When we think whisky, most of us are already on our flights to Scotland, Ireland or the US. Some might prefer Japan while a few stay back home to taste the truly international tastes of Amrut or Paul John. Where does a small country like Taiwan figure in the grand picture?
Taiwan hasn't got a long whisky-making tradition. It doesn't have a repertoire of stories either that regales its people with the heroic feats of their ancestors smuggling in and out of their country, the homemade whiskeys they made.
For Taiwan, homemade whisky is a 12-year-old child. But in a dozen years or so no other country on the planet might have shaken the whiskey world like what it.
All began with the ambition of a Taiwanese entrepreneur named Lee Tien-Tsai who decided he couldn't carry on selling his mosquito repellent anymore. Lee tried the beverage industry and in 1979 floated a new company named the King Car Group to sell root beer. The only thing that prevented Tien-Tsai from making his favourite product - whisky -was the too restrictive state monopoly system in Taiwan. But when in 2002 the country joined the World Trade Organisation, he understood that time had arrived to create the first Taiwanese whisky.
So in 2005, King Car Group set up a distillery in Yilan County, south of Taipei, Taiwan's capital. What should be the name of the new whisky? Tien-Tsai decided that it should be named after the indigenous people who lived in the region - Kavalan.
Lee knew what he was up against with his new product still brewing in the backyard. Once born it had to lock horns with the Goliaths in the market - the 12-year-old, 18-year-old and 21-year-old whiskies from Scotland and other parts of the world. A virtual selling-coal-to-New Castle situation. Add to that the scorching subtropical climate that would take away thrice the amount of whisky as evaporation (Angel's share) than what gets lost in the frigid climate of Scotland.
Wasn't his ambition a tad unreasonable?
King Car Group had it all worked out. Lee had already brought in food technologists and engineers to his team; their only job was to see how whisky was made in other parts of the world. Soon he picked the best - the Single Malt - as the destination where the Taiwanese whisky would head to. Dr Jim Swan, a pioneer of the early Scotch Whisky Research Institute, was brought in from Scotland as consultant to ensure a house style that would compete with the best in the market.
It was not by accident the company had chosen Yilan County for setting up their distillery. There was plentiful water all year round. Caressed by the sea air and the mountain wind, the new drink was poised to be an embodiment of Taiwan. King Car Group also knew how to make good use of the scorching humid climate that was thought to be not ideal for making whisky. True, a large part of whisky might evaporate into thin air, but such heat also means speedy maturation. They did the math and realized that it would take only 3-4 years for Kavalan to match up with a 12-year old Scotch in maturation.
When Kavalan hit the market in 2008 people were either curious or they just looked over it. Of course, some of the early bottles that were shaped like Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in Taiwan of course, had a fancy element to it. Beyond that what could it do! What could Taiwan do with whisky!
Prejudices were built to be shattered. In a blind test held in 2010, the underdog, rolling on its way to become one of the best in the world, pulverised the very idea of competition. Later it won the International Wine & Spirit Competition Worldwide Whisky Trophy 2017 and the International Spirits Challenge Trophy for two years in a row, in 2016 and 2017.
Today this liquid work of art, which has won more than 200 awards in international competitions ever since its birth, is sold in more than 60 countries.
So the next time you come across an inscription: 'Made in Taiwan' take a second look but only after wiping that snigger off your face.