How do you think, what country in the world has the highest single malt scotch consumption per person? The United Kingdom? No. The United States? No, it is not. However, I suppose that you guessed right from the very beginning: it’s Taiwan, where single malt scotch per capita consumption is more than double of that in France, the nearest pursuer and the European leader. In addition, Taiwan is one of the most important single malt whisky markets for Scotland in the absolute figures too – it is the fourth in the world.

The range of whisky in a small country grocery shop in Taiwan is comparable to the range of some specialized alcohol shops in Moscow

Also, the remarkable fact is that lately Taiwan is discussed in the whisky world more as a whisky-producing country than as a whisky consuming country. And for me as for a whisky connoisseur, it means the only one thing – there will be more whisky for me from now on! When in 2015 a whisky from Taiwan became the best whisky in the world according to the WWA, it became clear that it is necessary to learn more about Taiwanese whisky. In 2017 I went to Taiwan for the first time to see the Kavalan Distillery (by the way, Kavalan had more than a million visitors that year – compare it with almost two million visitors to 75(!) available for visiting distilleries of Scotland for the same period). And at the beginning of May this year I managed to visit another distillery in Taiwan – Nantou Distillery, which produces its whisky under Omar and Yushan brands.

Taiwan’s scenery is extremely beautiful and unusual for an eye of Central Russia inhabitant. The water used later for whisky goes down from these mountains.

A little bit more about history. It is considered formally that whisky production in Taiwan started following the country’s accession to the WTO, which took place on January 1, 2002. It happened after 10 years of negotiations on the terms of the accession and 3 years of transition and adaptation period. Taiwan became the 144th member-country of the WTO and it was forced to cancel the existed state monopoly on alcoholic beverages production. And in 2006 the first private distillery, Kavalan, owned by King Car Group, opened its doors. This distillery claims to be the first manufacturer of whisky on the island.

The mountainous island has not so much place for living.

In fact, whisky has been made in Taiwan also before that, it was produced by the state-owned Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Company (TTL) starting from the year 1984. Another story is that it was a product designed solely for domestic consumption, malt spirits were purchased abroad and grain spirits were made in Taiwan. The blend of them had JADE brand and that whisky was sold inside the country. The distillation of malt spirits in Nantou started in 2008 – and this year is considered the official foundation date of the TTL whisky distillery, though liqueur production at the site in Nantou has a long history. At that period it was getting more and more difficult and more and more expensive to buy malt spirits in Scotland, so it was decided to start own malt whisky production.

2008 is the foundation year of the malt whisky distillery in Nantou

The success of Kavalan in whisky sales forced state-owned TTL to review its product range and to start marketing of own single malt whisky in 2013. The first editions were whisky classic – releases matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. This whisky got its first recognition already in the year 2014 –  gold and silver medals at the International Spirits Challenge. And in 2017 another release from Nantou, Sherry Cask Cask Strength, won the nomination of «the best Taiwanese whisky» by the WWA (World Whisky Awards).

This is how the old visitor center in Nantou Winery looks, it is closed now (TTL prefers to call the entire production site in Nantou “winery”, not distillery). This building is printed on all the labels of Nantou whisky.
A devastating earthquake happened in September, 1999, and it left its mark at Nantou Winnery too. This stainless steel pot still, which was used for the production of local brandy, was thrown out from its place in the production shop and now is installed at the territory of the winery, becoming a monument to those sad events. The aftermath fire destroyed 5 warehouses out of 8 the winery had.

So, Nantou Winery is a big production site, but I was interested first and foremost in everything related to the production of whisky. Unlike in Japan, Taiwan has legislation defining what whisky is, but there is nothing that might surprise us. Mostly standard things like “not less than two years in wood containers” and “not less than 40% ABV bottling”. By the way, Omar keeps whisky in casks for not less than 3 years.

A wide range of liquors manufactured by TTL is presented on the shelves of a local store.

Barley does not grow in Taiwan, so all the malt for whisky production – peated and elegant — is purchased in the UK. I mentioned already about the water — despite the fact that Nantou uses water from a well, the water goes a long way descending from the surrounding mountains. Nantou does not treat water for production but filters it for dilution for casks filling and bottling stages (by the way, Nantou has its own bottling line at the site). The local water has a high minerals level and low pH.

Grains are grinded by not so impressive as Scottish mastodons, but no less reliable roller mills from the Swiss Buhler.
The composition of grist is very closely controlled at Nantou: it must contain 20% of husk and 10% of flour.
Mash tun has a very utilitarian look, it is of the semi-Lauter system.

Three «waters» — 65, 72 and 85 degrees Celsius – are used for washing the grist. However, these temperatures may vary depending on the time of year in accordance with changes in the ambient temperature.

Wort fermentation takes place in small metal tuns of 1500 liters capacity. Fermentation period varies from 60 to 84 hours. Why is it longer sometimes? Just because a batch may fall on a weekend (I have met the same approach in Scotland too).

At the Nantou distillery they do not believe that the spirit character depends a lot on the duration of fermentation. In addition, Nantou has experimented with wooden wash tuns, but decided not to use wood in the warm climate – there were a lot of problems due to bacterial contamination. As for the yeast, Nantou uses dry distillers’ yeast.

Distillation equipment was brought to Nantou from other TTL production sites in 2008. It was a pair of different pot stills – one was Italian and the other one Scottish, from Forsyths. Later, in 2009, two more Scottish stills were added, one of which was new. All stills have different shapes so, in order to achieve a sustainable character of the spirit before casks filling, spirits received on the different pairs of stills are mixed. Pot still have the following sizes: 9000, a pair of 5000, and 2000 litres. The current production capacity of the distillery is 400 thousand liters of pure alcohol per year.

Experiensed whisky fan will recognize on this photo that all the stills at the distillery are formally wash stills.

The strength of the «heart» is 69-71% ABV. Distillery works on peated malt during one month in a year, it is quite a lot. Peated malt has peatiness level of 50 ppm. Usually, tails are cut not lower than 64% ABV, but when distillery works with the peated malt the cut is done a bit later, at 62% ABV, in order to catch more phenolic compounds and to make a new make more oily.

Now we come to the spirit maturation. Nantou buys casks in the United States and in Europe, and these casks are used not only to age whisky but also for ageing other products, including fruit distillates. Both casks of American and European oak are used. If it is an ex-bourbon barrel, Nantou requires the charring level 3.

Nantou’s warehouses are standard, concrete, racked.
A part of one warehouse is now renovated to accept visitors, here you may experience testing whisky directly from casks.

Casks are filled at the alcohol strength slightly over 59% ABV. Why? Due to Taiwanese laws requiring a very serious firefighting and control equipment to be installed in the warehouses storing solutions with more than 60% ABV. It is cheaper to dilute new make.

As already probably all whisky connoisseurs know, the hot climate of Taiwan makes casks to work extremely actively, whisky matures much faster. Perhaps, we should not try to develop any sort of formula for compliance between ageing in Taiwan and in Scotland (for example one year of maturation in Taiwan equals three years in Scotland, and so on), but blind tastings unequivocally confirm that the Taiwanese whisky, while being formally young, quite successfully competes with much more aged releases from the British Isles.

In average the angels’ share here is 6-8% per year, and that is 3-4 times higher than in Scotland. So, this is not 15-20% (I ran across such giant figures on the Internet), but, of course, there are annual differences, plus losses depend on size of cask, time of maturation (the less whisky volume is in the casks, the more whisky evaporates), kind of warehouse, etc., so, figures may be bigger. The last Taiwanese whisky I purchased was matured in a wine barrique and lost approximately 38% for the 5.5 years of maturation; it corresponds to about 8.5% of loss per year.

In Nantou’s Visitors Center

For single malt whiskies Nantou chose the name «Omar». In Gaelic this word means «amber», it is also said that Scots called their country the same name. The choice of this name is a tribute to Scotland’s people and Scotch. However, the international sales growth of Omar whisky, in France in particular, showed that this name is more associated not with whisky but with a something of Middle East origin, and this brand-name is perceived mostly negatively. So, last year in addition to Omar brand another brand-name appeared – Yushan. This is the name of the local dominant mountain and it is of 100% Taiwanese origin. This brand is now used for a single malt whisky (at a commercial strength, which is 46% ABV for Nantou produce) and blended malt whisky. Omar brand remains solely for connoisseurs-level single malts, like cask strength editions and unique finishes.

Finally, we came to the whisky itself. I was lucky to try a core range of Nantou and several limited releases. But let’s start with the new make: Nantou makes moderately fruity spirit, quite pungent on the nose without dilution, there are no off-notes, it has a good dense texture. With water it releases, first of all, aromas of baked apples, it becomes fresh and light: an excellent base for ageing.

A core range from Nantou Distillery. Omar whisky does not know colouring and chill filtration.

Omar whisky aged in bourbon and sherry casks is already well known in the world; it is sold in Russia also (though only 46% ABV version, while there are cask strengths releases of these whiskies). In my opinion, this is a wonderful whisky, especially ex-bourbon versions. This time I was happy to try these releases again – they have become more mature, more interesting. May they have started to approach the limit of their maturation here, in Taiwan, on the border of tropical and subtropical climate? I don’t know, but I must say that the 8 years old single cask ex-bourbon release was just absolutely stunning and fabulous. Unfortunately, and no wonder why, it was no longer available at the distillery and I was not able to buy it.

If to speak about Nantou’s specialities, they are cask strength batches of whisky finished in casks previously used for the ageing of their other liquors, fruit distillates.

In Cask Strength series there are as vattings of several casks as single cask releases. Whisky blending is watched by the Master Blender, Mrs. Wang, concurrently holding the post of Head of Quality Control.

So, Nantou Distillery has whisky finished in casks which held lychee liqueur, a brandy made from local grapes of Black Queen variety, and orange brandy. Of course, it is very individual and subjective, but my favourite was the whisky finished in casks after lychee liqueur. After 4 years of maturation in ex-bourbon barrels, this whisky was finished for a year in lychee liqueur casks. It is a very bright and easy drinkable whisky, I could not feel 55% ABV completely. It is my next choice after the great ex-bourbon releases from Nantou and I could not resist buying a bottle of this whisky at the visitor’s center shop.

Whisky finished in grape and orange brandies casks are quite unusual. Black Queen grape has a thick skin full of tannins, and these tannins from the grapes go as a surplus to the woody work of the casks. It is very interesting and, basically, I liked this whisky, it willingly takes water and I would like to have more time to work with it in order to describe better.

Orange notes in the appropriate whisky finish were easily detectable from the very beginning. To my regret, I felt quite a lot of the orange peel bitterness probably coming from the brandy, although I have not tried that drink and I do not know anything about the technology of its production, namely, what happens with orange zest. Despite the fact that I love moderately bitter whisky, this whisky lacked the balance a little bit in my opinion.

Top and left is a unique release of the very first whisky distilled in 2008 – ten years in PX cask from a solera system. Bottom left is a magnificent single cask release of ex-bourbon maturation of a very solid age by Taiwanese standards. Top right is a powerful peaty whisky.

The peated version of Omar whisky is made from 50 ppm malt, as I mentioned already. This is quite a powerful smoky whisky, it has medical and iodine notes, but, surprisingly, I found also the maritime theme and even some salt in it. There is also much oak there. Interestingly, I had a chance to try the peated Omar whisky at three ages – three years, four years and five years. It is clear that all that were single cask releases and the result is highly dependent on a specific cask, but on the contrast to wine casks maturation, where 5 years is already quite a sufficient maturation period in the local climate, for the peaty whisky I clearly saw that from year to year this whisky becomes just better and better – the peatiness level falls exposing the other advantages of whisky and increasing its complexity and balance.

A hard mission of tasting 9 samples under the gaze of four pairs of eyes. Stephy Hsiao is responsible in TTL for the international markets, Pei-Yuan Chung controls whisky quality at Nantou, Chu-Yeh Cheng is responsible for packaging, and Cheng Yu-Yen is a brand ambassador of Omar.

What would I like to say in conclusion? It was a wonderful trip. Whisky world has become really very broad, and whisky-loving Taiwan now gives it back a superb whisky. Everything you need for that is just a desire and a passion. I would like to express my great gratitude to all the members of the TTL/Nantou crew for their love for their work – there is nothing better than to see passionate people at work!

Alexey Nearonov