When I was growing up, the Scottish whisky market was mainly available in two flavours - ex-bourbon cask or ex-sherry cask. But, over the last two decades, the industry as a whole has adopted a much wider palate of cask types to work from. Myriad predecessor liquids, levels of charring, customised barrel heads, and that’s before one has even considered the growing use of finishes. It’s all much more complicated than it used to be. Taiwan-based Kavalan have not had hundreds of years of history - they were only founded in 2005 – but they’re already trying to ride the wave of cask diversity with 19 different variants within their current range.
As I understand it, Kavalan’s Brandy Oak is a by-product of their Solist Brandy Cask bottlings. The Solist series are drawn from single casks, so as you can imagine, especially with the angels share being particularly high in Taiwan, the volume of whisky produced will rarely ever be perfectly divisible by either 70 or 75cl. The left-overs from these casks are therefore married together, reduced to 54% ABV and then bottled in handy 5cl samples.
Our 5cl comes courtesy of Jason Vaswani of YouTube whisky fame and is rather the science lab test tube, but you can also find Brandy Oak as well as a wide selection of Kavalan’s different cask types in 5cl miniature shaped like pot stills. They’re awfully cute.
Nose: Pronounced and really rather heady (boozy) in places. This starts with the aroma of actual brandy - strongly - did Kavalan actually fully empty these casks before refilling them? Highly spiced stewed apples, reduced sugar-coated plums and brown sugar are joined by some umami flavours – toast, sesame and a touch of soy. Spicing is very prominent indeed and mainly focussed on peppery notes, though there’s some salinity here too. The addition of water adds some orchard pears and peaches in to the mix, as well as shifting the spice selection to include some root ginger.
Taste: The arrival has quite a big impact. It might take you a moment or two to process everything. Very spicy indeed - black pepper and chilli pepper sit alongside a good grind of salt. Apples once more, but now joined by some tropical fruits - mangos and passionfruit. Less overtly brandy-led than on the nose, nevertheless, there’s still some reduced grape influence here. On the back palate, nuttiness and bitter, slightly astringent oak. A few drops of water (it can take quite a lot) softens the fruits, adding some juiciness, but not hugely reduce the spices which are still exceedingly punchy. Hints of ginger are added, along with steeped black tea.
Finish: Generally medium in length, but with bitter spices which occasionally extend for much longer.
Kavalan Brandy Oak is powerful, punchy stuff. Unlike some cask selections, the brandy comes through very strongly here (particularly on the nose). Whilst there is a mass of flavour, there’s not a ton of refinement - the high cask influence (remember that Kavalan’s tends to be around 7 years of age due to the rapid maturation produced by Taiwan’s high temperature and humidity) has given rise to a heap of spicing and astringency which, whilst certainly interesting is frankly a bit over the top for my taste. There’s only so much pepper one person can take. Nevertheless, this is worth trying and the 5cl bottle size lends itself perfectly to doing just that.