Wine aficionados have long debated hot climate versus cold climate wines. And this same dispute is emerging in the whisky world as distilleries from warmer zones like Australia, India, Taiwan and South Africa continue to rack up awards, challenging the old guard of the whisky world. Most of these new producers are mirroring Scotland, with a focus on malted barley as a primary grain. But bottles made in warmer weather take on specific terroir that yields unique flavors. Hot climate whiskies, often aged in previously used oak—as is true for scotch—display richer oaky notes (caramel, vanilla, spicy), but are not as flavor-forward as bourbons, which rest in new oak.
During barrel maturation, whisky reacts to its environment, and it's this environment that shapes the spirit's final flavor.
During barrel maturation, whisky reacts to its environment, and it's this environment that shapes the spirit's final flavor. As the whisky rests in oak casks, it absorbs flavors from the wood. Meanwhile, carbon filtration from the charred inside of the barrel, along with oxidation reactions, remove undesirable notes such as sulphur. And all of the aforementioned are affected by temperature.
High school chemistry taught that higher temperatures produced quicker chemical reactions. Apply this to whisky. At low temperatures (still above freezing), many of the chemical processes that normally occur are stopped dead. Hot climates accelerate whisky’s aging process and the angel’s share (the term for when alcohol evaporates from the barrels). In Scotland, whisky evaporates at a one to two percent rate each year. In India, the evaporation rate is over 10 percent.
Evaporation is also affected by the air's relative humidity. As an example, in low humidity, more water than alcohol evaporates, increasing a barrel's alcohol content, while the opposite is true in humid conditions. In addition to impacting a whisky's flavor, these environmental factors are also challenges whisky makers face daily.
Palates are changing. The desire for deep, flavorful whisky is leading the charge toward hot climate-produced bottles. In many ways, these whiskies are a compromise between oak-heavy bourbons that are popular today and single malt scotch. Below, four hot climates yielding complex whiskies big on flavor and brands to consider.
One of the first hot-climate whiskies to gain international recognition was Amrut Fusion ($60). Produced in Bangalore, India, Amrut ages their whisky in hot and humid conditions (coldest month is 70 degrees). Here, whisky evaporates at a rate five times higher than it would if it were produced in Scotland. That means a whisky barrel aged for only three years has similar evaporation losses as one aged in Scotland for 15 years. Along with the evaporation, all other chemical processes that give whisky flavor are drastically accelerated. Amrut Fusion might not have an age statement on the bottle, but it tastes every bit as oaky and flavorful as a much older single malt scotch.
Amrut Fusion might not have an age statement on the bottle, but it tastes every bit as oaky and flavorful as a much older single malt scotch.
Hot climate whiskies allow for extra play during the whisky development process. For example, Amrut Portanova ($125) is made by moving the whisky between previously used bourbon barrels and brand new oak barrels— each imparting unique flavors—until the distiller reaches the desired woody, spicy and sweet profile. It’s a fantastic whisky with richness and depth that couldn't be produced in a colder climate since the maturation process would be far slower.
Whisky connoisseurs have been fans of Japanese whisky for years before it hit the mainstream. And while enthusiasts are familiar with Taiwanese whiskey, average consumers are generally not. Taiwan's Kavalan distillery produces the complex and well-balanced Kavalan line of single malts (approximately $100) that haven recently been winning awards. Like Amrut, Kavalan’s products are made of 100 percent malted barley and aged for a few years in a combination of new and used European and American oak.
Tasmania island in Australia is home to another hot climate superstar—Sullivans Cove Whisky. The temperatures on the island are similar to temperatures in Kentucky, but the humidity is higher, meaning less water evaporates, thus keeping the alcohol content high. Also, the whiskies here are commonly aged longer. This uncommon recipe of climate and aging results in head-turning, richly-flavored spirits. Sullivans Cove French Oak, which is aged for 10 years, won the 2014 World of Whisky Award for the best single malt whisky. Only 516 bottles of the prize-winning whisky were produced in the first batch, and those quickly disappeared. The second round will be on sale soon for hundreds of dollars. Tasmania has the largest concentration of distilleries in Australia, and the only factor keeping these whiskies away from consumers is the limited supply.
Not all other-world whiskies are expensive. While most popular hot climate whiskies are distilled from 100 percent malted barley, a South African producer makes the affordable Three Ships, a blend of local grains and smoky malted barley from Scotland. It’s intended to compete with the well-known blended scotch maker Johnnie Walker Black but at two-thirds the price. Three Ships, which is aged five years, is an excellent introduction to anyone’s whisky cabinet, especially when looking for more affordable blended options. Considering its only $30, this is a terrific whisky that’s lightly smoky with an appealing balance of spice and caramel.