From the Scottish Highlands to the Land of the Rising Sun, whisky production is a part of history throughout the world. In some countries, the practice goes back centuries, bound by tradition and sentiment.
Scotch whisky is one of the most strictly regulated liquor categories in the world. Its rules keep the spirit authentic and reinforce a sense of place. Bourbon is similar. It must hail from the U.S. and follow certain procedures that define its origin and unique flavor profile. Japanese whisky—which is seeing one of the biggest booms the whisky world has ever known—enjoys its own set of flavors, concepts and methods of production unique to the country.
These regions dominate the global whisky market. Beyond them, however, a wealth of new flavors can be found, crafted in countries you might never expect.
The Kavalan distillery has shaped what’s known as Taiwanese whisky. Few distilleries or countries have achieved the success that Kavalan has in such a short period of time.
The first spirit rolled off Kavalan’s stills in 2006, and in just 12 years, the distillery has amassed numerous awards that include back-to-back wins of the prestigious “Trophy” award at the annual International Spirits Challenge. Its younger expressions now equal many well-aged Scotch and Japanese bottlings in both price and popularity.
“In the beginning, Kavalan’s awards were about giving us the confidence to continue, despite being told our venture was impossible,” says Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master distiller. “Now, they are targets to grow and better ourselves, and [to] keep showing it’s possible to produce one of the world’s finest whiskies in Taiwan.”
The magic lies in the Taiwanese climate and its impact on whisky maturation. The hot weather accelerates the aging process. One year of aging in Taiwan can equal four years of aging in a cooler climate like Scotland.
“Heat only accelerates the extraction of the wood, the coolness is needed for oxidation,” says Chang. “Our location in [northern] Yilan County is the first on the island to receive the bracing Siberian winds in winter, yet we also experience summer temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, creating one of the best places in the world for making whisky.”
Consistently high temperatures would throw the flavor balance off, so whisky production in areas with rapidly fluctuating temperatures requires additional monitoring and skillful maturation.
The main drawback of faster maturation is that the amount of whisky that evaporates from the cask, the so-called “angel’s share,” is much higher. However, that’s a price Kavalan is willing to pay to create complex, award-winning whiskies.
Whisky production in India’s hot, humid climate is another recent addition to the spirits world. The Indian market has had spirits labeled as “whisky” since the mid-1800s, but these were generally made from fermented molasses rather than grain.
But over the last couple of decades, India has emerged as one of the largest whisky-drinking nations in the world, and it’s given rise to production of authentic, high-quality bottlings. The powerhouses behind the surge are Amrut and Paul John, which both export their single-malt ranges worldwide.
Amrut—the name means “Elixir of Life” in Sanskrit—was founded in 1948 in Bangalore, where the climate is cooler and drier than Goa, home of Paul John. Amrut introduced India’s first line of single malt whiskies in 2004 in Glasgow, Scotland, shining a spotlight on the country as a producer of premium spirits.
With a distillery founded in 1996, Paul John brought their own entry to the single malt scene in 2008, and began bottling single casks soon thereafter.
Like in Taiwan, the hotter climate causes faster maturation. Yet, what truly sets apart Indian whiskies are their ingredients. Most whiskies around the world are made with two-row barley, but in India, the six-row variant is more common.
According to Michael D’Souza, Paul John’s master distiller, six-row barley contains higher protein and enzyme content. Starches turn into fermentable sugars quicker and more adjunct starches are converted, ultimately bringing out increased flavor and complexity.
In terms of flavor, six-row barley brings forth a spicier, more playful character. D’Souza believes that the extra “bite” found in Paul John’s bottlings may come from the higher tannins found in the barley.
In 2010, deep in the heart of the Alps, Italian whisky was born. Encased in a modern, cube-shaped building, the PUNI distillery utilizes alpine water along with locally grown rye and wheat to produce whisky. Rye, in particular, has been grown in the surrounding Trentino-Alto Adige region for centuries.
The distillery uses a unique heated water system in its production, says co-founder Jonas Ebensperger. Most distilleries use steam or direct flame to heat stills, which can be volatile and hard to gauge.
PUNI’s system, however, keeps the temperature constant and stable, he says, which allows distillation to run smoothly from start to finish.
In terms of aging, the climate in the valley fluctuates greatly from hot to cold throughout the year. These highs and lows help create very mellow and soft expressions when aged in their dunnage-style warehouse. The distillery also uses a refurbished WWII bunker as an underground warehouse. Kept humid and cool year-round, it allows their other casks to mature slowly and carefully.
In Swedish whisky, Mackmyra leads the way. Established in 1999, it stays local by sourcing most ingredients from within 70 miles of the distillery.
With a climate similar to Scotland, maturation is slow and steady. To combat this, Mackmyra utilizes special casks that hold about 26 gallons. Up to three times smaller than traditional casks, it allows more of the whisky to come into contact with the wood’s surface, which results in quicker maturation.
The wood imparts flavor to the whisky quickly, so it must be checked every few months. If not monitored correctly, the wood can overwhelm the spirit, throwing the entire batch off balance.
“They are like Formula One cars: very quick,” says Angela D’Orazio, Mackmyra’s master blender and chief nose officer. “If you don’t pay attention, they can go off-road and become too oaky. The cost is also higher, when only a small amount of whisky is being aged.”
While bigger distilleries use regular sized casks to cut costs, the craft whisky movement has seen many new, small distillers turn to smaller barrels in order to create new expressions and unusual finishes.
The use of Swedish oak in the barrels staves imparts less vanilla notes and more peppery spice. Local peat is also used in several expressions.
“The peat that we are using comes from a white moss peat bog (Karin-mossen) here in the region of Gästrikland,” says D’Orazio. “It does not have the aggressive salty tones from the Atlantic sea, yet it gives a great and profound peatiness.”
This imparts a unique smoky character, very different to that found in Scotland’s world-renowned Islay whiskies. Swedish juniper twigs are also added on top of the peat stacks.
Juniper makes up just 1 percent of the smoking material, which adds an extra, aromatic layer evident in the final expressions.