the public in. That’s when things started to get a little busy. So what did I tell people?
I started by letting folk know the Kavalan Single Malt range comes from Taiwan.
To which they exclaimed “Taiwan?!”
Me: Yes, Taiwan
Them: As in Taiwan China?
Me: Yes absolutely. Kavalan started distilling in 2003. The first bottling in 2008.
Them: Isn’t that really young?
Me: It might seem young but you have to remember the climate in Taiwan is warmer and more humid than Scotland so the maturation is shorter. What take 10, 12 or even 15 years in Scotland only takes a fraction of that, 5 or 6 years. Taste it and you’ll see I’m right.
From there it was only a matter of seeing what somebody liked about whisky in order to steer them towards an expression I knew they would like from the first 6 listed above.
· The Kavalan Single Malt Whisky is closest to a highland whisky such as a Balvenie 10 year old. It has a wonderful nose with floral tones, medium mouth feel, nice round flavour followed by a quick clean finish.
· Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask is a very interesting dram. It’s very atypical of Port Cask finishes in that it’s both an easy drinking dram & what I consider to be a challenge at the same time. One can come home from a day’s work and enjoy this one without any effort & thought. Or spend a good number of minutes working through the different layers that make up this delight. The nose starts out just a touch musty before moving onto honey, marshmallow and a hint of cotton candy. It isn’t near as sweet as one would suspect, as the palate is soft at start moving into nice sweetness that has a medium finish. While it’s one of the least costly in the range, it’s one of my favourites. It was favoured by many of the attendees and actually sold out at the show shop.
· Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon is my absolute favourite in the whole range. This expression has a rich nose, full of tropical fruits such as pineapples, mangos and bananas. Then multiply that nose with another dose of the same tropical fruits subtly moving onto coconut and vanilla. As a cask strength dram, it’s full of flavor, spicy and sweet, with a nice mouth feel. It has a long warming finish that lingers wonderfully.
· Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask is finished in Oloroso sherry casks, making this a real treat for lovers of sherry finished whisky. Its nose starts off with acetate, vanishing quickly replaced by sweet balsamic notes, turning into rains and dried fruit. This is a chewy dram, continuing with the dried fruits on the palate. It has a long finish seasoned with coffee or perhaps dark chocolate.
· With Kavalan Solist Vinho Cask, I immediately get a nose full of Prunes, followed by a lovely whisper of caraway seed. It’s faintly sherry-like but not as sweet & thick. Not surprisingly the palate has stewed prunes to start, followed by roasted cocoa bean and toasted barley. It has a medium lingering mouth feel. A very enjoyable dram.
· King Car Conductor could be considered the big brother to the Kavalan Single Malt Whisky 40% abv. that we started with. However this big boy is 46% so rather than those heavy floral tones in the nose, we get sweetness and apples, followed by just hint of the floral tones. Not surprisingly, the palate has Black fruits and apples, moving onto dark chocolate w/ a hint of orange & espresso. It has a long satisfying finish.
I described the range over and over again until I knew it inside & out. I tried to vary my description slightly so it wouldn’t sound memorized and trite. I held several conversations about whisky in general and Kavalan in particular. Among the many questions, I was asked several times; Which were my favourite whiskies? What got me started on my whisky journey? Did I like any blended whiskies? Which Kavalan did I like best & why?
At the end of the 2 days, my feet ached from all the standing and my tongue was fuzzy from all the talking, but I absolutely loved it. So what did I take away from the show? I brought home an insider’s view of the industry marketing and Public Relations. I learned how hard these people work to ensure attendees enjoyed themselves. I saw how people, both professionals & enthusiastic fans, are bound by their love of uisge beatha.