A whisky on Burns Night? How about a wee dram of Taiwanese?


January 25, 2010

A palpable sense of astonishment has overtaken a small but convivial crowd of whisky enthusiasts, assembled in Leith’s historic Vintners Rooms.

In fact, not since 2007, when the Taipei First Girls’ Senior High School marching band made its jaw-dropping entrance to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, has such a sense of profound shock overwhelmed a select Scottish gathering.

“Oh. My. God,” breathes Charles MacLean, author and whisky connoisseur, from behind his impressive moustache. “Is this an April fool?” Fellow panellists register the same amazement.

Whispers of “unbelievable”, “incredible” and “oh no” reverberate around a bar which for more than 250 years housed a Scotch whisky warehouse.

This was the weekend finale of an exclusive blind tasting, and against all odds a selection of three-year-old Scotch whiskies have been beaten by a rank outsider, distilled not in Scotland, Ireland, nor even England. But in Taiwan. The whisky in question is called Kavalan and in this test, designed to celebrate Burns Night, the Far Eastern incomer had beaten off the challenge of four whiskies from Britain, to confound the aficionados of Scotch. Of course, that is what happens to the best-laid schemes — they gang aft agley, as Burns put it.

The tasting, it’s true, was a piece of mischief-making. Inspired by the release last November of a three-year-old English whisky, St George’s Distillery Chapter 3, The Times’s cunning plan involved placing a dram of Norfolk’s finest alongside a handful of Scotch malts and blends to see if a panel of experts would anoint the Sassenach as the perfect tipple.

Our judges did not do that, although the English brand won favourable reviews for such a young malt, but the quality of the eventual winner amazed them.

It took the better part of a working lunch to reach this extraordinary conclusion. For a full hour the whiskies kept coming, flight after flight, handed out by Silvio Praino, an Edinburgh sommelier and restaurateur who has a passion for whisky. Each was “nosed”, then eyeballed through Mr MacLean’s red-rimmed monocle for its colour, and finally sipped by all, before scores out of ten were noted.

Even novice onlookers quickly came to appreciate the gradations of the taster’s lexicon: “grassy”, “biscuity”, “clean”, “complex”, and “fruity” by and large denoted approval. “Onion skins”, “pickled cabbage”, “Brussels sprouts”, “bath salts” and “bowffing” (a traditional Scottish word meaning vomit-inducing) tended to the opposite extreme.

None of these judgments was made lightly. The chairman of the panel, Mr MacLean, has spent more than 30 years selflessly writing and lecturing on whisky. His fellow experts included Geraldine Coates, the country’s leading expert on gin, and Zubair Mohamed, a wine and spirits dealer whose clients include Fortnum & Mason.

A fourth member, Paul Laverty, screenwriter of the Ken Loach film Looking For Eric, was a relative newcomer to whisky. Perhaps with beginner’s luck, he was the only panellist who suggested correctly, if tentatively: “This one is a little bit different — I wonder if it is the English?”

But the real talking point was Kavalan, which is not marketed in Britain. Frantic research swiftly revealed the secret of its success. Although only two years old, this whisky is distilled with a blend of Taiwanese enthusiasm and Scottish expertise (a Dufftown firm built the distillery) seasoned with a large dose of equatorial heat and humidity.

In Taiwan, temperatures are persistently 20C higher than on Speyside, a differential which ensures that its spirit matures more quickly than its Scottish cousins. In other words, this whisky may have a young label, but the contents of the bottle are more mature than rivals of a similar age.

The Islay whisky took the brunt of our judges’ criticism, suggesting that its “historic recipe” might have better remained hidden in the past. “It burns your lips,” Mr Mohamed said. “Is that in honour of Rabbie Burns? Or Lippy Burns?” suggested Mr Laverty.

In the end, as whisky does, it all went down the same way. “Tak aff your dram,” as the man put it. And on Burns Night, who could gainsay that?

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