Whisky Advocate

Taiwan whisky: better than Scotch whisky?

January 29th, 2010

That’s what one competition declared. It was published in the Times on Monday, and I’ve been meaning to post something up. Read the full article here.

It was a competition that took place in Edinburgh and included several three year old whiskies, including the new English whisky (from St. Georges), blended scotch, a Bruichladdich whisky, and a Taiwan whisky (Kavalan). There were a list of judges, headed by veteren whisky writer, Charles MacLean. The Taiwan whisky was the winner.

Read the article. Tell us what you think. Was it a fair competition? Was it a misleading competition? Should competitions like this even take place?

38 Responses to “Taiwan whisky: better than Scotch whisky?”

  1. I think it is a bit of misleading competition.

    Since temperatures in Taiwan are much higher year round the maturation process goes much faster. It is the same with Amrut from India. All Amruts that are available (as far as I know) are no older than 5 years.

    When maturation goes so fast it should be compared to 12 year old whiskies for example. But if the process, the raw materials and the cask are any good, it should taste better than an average three year old.

    In my opinion that is also why American whiskies are good at younger ages, compared to scotch ones who coming into adulthood after many more years.

    • JohnM says:

      Why on earth is it unfair because whisky matures faster in hot climates? Is it unfair on the Taiwanese whisky that the scots have more experience making whisky?

      All we can get from this tasting is that the Taiwan whisky is “better” than the ones in the tasting. Nothing more can be read into it. If they did the same tasting a number of times, you’d also get different results, I’d imagine. But scotch doesn’t always have to be the best, although many people always want it to be.

      • Mark says:

        Those are fair points, to a point. The fairness problem is, I think, that the whiskies, while all young, were not equal in terms of their youth. The Taiwanese whisky had a maturity advantage in the context of those whiskies. There is an equivocation on “young” because of the differences that climate makes to the progress of maturation. Number of years in cask is not a reliable indicator of youth/maturity across the Scottish and Taiwanese (or Indian) climates. So, the test was misleading; it had a manipulative design, as the “making mischief” phrase implied.

      • MrTH says:

        I wouldn’t say unfair; just not particularly meaningful.

        • Mark says:

          We are probably not far off. I think it’s not particularly meaningful for multiple reasons. But “tests” designed that way (with the equivocation and the otherwise questionable entries/options) are, I think, too misleading to be considered fair.

          • JohnM says:

            It is meaningful in the context that these whiskys were compared and people preferred one to the other. Other people might find different results.

            I am certain that if they tasted whiskys from 3 all the way up to 50 years old and IF the Taiwan whiskys were preferred consistently, many many people would never accept the results (“results” is a bit strong for something so subjective).

            I believe this because scotch whisky (and American) is not just about taste. It gives a lot of people a sense that they’re part of something that gives them added value – it gives them a sense that they are appreciating something that is sophisticated and intellectual, making them sophisticated an intellectual. It’s something that not everyone can appreciate, But that’s the same with wine, cheese, music, mobile phones, custard, fashon, jam…

            I could be wrong, of course.

  2. I already wrote about that strange tasting on my blog. Bottom line for me is that it was deliberately set up to make the Scotch look bad. Why else would they publish this on Burns Day? Note the term “mischief-making” in the original article.

  3. MrTH says:

    Yeah, a bit of a set-up…but I give the author credit for laying out the reasons a very young Taiwanese whisky would outperform very young Scotch. Not that there was anything remotely equivalent to compare–a blend, and X4? In the end, a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  4. bgulien says:

    It was set up to promote the UK whisky St. Georges. It backfired somewhat.
    Pity they didn’t think to put Kilchoman in the line-up. Or was it left out deliberately as a sure winner?

    • I had the exact same thought about the Kilchoman. I haven’t tasted the Kavalan (anyone got a spare sample?) and I surley don’t want to talk it down without knowing it. But I guess the Kilchoman – although I am not as enthusiastic about it as some others out there – would have had a decent chance to win this contest.

  5. John Hansell says:

    Yes, their selection of whiskies seems a bit unfair.

  6. JWC says:

    a set up. young scotch whiskies (and none of the best ones at that) going up against possibly the best that taiwan (with its faster maturation) has to offer. if they want to compare country x’s whiskies against country y’s whiskies, get the best from both and then have at it.

  7. JohnM says:

    And you can make good whisky just about anywhere. That’s a good thing, surely?

  8. bgulien says:

    See Serge’s Whiskyfun and he rates Kavalan as surprisingly good.
    So anybody knows where the tastings are held??
    Will the distributer wake up and use this PR windfall. Because this happens once in a lifetime.

  9. Alex says:

    A PR stunt that backfired for St. Georges and benefitted Kavalan – this was in no way a level playing field and the selection of whiskies was bizarre. The Bruichladdich X4 I hear is good but different -and not a typical flavor profile. I would have loved to see them take a bunch of 3-5 year olds from some of the bigger distillery names to taste blind and see how this panned out. This was just press release fodder.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      X4 is “hot” – gee what a surprise – It was meant to be young and highest proof scotch whisky every produced- How can you compare this Bruichladdich to the others in this group and keep a straight face?

      • bgulien says:

        BJ, rightly so. I don’t think Bruichladdich are going to suddenly change their course regarding the X4, because of this tasting.
        It’s comparing apples with stainless steel hubcaps. ;-)

  10. BFishback says:

    Far from “The judgment of Paris”. I would love for someone to recreate this with more correct choices.

  11. butephoto says:

    Funny stuff. Unfortunately I think the English whisky comes off worse in all of this rather than the Scotch which, as others have said, wasn’t particularly well represented.

  12. I understand the reasoning for the selection of whiskys based on their ages, but very odd to try and see if young Scotches, which are meant to age longer, against world whiskies that naturally age quicker and drink young. That would be like comparing an ageable, Grand Cru, French Bordeaux the year it was bottled to a cheaper, high alcohol, ready to drink California Cab and saying the the CA Cab is better. It just doesn’t make sense (apples and stainless steel hubcaps!). St. George is the loser in all of this.

  13. BFishback says:

    What do you know? Serge at whiskyfun has already created a new version of the testing :)

    http://www.whiskyfun.com/

  14. bgulien says:

    That Serge is always quick to put his funny boot in. Glen Wonka anybody!

  15. Paul M says:

    This proves, once again, that one can design a test to achieve the desired outcome.

    • Red_Arremer says:

      It does, Paul. And it also makes you wonder how you ought to regard the findings of tests that are not designed to achieve a desired outcome, but are still intended to to support undermine some position or other. The outcomes may be the result of unconsidered factors inherent in the test itself so while the testing people may be free of bias the outcome may still be biased.

  16. Red_Arremer says:

    On the theme of faster maturing whisky in Taiwan– Folks bring up the idea of factors that influence the “speed” of maturation a lot, cask size, temperature variation, type of wood, etc. Do you guys, any of you guys or girls, really buy into these notions? Obviously, particular types of wood/whisky interactions can be sped up by changing maturation conditions in particular ways but–

    Say there are two barrels of the same whisky and one is subject to some of the conditions that allegedly speed up maturation to the degree that it ought to mature twice as fast. If you bottle the “faster” whisky in ten years will it really taste the same as the “slower” whisky bottled in twenty?

    • Mark says:

      Red, I’m not sure what “the same as” means in the last sentence, but it seems like the answer to that question is likely to be ‘no.’ However, I’m not sure the question is totally to the point. I take it that “the same whisky” means the new spirit that goes into the casks. Suppose two casks of equal quality were filled with new Amrut spirit. One cask goes into storage in India and one into a warehouse in Speyside. Your implication seems to be that the “climate influences maturation” claim has substance only if the Indian whisky bottled at, say, 8 yrs would be basically the same as the Speyside bottled at 16. Why think the claim needs to be that strong and specific? Too many other factors come into play, don’t they?

      For my part, I understand the claim just in terms of how the Amrut folks explained it to me. First, the angels are very thirsty there; if they let their whisky age for 16 yrs, a hell of a lot of it would be gone. Now, that does not imply that *everything* happening inside those casks is the same as everything that happens inside casks in the Highlands over a longer period. The claim I’ve made is just that, whatever happens in those casks (in addition to significantly increased evaporation), gives them in 6 or 7 years whiskies that have flavor, complexity and viscosity “beyond their years.” They seem clearly to have gone beyond the heat of youth, and they’ve taken on surprising color and flavor. That doesn’t mean they are absolutely brilliant, or that their depth and complexity wouldn’t be improved upon by a longer period of time in a Speyside warehouse. It’s just a claim that, in 6 or 7 yrs, they take on qualities beyond what we would expect from the same number of years in, say, the Highlands.

      I’m not the expert you are, or quite a number of others here, but the basic empirical differences between 6-7 yrs in India (or Taiwan, apparently) and Scotland seem pretty clear. Something explains those differences. Ingredients are a bit different, but not so different as to carry the explanation. The better explanation seems to be what happens chemically inside the casks in that very different climate. If memory serves, that fits with the way the Amrut folks understand their process.

      But, hell, Red, I don’t know. I’m curious, as I’ve indicated before in talking about Amrut. I’m hoping that whisky chemists study the matter and develop a real understanding.

      I also hope what I just wrote is clear. It was a pretty late night. Respects, Mark.

      Please, if I’m missing something obvious, educate me.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        Thanks for the excellent response and no, I don’t think you missed anything. Everything you say makes sense. I just feel that the claim gets thrown out in a poorly qualified way– often in a way that’s intended to explain how “traditional” views on and methods of whisky (particularly scotch) production are unnecessarily rigid in their conception.There is a lot of dogma out there and newness (new whisky in this case) does tend to need iconoclasm to make it sexy. I understand all that, but I still feel the way “speed” of maturation gets bandied about gets bogussometimes. Great response though. I know mine’s not as good, but my girlfriends’ waiting to eat dinner with me ;)

        • Mark says:

          I agree with your point. I wouldn’t want my view to be fodder for, or the refuse of, industry BS. Also, there’s no question but that dinner with your girlfriend takes precedence!

          I suggest this as the desired scenario for resolution: We are having drams and are able to get a couple drams for whisky chemists, who then discuss their views on the matter with us. Then, they buy us drams for the sheer excellence of our questions. Then, the bartender gets us all a round for the fine education she’s received over the last hour. We all depart having reached recreational level by way of excellent drams, with great anecdotes if not totally secure answers…I’d be pleased.

          Maybe John would join us.

          • John Hansell says:

            Mark, count me in!

          • Red_Arremer says:

            Getting a drink for asking a good question and finally resolving your intellectual insecurities by reaching a “recreational level”– It kind of moves in the opposite direction of the love of knowledge– But I think I’ll be there just the same.

  17. This is my problem as a Whisk(e)y drinker … there is so much bias towards Scotch whisky that when something like this happens people find it very hard to accept and look for excuses. Excuses that have to be found after the fact.

    I have 2 points to make here … why do people assume that it was the best Taiwan had to offer … surely if the St George distillery set this up they would not look for the very best Taiwan has to offer. And if they did well they got what they deserved. But remember it was only a 2yo being measured against 3yo whiskies so people possibly had already tried to bias the Taiwan whisky.

    Secondly why do people suddenly say that the scotch malts used were not of highest quality or should instead of come from so called better distilleries(I would of thought people tought more highly of Bruchladdich). You can be sure if the X4 won Bruchladdich would be all over the press and don’t tell me a 4 distilled whisky did not have an advantage as if it was good whisky it would of be cited as such too. As a person that loves other whiskies not including scotch single malts I have heard more times than I care to remember that in general there is no such thing as a bad single malt scotch and other nonsensical catch all statements that by de-facto scotch is the pinnacle of whisky in the world or any scotch single malt is better than say an Irish blend.

    I love my scotch whisky and think rightly that it has the majority of the best whiskies in the world but not all. I love my Irish too and see some Irish blends far superior to some scotch single malts. Yet I feel I am objective enough to name and shame below par Irish Whiskey also. This is what I sometimes find lacking in the scotch whisky enthusiast especially when foreign factors are to play such as in this case. There is always seems to be an excuse. Amrut got the same treatment when it first came on the market. Some comments on Connemara when it originally came out was why are cooley jumping on the peated whisky band wagon or even offensive comments like why don’t the Irish stick to what they know … triple distilled.

    I find that people seem to automatically put up mental barriers to malt whiskies that are not Scotch. This attitude, to me, seems to cloud peoples objectivity.

    Serge’s comment of “this is surprisingly good” is a testament to that attitude. Sorry Serge but even you are not perfect ;-)

    I don’t know why people can’t be positively objective and more open about non scotch malts.

    And from another perspective … there is now a bit of a fashion of putting out a series of spirit in different ages and culminating in the magical 3yo whisky. Usually followed by PR fan fare and hoopla and rave reviews yet when an upstart from Taiwan comes out with a 2yo (speed matured) whisky it is seen as unfair. You can’t have it all ways … if you want to take it to extremes … no whisk(e)y is the same so why bother compare at all. …. sorry for the tirade and I don’t mean to offend but the blind loyalty towards Single Malt Scotch sometimes really annoys me.

    • bgulien says:

      Irish Whiskey Chaser, you are right in a lot of ways. I met people who are so anal, they insist on Scottish water (Highland Spring) to dilute their whisky.
      Those are the kind I wouldn’t want to be associated with.
      But sometimes you see a someting in the press or a blog, that surprises you.
      Not because of preconception, but just as a surprise. That’s only human.
      My reaction was, OK, where can I buy it. Just because I am curious, just like any whisk[e]y lover.
      I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a Turkish whisky, till I tasted it. Brrrr.
      So don’t blame people, like Serge, when they express surprise, because Taiwan is a new player in the field and you never know what it’ll be. Well now we know…. surprisingly good!

  18. Red_Arremer says:

    Your alienation is well grounded. Try not to feel guilty about it.

    On the subject of “the blind loyalty towards Single Malt Scotch,” there is that and it is becoming more visible and more emotionally charged– More alienating to folks like yourself. The origin of this is that things are getting tougher for people who like good scotch.

    See, if you like well matured, reasonably priced single malt these days you’re not getting it. As stocks of it drop and prices rise, what you are getting is a lot of PR hype about how it was never all it was cracked up to be and you really shouldn’t miss it. New young single malts are being offered along with a range of talk about why they’re just as good if not better than the traditional style. Meanwhile, the well reviewed traditional older scotch that you want is still coming out, and coming out with the traditional hype, which is of course that it’s better than the new young stuff— But its pricing steadily transcending your spending power.

    Then there’re are these new world whiskies, Amrut for example. The (true) line is that because of the climate that they’re matured in they get sufficient wood influence more rapidly and that people accustomed to purchasing stuff that’s spent longer in wood (scotch people mostly) shouldn’t balk at them.

    To the ears of the traditional whisky drinker, such explanations are indistinguishable from the PR hype which has accompanied the blitz of unwanted young whiskies that the industry is repopulating the traditional drinker’s viable price range with.

    So many who like well matured single malts feel that they have nowhere to go. They’re being boxed out by the industry and to add insult to injury everyone else in the world is busy agreeing that, yes, speedier maturation methods are really very good and you should really try this Indian whisky– But the traditional drinkers do not want a bunch of quarter-casked wood-finished scotch and they certainly don’t want young international whiskies that are allegedly acceptable on the similar grounds. Of course there’s a lot of pure dogma and stoginess to pro-scotch sentiments as well– but to a large extent, Irishwhiskychaser, the alienation that you feel is the result of other folks reaction to the alienation that they feel.

  19. Abinash says:

    1) If some article states that some whisky is better than some other whiskies, why should we care about that? I mean we who have our own opinions. Articles can be written with any bias. Of course they can be misleading for the great majority, but we cannot do anything with that. We can be sorry for the majority, but does it do any good? It’s just the way world goes around. Majority is almost always wrong compared to individual opinions of especially the ones that have deeper knowledge of the subject. And this holds true with any subject, not only whiskies.

    2) Is it really true that maturing whisky in certain conditions is faster and thus makes the same results as maturing it longer in not-so-good-conditions? As a comparison, isn’t is often better to prepare some food in lower temperature for a longer time than doing it the same in higher temperature in shorter time?

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