Turning up the heat
Posted 27 January 2020 by Matt / In King Car
Bottle Name: Kavalan 2011 7 year old Rum Cask TWE Exclusive
Distillery: King Car
Mash bills, fermentation regimes, terroir (though not after this weekend’s antics), filling strengths, wood types – there’s countless topics for enthusiasts to discuss and dissect. I’m therefore somewhat surprised that maturation temperatures just aren’t really a *thing*, and are rarely debated at least not with Scotch whisky. It’s usually mild or cold, its often quite wet, fill casks, lay them down, 2% angels share, apply some semblance of patience. Job done. And yet you don’t have to look far to see an industry unsure as to how to describe this fundamental process. On the one hand, some producers are keen to suggest that location and ambient conditions have no impact on their resulting spirit (particularly when all housed on the mainland), on the other, those same producers are quite happy to propose that location (particularly coastal ones) inherently shapes the profile of the spirit character. You really can’t have it both ways.
However you look at it, temperature is fundamental to all stages of the production process: mash and sparge water temp; fermentation temp; distillation temps (it’s not all just about the boil) and today’s topic – maturation temperature. I’m not one who believes in this concept of cask ‘breathing’ – this implies a continued blowing and sucking (in my opinion it’s virtually all blow and little suck – at least from outside the confines of the oak), but there is a natural expansion and contraction of the wood across the seasons and with variations in temperature.
But completely contrary to my suggestion above that there’s not enough talk of maturation temperatures, in the case of Kavalan, climate seems to be the *most* discussed and written about aspect of the distillery’s uniqueness. Part of this is due to the extreme conditions in Kavalan’s warehouses – over 40°C in the summer and coupled with high humidity. And part of this also stems from Kavalan’s Master Blender Ian Chang - who’s views on, and experiences with maturation are clearly shaped by the particularly hot and humid casks he has to work with. For Chang, rather than seeing maturation in strict age-terms, the process is thought of in transformative terms – from rough spirit to something smooth and with added complexity.
With temps and airborne water content as they are, variances, even within a warehouse are going to be large. I’ve heard stories of there being up to 15°C variance between the tops and bottoms of warehouses – ‘rapid ageing’ certainly, but, requiring some mindfulness. Larger casks (butts and pipes) will likely need to be stacked near the top (larger the volume, longer the maturation process), and smaller casks (barrels etc) closer to the cooler bottom. And some of it is going to need cooling. Until Scotland, you can’t just leave this stuff alone. Indeed, there’s never going to be 18, 20 or 25 year old Kavalan….or if there is, it’ll come with its own thimble.
But, there’s a sweetshop of possibilities with temperature variances like this. Whilst cask siting might seem logical – big at top, smaller at bottom, there are plenty of avenues for experimentation – simply moving the height of the cask and exposing it to greater/lesser temperatures. Given the distillery’s strong focus on single cask expressions through its Solist range (over 1,400 releases and counting), you could almost look at each bottling in terms of a mini-micro maturation project.
Today, yet more Whisky Exchange exclusive action in the form of a single rum cask matured Kavalan. Founded in 2005, the King Car owned operation has already forged quite a reputation for itself. The distillery has won several illustrious industry awards over the past decade including a batch of Vinho Barrique being named world’s best single malt in the 2015 World Whisky Awards – and the wider whisky population having zero understanding about what batch/single casks are and therefore losing their minds over every (now nearly 400!) Kavalan Solist dual wine cask bottlings in existence. This ignorance has likely helped the distillery expand its reach and visibility, but has not helped the average enthusiast with pricing – much of the Solist range is stiffly valued in terms of RRPs.
This TWE exclusive rum cask (M111104011A in case you were wondering) was laid down in April of 2011 and left to mature in one of the distillery’s exceptionally hot and humid warehouses for 7 years before bottling at 57.1% ABV back in August of last year. It’s finally found its way over to the UK and is now available directly from the Whisky Exchange for £175. The distillery is quite the prolific bottler and operates a very varied wood policy. As such, despite there being over two dozen rum cask releases to date (a combination of single casks and distillery exclusives), the wood type is current one of Kavalan’s rarer forms.
Nose: Aromatic oak (cedar and sandalwood) is joined by a selection of sweet, tropical treats – reduced pineapple syrup, guava, mango juice, spiced apricot jam and white jelly babies. In the background – golden syrup and an interesting sense of almost creaminess from iced buns and vanilla cupcakes. Dilution, broadens things out with Milky Bar white chocolate, pralines, sour dough and a touch of flat cola.
Taste: The arrival is powerful stuff – no messing around here. Intense fruits – pineapple cubes, mango slices, candied lemons and a spiced compote of pear and melon. Sweet confectionary - fruit pastilles, lozenges and liquorice. And bakery – choux buns, rolled pastry and cinnamon swirls. Finally, a touch of table polish and wood lacquer. Water reveals lemon cream fondants and vanilla buns alongside damp soils, venerable wood (certainly seeming much older than 7) and a pang of cutting minerality.
Finish: Long with fading estery fruits, cinnamon and white pepper.
This TWE exclusive rum cask is quite delightful. And quite expensive. Two things which I’ve found go hand-in-hand when it comes to Kavalan. It’s as if you’re paying for the equivalency age (and remember these whiskies do seem to peak at around 8 years) rather than the actual number on the bottle. Nevertheless there’s some great expressive fruitiness here and yet another demonstration of the type of profile it’s possible to achieve with high temps and humidities. There’s a little aggressiveness on the arrival at its full 57.1% ABV – but with that much alcohol in the bottle there’s plenty of scope for dilution to find your own balancing point. Highly pleasurable.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange
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