Single-malt Scotch has always been the whisky of choice for connoisseurs in the know. Insanely collectible and lauded by critics for decades as the best whisky in the world, this status has allowed Scotland to build quite an industry. But all giants eventually fall, and if you’re someone who truly considers themselves a whisky aficionado, your bar is no longer stocked with Scotland’s finest liquid. Instead, you’re buying whisky from Japan and Taiwan.
Both of these island nations have become the epicenter for whisky in recent years with distillers modeling their recipes and techniques after the most famous Scotch distilleries, and then perfecting those techniques and doing it better. While very much inspired by Scotch, these are whiskys that are truly their own style.
Due to the liquid’s history in Scotland, much of what’s produced has more to do with history and tradition than innovation. It’s a culture that stays true to original recipes and classic ways of doing things. But that’s exactly what makes whisky made in Taiwan and Japan so special. While it’s inspired by traditional techniques, these whisky makers have the freedom to tweak the recipes. What that means is that you can expect a Macallan 15 to taste the same whether it was made and bottled this year or in previous years. But a Japanese or Taiwanese whisky may taste very differently from year to year, based solely on the distiller and blender’s discretion.
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This is what’s so exciting to whisky nerds: variation. Just as wine has variations based on vintage, so do these Asian whiskys. With so much variation and flavor exploration, these whiskys sell out extremely quickly, which is another reason they’re so coveted: scarcity. Everyone wants what they can’t have.
Japanese brands like Hibiki and Nikka get most of the attention when it comes to Asian whiskys and the American drinker’s knowledge of them. But the distillery that those truly in the know are gravitating toward is Kavalan, and it’s made not in Japan but in Taiwan.
If you’re a fan of “Billions,” it’s likely you recall the episode where Paul Giamatti’s character, Chuck Rhoades, exclaims: “The Taiwanese do it better than the Scots these days,” while holding a glass of Kavalan in his hand. Currently considered the best whisky in the world, its first bottling was only in 2008. Part of what makes the whisky so special, according to connoisseurs, is Taiwan’s subtropical heat. With temperatures getting well up to 110 degrees, Kavalan’s whisky is able to age faster, or so they claim, making an 8 year old Taiwanese whisky taste like a 20 year old Scottish one.
Whether or not that is entirely true, one thing is certain: These whiskys are in high demand. So you better grab a bottle while you can.