If it were easy to make good whisky anywhere, it would be made everywhere. And if it were easy to make good single-malt whisky in four years, everyone would do it. But Kavalan makes some very well-respected juice in four years in the mostly-hot country of Taiwan.
On my trip to the Kavalan whisky distillery that you can read out here and here, I spent a lot of time asking questions about what the differences in production are between Kavalan and scotch whisky, and other places where they had to compensate for their unique aging environment. Here are a few observations:
They know that that they'll only be aging their whisky for 4-7 years, most of it closer to 4. They also know that their climate is hot and humid, though there can be a temperature range during the year that will suck the whisky into and out of the barrels causing interaction. They also know there will be a significant evaporation rate (angels' share) so that's another reason not to leave it aging too long.
In short, they don't have much time to get it right. There is no "fix it in the barrel" mentality, as too long in the barrel will taste just as bad as too little time in the barrel. They've basically got one shot to get it right so they go into it with cautious perfectionism.
- American oak barrels give less tannin absorption than do French oak. So their ex-sherry, port, etc. barrels must be made from American oak.
- Like other top whisky producers, they fly over to Spain and Portugal to personally source the best barrels.
- Yeast - They use an alcohol-producing yeast and a flavor-producing yeast. I am not sure if this has to do with climate at all, or is just a unique method. See fermentation below.
- Fermentation is temperature-controlled to ensure consistency in batches. It is a long fermentation using 2 different yeasts and an additionally long period for lactic fermentation. This contributes to the signature fruity flavor profile Kavalan is after. I am guessing that given the short amount of aging time, they want the fruit notes to be most forward and the grain notes (signaling too-young whisky) less prominent.
- Heads and tails cuts are different: A tight heart cut (so less heads and tails overall), but a little bit more of the heads and way less of the tails. Most whiskies that will sit in barrels a long time include a fair portion of the tails, as they break down/interact with the wood/oxygen over time and turn into good stuff. At Kavalan they don't have that much time.
- Larger barrels (ex-port and sherry) are stored mostly on the hotter top floor of the aging warehouse. Larger barrels take longer to age the whisky inside them, as there is less wood-to-liquid ratio of smaller bourbon barrels.
- Cautious Rechar. They do rechar barrels but the whisky aged in them is used for the base-level single-malt and the 46% version of that, not for any of the (so much better) Solist bottlings. Which helps explain why I like the single-cask bourbon barrel bottling so much better than those other two.
- The sherry barrels come off a real solera after 20 years or so, then they are seasoned with 20 years old oloroso before Kavalan gets them.
- Kavalan is a small part of a huge company, so they have budget advantages that they have certainly used.
- I have sipped so many failed experiments over the years, many from otherwise quality distillers. I hate it when otherwise-quality producers put their failed experiments into bottles and try to pass them off to consumers. At Kavalan they purchased I believe 8 hybrid pot-column stills when they first built the distillery, which that they stopped using after they found that they didn't produce good whisky. (Don't worry, I think they have found another use for them that we'll hear about later.) That was an expensive decision; clearly one of many.
- They hired whisky doctor Jim Swan, who is certainly not cheap, to get things running and continually checking in. He was there during my visit distilling a peated malt.
- They throw away (or rather, recycle into the next batch) a lot of heads and tails.
- The shave-toast-rechar process used on the Vinho Barrique barrels is also quite precious and must be super expensive, as they have to rebuild all those barrels in the process. I don't know too much about this process but have heard it is done in the wine industry (probably minus the recharring).
- Computers control washing, fermentation, and distillation.
- They test everything along the way.
So, I'm sure that's not quite everything they do at Kavalan to make good whisky quickly in a hot climate, but it's a lot of it. So you might not want to run right out and set up your distillery in Sumatra just yet.