If there’s something that the British brought to India and we made it take more ours than theirs, it’s whiskies. Edinburg Whisky Academy claims India consumes more of the spirit than any other country, that too by a sizeable share, nearly one in two bottles is sold here. And Statista put our 2021 whisky market revenue at roughly USD16,557 million, despite the pandemic. However, in a dark-spirit dominant, price-sensitive, volume-driven market like ours, it has always been quantity over quality. It’s thus not surprising that the biggest global brands come out of India. The likes of McDowell’s No 1, Royal Stag, Imperial Blue, and Officer’s Choice have consistently been in the top ten most sold brands. However, tides are changing and premiumisation is the new new. Through craft production, see gin, rum, ready-to-serve cocktails, mixers, and from them the emerging mixology game, are upping itself. It’s changing the very definition of how our previous generations defined the drink and how we do it now. However, forget not, even before they did it, whiskies had already been upping its offerings. And amidst them, one that has already gained a legendary status not just with the denizens but amongst the world’s leading connoisseurs is Paul John Single Malt Whisky.
THE BIRTH OF PAUL JOHN WHISKIES
T John, father of the current chairman Paul John, owned a dozen liquor stores in Coorg in the 1980s. Naturally, talks about alcohol often featured at the dinner table and the family grew passionate about the liquid. This not only birthed John Distillers in 1992 that was to change the scenes in India, it earned T John such a regard that he was even commissioned as the excise minister in 1999 in the city. Their first release was Original Choice, however, they knew they had to elevate. In 2008 they started distilling what’s today Paul John Single Malt Whisky, under the tutelage of the uber-skilled Master Distiller Michael D’Souza in Goa, and released it in 2012 in the United Kingdom. It was a culmination of Indian six row barley, and for some variants, imported Scottish peat, distilled in traditional copper pots, and matured in charred American Oak casks. The phenomenon of tropical ageing that India enjoys, where a spirit ages at four times the speed of that in Scotland, filled the bottle with charm, wisdom, and complexity.
BEATING THE CHAMPIONS
Amrut Fusion had already set a precedent for Indian single malts with their international introduction. It was ranked the third best whisky in the world in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2010. The following year, it was celebrated as the World Whisky of the Year by two distinguished international awards, taking the regard for Indian whiskies to unprecedented heights. The Paul John Single Cask 161 Whisky at its 2012 release also caught Murray’s fancy, clutching the “Liquid Gold” award in his Whisky Bible. And from there it has continued. In an eight city blind tasting affair, Paul John’s Brilliance, Edited, and Bold went head to head with Balvenie 12, Clynelish 14 and Talisker 57 respectfully and it overthrew the venerable heavyweights, yet again, capturing the attention of the most discerning palates the world over.
REDEFINING INDIAN SINGLE MALT WHISKIES
With many first to their names Paul John Single Malt Whisky was finally released to the Indian palates in 2015, kindling a conversation waiting to take place for decades. You see, the likes of Peter Scot, Red Knight, and Solan had already announced themselves as Indian single malts. “Peter Scot was premium even back then and way ahead of its time. It was a 25% single malt blended in a grain spirit. Even when McDowell’s Single Malt hit the shelves, the liquid was too young to make sense of”, comments Michael D’Souza. So while they called it single malts, they were barely that, fitting only for a ‘malt spirit’ category. But then when has India had true definitions for these spirits? Michael agrees that the idea of single malt came up in conversations in India only when Amrut won the coveted titles abroad. John Distillers was buying about 50,000 litres of malt spirits every month from other distilleries. The lack of uniformity and quality miffed them enough to start their own production. Majority of the malt spirit was created in bulk with the idea of further blending them as a part, not a proposition by itself. Thus premiumisation was nearly impossible.
THE TRIO PRESENTS
With the launch of their trio of Brilliance, Edited, and Bold, they took Indian palates by a storm too. I adore their names and the stories behind them. They say they made an amazing distillate, which was brilliant by itself, and called it just that – Brilliance. The other was a peat bomb with an in-your-face smoky personality, hence called it Bold. Then they wanted a congenial one in the middle, which they crafted with a few tweaks here and there hence called, well, Edited. “We wanted to make whiskies for all palates. However the challenge was not just of consumer’s understanding them but also how they’ll enjoy them. We had a massive task of educating the consumers, about their appreciation, the right glassware, no half water half soda mixing, and justify the price tag”, Michael recalls. And I reckon they’ve done a commendable job at it.
PREMIUMISING INDIAN SINGLE MALTS
With the premium limited release offerings of the Zodiac Series with Kanya and Mithuna, and the further exclusive Mars Orbiter, Paul John had set foot into uncharted territory. No Indian whisky had claimed a price tag of nearly INR40,000 till date. But then who else would’ve done it if not Paul John? The reddish hued, plated, 325 bottles-only proposition of Mars Orbiter is a milestone in Indian whiskies, opening the floodgates for collectibles, experimentation, and experimental nectars. The Zodiac series and the much-awaited annual limited release Christmas Editions are an addition to that. “The global market trends are moving away from age statements to premium, cask finished whiskies. Special release whiskies are highly in demand in India, and in the future we may age them for upto 10 years. Even the Scots are coming out of their perceptions of 12-15-18-21-25 year olds”, Michael says. This is where their Single Cask range comes in, which I reckon is comfortably more consumer friendly, though at a premium from the flagship. Their Classic is ethereal, fruity, citrus, and brimming with youth, while the Peated is smoked only enough to convert and intronise someone into drinking whiskey with an accent. But the magic lies in their PX and Oloroso casks. I still kick myself for not picking up those bottles while at the distillery, but the further I stay from them the more my regard grows. Being a sommelier first, I examined PX and Oloroso more critically than the others. They are an absolute gastronomic delight and made for matured palates that understand the play of finishes. Chewy, savoury, tertiary, and intellectual, these whiskies aren’t for everyday and everyone. They need to be deciphered, peeling a layer at a time with the patience they deserve. If you see them, pick them up
WHATS IN THE FUTURE
“From earlier hesitance to even try Indian whisky to changing their perception and now Paul John Single Malt being their drink of choice, we’ve made a lot of efforts”, Michael says. And now they eye the future with further play. With exciting times for gins in India, and a revolution at its brink for Indian craft rums, Paul John is gearing up as well. The shiny Muller copper pot still sits atop the distiller which will be churning two experiential gins with a global personality, much like the whiskies. And then there’s the rustic earthy charismatic Agricole styled rum that’s silently ageing and getting dressed for its introduction.
THE FAIRYLAND IS NOW OPEN TO ALL
The fairy land of Paul John is no more a secret. Since 2018, they’ve opened their gates and cellars to the public to come see where the magic happens and be a part of it as well. It is a sheer joy for the senses and a must-do for anyone who even remotely claims to be a whisky lover, let alone a connoisseur. And when there, do test the Select Cask range, gift yourself a few vintages of the Christmas Edition and the Zodiac Collection. There’s always something new to try at Paul John and if you ask nicely you may get a few drams from their special casks too!! In the times where the nation is divided on numerous matters, we desperately need one that binds us together. And what’s better than our favourite brown spirit, and that too the finest single malt at it?
First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine, July 2022