One of my goals with these commentaries is to explore whiskies that seem divergent in some way – be it across reviewers, across a flavour class, or across a distillery’s offerings and price range. The Kavalan Concertmaster – from Taiwanese distillery King Car – is an interesting single malt to examine for several of these reasons.
As a bit of background, Taiwan has generally a marine tropical climate (although mean temperatures will vary across its rather mountainous terrain). This means that relative to more temperate northerly climes (like Scotland and Ireland), whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel in Taiwan, thus requiring less aging time. A similar (and even more dramatic effect) can be observed with Amrut in India. As a result, you don’t typically see age statements on these tropical whiskies – it would be misleading, in relation to what we have come to expect from Scottish single malts of equivalent age.
Kavalan has adopted a distinctly musical theme for its labeling. The higher-end Soloist family will be the subject of a future commentary, but for right now I would like to discuss how the Concertmaster fits it with the rest of their more entry-level line-up of single malts. From the current Metacritic scores:
Kavalan Podium: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews
Kavalan King Car: 8.58 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.53 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.41 ± 0.53 on 12 reviews
With the standard caveat that you should treat whiskies with a low number of reviews as provisional until more results come in (i.e. Podium and King Car), the Concertmaster does seem to be getting the lowest overall rating. And note that despite the plain labeling of the third example above, all of these are actually single malts (i.e., all malt whisky, from a single distillery, using traditional copper pot stills).
There is definitely a wider-than-typical range of reviewer opinions on these whiskies. While most reviewers seem to consider the Single Malt and Concertmaster expressions to be about average (note that the mean whisky score is currently ~8.55 in my database), there are a couple of quite negative responses out there for both whiskies – and more so for the Concertmaster. This is interesting, as the Concertmaster has won Best in Class twice at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), along with a slew of Silver medals at other international competitions (and even a couple of Golds).
I am curious as to why there is a seeming discrepancy here, as I personally find the Concertmaster to be a quite decent whisky. I would rate it as a slightly above-average single malt, with the Kavalan Single Malt as slightly below. This is the reverse of most reviewers who have tried both (although the difference in absolute scores isn’t great).
There are several factors potentially at play here. For one, Port cask finishes generally seem to be less popular among reviewers than Sherry cask ones. Kavalan has quite a few Sherry-finished expressions among their higher-end lines, so the Concertmaster may be suffering in direct comparison.
Concertmaster is also unusual in that it uses a combination of three varieties of Port casks – Ruby Port, Tawny Port and Vintage Port – after its initial period of time spent in American Oak casks (hence the “concertmaster” title). When you consider the unusually high number of different casks – combined with the relatively short time needed in cask – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more batch-to-batch variability than typical for a single malt. While speculative, this could account for some of the variability seen between reviewers.
Of course, it’s also possible that not everyone likes the distinctive characteristics of this particular whisky. 😉 There is something quite distinctive about all of these Kavalan whiskies, compared to Scottish single malts. Indeed, this gets back to my other reason for choosing to profile this whisky – there seems to be a different meaning behind some of the words used by reviewers to describe it.
Here are my tasting notes for the Concertmaster:
Nose: Classic port-infused aromas spring up, like berries and dark fruits, plus rich dark chocolate. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits at all. Definitely plenty of honey here, and some vanilla (although it’s a bit lost beneath the sweet fruits). Great nose, Concertmaster is one of those whiskies that I can happily smell all night. 🙂
Palate: A direct repeat of the nose, in the same order. I get a lot of the “earthy” sweet grape flavours up front, like figs, dates, raisins, black currants – even stewed prunes. It’s like an alcohol-infused Ribena! A dry maltiness quickly appears, along with a heavy astringent effect – just as it does on the standard Single Malt edition. Personally, I find this works here, and makes a good contrast to the initial port-infused flavours. Mouth feel is pleasantly thick and slightly chewy (thanks more to the malt). Despite the port influence, It is definitely not overly sweet – indeed, if I have any complaint here it is that the winey fruit-forward flavours don’t linger longer on balance.
Finish: Moderate. Like with the Single Malt, the astringent effect remains prominent, and you are left with rather dry gums and tongue in the end – but with a well-balanced touch of stewed fruits left behind this time.
The astringency characteristic I describe above likely explains the apparent discrepancy you will note in some reviews: namely that Concertmaster is too “sweet” (especially on the palate and finish) and exceedingly “dry” (again on the palate and finish). Same goes for the complaint by some reviewers that it has an unusually high alcohol “burn” or “kick” (again, especially on the palate) – despite only being bottled at a low 40% ABV.
I think the explanation for both these apparent discrepancies is the same – the significant astringency in Kavalan whiskies, especially noticeable on the palate. This makes your tongue feel “dried out” very quickly after tasting. A similar effect occurs when you drink sodium-infused water, such as club soda (aka soda water). See my Chivas Regal 12 yo commentary for a discussion of when this can enhance a whisky’s flavour.
And so, “dry” – in the likely meaning of these reviewers – is not the opposite of “sweet”, but rather a commentary on how “drying” it is on the tongue. And what else is “drying” of the tongue? A high alcohol content. Basically, the Kavalans are producing a higher astringent effect than normal, but the issue is confused by our usual terminology for this effect (i.e., dry, burn, etc.). As an analogy, it is very hard to describe the subjective difference between physically “hot” food and spicy “hot” foods. Indeed, many of the same receptors on the tongue respond to these two signals, which is probably how we got the “hot” term to describe the effect of spicy food.
One thing most reviewers seem to agree on is the nose – most like it, detecting those classic rich Port-infused flavours I describe above. I don’t get as much of the so-called “tropical” notes (i.e., banana, pineapple, coconut, melon, etc.) that some reviewers report, although I do detect those on the tropical Amrut (especially tons of banana in that case).
I also agree with many that the palate doesn’t necessarily match up to the promise of the nose (as nothing new really presents itself). But I still find it quite acceptable and enjoyable for a Port finished whisky (although again, batches could vary). You do need to get used to the astringency effect, though, which may detract for some.
The finish is also quite acceptable in my view. I find it a bit longer than some reviewers. And while slightly sweet on the way out, I find it pleasantly so (i.e., not cloying).
Anyway, I suggest you make your own mind up about this whisky. Given the relative cost in North America and Europe, you are probably not likely to opt for this over a well established single malt (even if you can find it). But if you get the chance to sample it somewhere, I think its well worth the effort to seek it out for its distinctive properties.
I picked this Concermaster bottle up for $125 CAD at the LCBO, although I know it is no longer in stock. FYI, the standard Single Malt edition was $140 CAD at the LCBO, and I previously picked up a 50mL sample in Europe for about 10 Euros (~$15 CAD).
For different perspectives and reviews, you can can start by searching the Reddit Scotchit collective – most reviewers there seem to really like the Concertmaster. Alternatively, the Rumhowler has one of the most negative reviews I’ve seen of this whisky. The guys at QuebecWhisky.com all seem to take a more middle-of-the-road view.