Nowadays, with the popularity of whisky spreading rapidly across the globe, almost every development city host an annual whisky festival. In Japan whisky fairs take place every other month, bourbon fairs are spreading across the U.S. and in Europe a colourful variety of whisky festivals showcase new and old whiskies from the surrounding nations. Yet, with so many whisky fairs taking place each year it’s easy for them to grow repetitive. Sadly, very few manage to stand out as unique, exciting, and rewarding. This one whisky festival held in the centre of Asia has managed to stand out next to the top whisky events held across the globe.
Since 2017, down in the Southwest corner of Taiwan, the Whisky Fair Takao has welcomed whisky lovers from all over the world. When one thinks of Taiwan, the vibrant, bustling capital of Taipei is the first place that comes to mind. But organizer, importer, and whisky expert Michael Hsieh wanted to venture out of the main city and take his festival to a smaller, unknown part of Taiwan. Kaohsiung. When asked why he chose Kaohsiung, Hsieh replies:
‘In the past, all whisky events were held in Taipei so we wanted to balance out that situation by having a unique whisky event, with independent bottlings as the focus, in a smaller part of Taiwan. We want to encourage the pay-to-drink culture which is exactly the same spirit as the Limburg Whisky Festival. Besides, those who are willing to come to Kaohsiung by train, car, or even air, are considered truly hardcore whisky fans and are usually willing to pay to try rare and exclusive expressions.’
Hsieh has been in the whisky industry for a long time and now imports several whisky brands into Taiwan, including the Saentis Malt, The Whisky Agency, and the Single Malts of Scotland. He also hosts tastings and events, writes books on whisky, and plans one of Taiwan’s most exciting whisky festivals. If anyone has read Stefan Van Eycken’s amazing book on Japanese whisky titled ‘Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan’, Hsieh was the man who translated it for Chinese-speaking audiences.
The fair takes place on the 74th floor of the Sky Tower Hotel in Kaohsiung. Spread out across two floors, brand ambassadors, distillers, and distributors travel from all over the globe to attend the fair. But what makes this one so different from the others? The story starts at the famed Limburg Whisky Festival in Germany, known for its huge selection of rare and independent whiskies that attracts collectors and die-hard whisky fans each year. Hsieh attended the fair several years ago and immediately decided he wanted to host the same type of event in his homeland. The Limburg Festival organizers were happy to help out and show him the ropes, and in 2017 the Whisky Fair Takao came to be.
While nowadays many so-called ‘whisky’ festivals have come to be dominated by huge brands and corporations, the Whisky Fair Takao invites bars, small shops, importers, collectors and up-and-coming distilleries alongside the bigger brands. With this formula, the selection of rare, limited, and affordable whiskies is huge. Personally, I found countless single cask whiskies I’d never even seen before. In terms of single malt whisky consumption, Taiwan stands in the top 5 countries in the world and is the strongest market for many huge Scotch whisky brands like the Macallan, Glenlivet, and the Balvenie. This means that the country receives a huge annual allocation of casks, special bottlings, and Taiwan-exclusives, a fact that only adds to the greatness of Takao.
In fact, the Whisky Fair Takao 2018 which I was lucky enough to attend, had not one, not two, but over eight different special casks bottled exclusively for the fair. The 2019 edition takes place in December, and yet a Glenlivet single cask has already been bottled for the upcoming fair. According to Hsieh, the 2019 festival will be the busiest and most exciting yet. ‘We had around 1600 visitors in the first year, the visitors in the second year grew to 2000,’ Hsieh tells me. ‘This year we’re moving the Whisky Fair Takao to a new, bigger space as we expect the visitor count to grow to 2500, with more visitors coming in from overseas.’
Who’s making it to Taiwan in December?