Kavalan is an internationally-renowned whisky distillery operating in Taiwan. It makes a number of relatively entry-level single malts (like Kavalan Single Malt and the Concertmaster reviewed previously). But they also produce higher-end single cask whiskies under the Solist label. For this review, I have a bottle of the popular Solist Sherry Cask, which I brought back from my travels there last year.
Identifying Kavalan expressions can be tricky. In addition to the Solist Sherry Cask, there is the separate Solist Fino Sherry Cask available, plus the Solist Vihno Barrique and Solist Ex-Bourbon. Note that if you are in the United States, Kavalan doesn’t use the “Solist” brand name (likely for a trademark issue). The whiskies there simply drop that word from the labels, which otherwise looks identical to Solist labels every where else (the front label on my bottle shown above). As you can see, these labels provide a lot of information on the specific cask and bottling: my bottle is from cask S090123071 (58.6% ABV), and is bottle 434 of 514 (I will come back to this point in a minute).
FYI, If you have traveled in Asia, you may also have noticed the Kavalan “Sherry Oak” expression, sold at 46% ABV with a plan label not identifying a specific cask or bottle. While generally believed to be diluted versions of the Solist Sherry Cask, I have also seen at least miniature bottles of “Sherry Oak Cask Strength” (58% ABV) that again do not identify a specific cask. So, it thus seems like Kavalan produces distinct single cask sherry-aged expressions under the “Solist” brand (word dropped in the US), and a more general “Sherry Oak” expression sold at both regular and cask strength in Asia. I have a sample on hand of the regular-strength Sherry Oak that I plan to review shortly.
As previously mentioned in my other reviews, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate – which means that their whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel compared to more temperate northerly climes like Scotland and Ireland. As such, don’t expect to see age statements here – they are all quite young whiskies, and tend to be heavily influenced by the types of casks they were matured in. Since production only began in 2006, all of their whiskies are currently younger than 10 years old.
Actually, you can pin it down a lot more specifically with these single cask expressions: the specific cask numbers define the type of whisky and its distillation date. For the S090123071 cask here, S for Sherry, 09 is distilling year (2009), 01 is January, 23 is the 23rd of the month, and 071 is the 71st barrel of that day. On the back is a sticker with the specific bottling date and hour (in this case, 2015.08.17 13:34). That means this cask was bottled at about six and a half years of age.
It’s great that they provide this much info, but don’t get hung up on trying to compare this to a standard Scottish single malt – the effect of accelerated aging in the tropics is immense.
Here are how some of the major Kavalan expressions compare in my database, to some other well known cask-strength “sherry bombs”.
Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.00 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 19yo Single Cask (all vintages): 8.97 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 20yo Single Cask (all vintages): 9.05 ± 0.45 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (all batches): 9.04 ± 0.17 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.77 ± 0.38 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.22 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.98 ± 0.39 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak (46% ABV): 9.09 ± 0.47 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.39 ± 0.48 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.80 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Interestingly, the Solist Sherry Cask is currently the highest-ranked Kavalan expression in my database (although many who have tried both typically prefer the Fino Sherry Cask).
While the LCBO used to carry the regular Kavalan Single Malt and Concertmaster, there are no whiskies from this distiller currently listed on the online site. However, I have recently seen bottles of the Solist Sherry Cask at one of the downtown Toronto flagship locations (Queens Quay) for ~$350 CAN.
I don’t normally comment on whisky colour (since it can be artificially manipulated), but I have to note that my Solist Sherry Cask has the darkest colour I’ve even seen in a whisky – it looks like dark mahogany wood!
Here is what I find in the glass:
Nose: Sweet rich flavours, showing the sherry cask selection. I get raisins and cocoa powder mainly, with additional marzipan, nuts and black licorice (i.e., anice spice). Not as overtly fruity as some sherry bombs, you do get a variety of dark fruits below the surface. There are some vegetal notes here too, evoking the tropical environment (i.e, a humid jungle, for those who have been in one). Very complex. Surprisingly for a cask-strength whisky, there is not much alcohol burn here (i.e., little nose tingle). Water lightens the nose, and doesn’t seem to bring out anything new – I recommend nosing it neat.
Palate: Thick and creamy, with an almost resinous quality. The fruits show up now, with cherry, raisins, plums and papaya. The cocoa on the nose turns to rich dark chocolate, and the spices turn to sweet cinnamon. Some pancake syrup. There is a moist earthy quality that adds character. I also get something that brings to mind tree bark, in a good way (not that I can ever recall actually trying it!). A bit of tongue tingle, but still surprisingly easy to drink neat (more so than other sherry bombs I’ve tried). Very complex, even by sherry bomb standards. With a bit of water, it becomes even sweeter up front, with more cherry/raspberry – and a new milk chocolate pudding texture and taste. If you keep adding more water though, it eventually loses complexity.
Finish: Long. The sweetness continues for a good long while, and there is no hint of the bitterness that often accompanies sherry bombs on the way out. Water doesn’t change much here, for good or ill. You’ll be enjoying the after-glow of this whisky long after you’ve finished the glass. 😉
I typically prefer some water in my cask-strength sherry bombs, but this is one where I don’t think it is necessary. If you do choose to water it down, I recommend no more than a few drops. But since there is bound to be variability between individual casks, you will want to experiment to see what works best for you and your bottle.
I think I’ve lucked out here – this particular cask is one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tried. It is certainly my new favourite sherry bomb.
While every cask is different, here are some reviews that I think capture the gamut well. The boys at Quebec Whisky all give their single cask among their highest personal scores. Oliver of Dramming really liked his sample, as did Ruben of Whisky Notes for his two samples (here and here). My Annoying Opinions has had some variable experiences (i.e., very positive here and here, less-so more recently here). Thomas of Whisky Saga gave his one sample a middle-of-the-road score. Serge of Whisky Fun has reported on six separate bottlings of Solist Sherry Cask to date, with diverse scores ranging from his 7th percentile right up to his 98th (!), with most doing fairly well.