Kavalan Bourbon Oak (46%, OB 2020)

I’m starting to believe that Kavalan is one of the most versatile distilleries out there. Its spirit seems to have chameleon-like tendencies and is equally at home in anything from traditional bourbon oak maturation to the most intense sherry and other fortified wine casks, to virgin oak. This particular bottle is the same kind of whisky that goes in the Solist single cask releases, married together from different casks and brought down to 46%.

The Solist releases are largely responsible for Kavalan’s success, with the Vinho Barrique named the best single malt in the world in 2015, and other awards following hot on its heels. Not bad for a distillery that first started operating in 2005. As a result, Kavalan is now an aspirational brand,* and prices – especially of all the Solists – have gone up. The Bourbon Oak used to be in the ¬£50-60 range not too long ago and it’s now creeping towards triple figures. I can only hope this success doesn’t see Kavalan go the way of Japanese whisky – i.e. become completely unaffordable to ordinary whisky drinkers who don’t have more money than sense. Hopefully their substantial production capacity and quick maturation will ensure there always is enough supply at least.

Speaking of quick maturation, I would be very interested to see a scientific study on the effects of high temperature and humidity in warehouses. The claim from Kavalan, as well as by other tropical distilleries like Goa’s Paul John, is that whisky can mature around three times faster in such conditions. Some people are understandably sceptical, but at the very least it is a fact that evaporation, as well as wood extraction, happens much faster than on Scottish soil. This particular Kavalan is around 4-5 years old, but it can certainly hold its own against older competition from Scotland.

*This is somewhat absurd given that the whisky that won was a single cask and thus, by nature, unique – but this hasn’t stopped subsequent Solist releases from fetching Macallan-like prices.

Nose: Fresh, sweet, tropical. There’s a lot of coconut, vanilla and spices (ginger, nutmeg) from the first fill bourbon casks. Normally I am not overly impressed by dominant wood but this is accompanied by an explosion of tropical fruit notes, especially with the addition of water. So we also get ripe banana, mango and guava. In this context the coconut from the cask influence fits very well.

Palate: Intense, but not cloying, sweetness. The tropical fruit burst through, with pineapple and banana followed by coconut in the development. Now, coconut and vanilla can often be bad news in whisky, but Kavalan’s spirit is clearly fine-tuned to withstand such intense oak influence and it does so with aplomb. This is the kind of whisky for which the term ‘fruit bomb’ was invented.

Finish: Lingering, sweet and spicy.

Comments: I don’t tend to have a sweet tooth in whisky, so why don’t I find this cloying? Because the sweetness is full of tropical fruit notes, as opposed to the more familiar caramel, vanilla and toffee kind of sweetness. The only spirits I’ve had with so many powerful tropical fruit notes have been rums from Barbados and Jamaica. This Kavalan also has the distinctive full-on sweetness you get from first-fill casks – all on coconut and vanilla, but the distillate can handle this treatment and the way it delivers the flavours is impressive. Now, as for the claims on quick maturation – I couldn’t tell you exactly what the equivalence is and it’s probably not possible (nor worthwhile) to provide a precise ratio, but I will say that even at this young age the whisky was bottled at just the right time given its maturity and oak influence.

Score: 85/100

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