The sun, the sand & a single malt called Paul John 30/05/2016 in Expert House

Sun kissed sands, miles of blue coastline, crabs and cocktail coolers, who would’ve ever thought that in this paradise of beach raves and chilled beer, a single malt would be another reason for Goa to be in the world’s best list! Well it did and Goa, we at India, have a medal to flaunt – Paul John.

From its race against time in the sultry humid Indian weather, its shot to dizzying heights to doubling its capacity and opening doors to a state of the art visitor centre and tasting room, Paul John’s Master Distiller, Michael John D’Souza spins the bottle on how and why this single malt has turned into a must have for bar conversation & drink.

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What is the saga of Paul John – Well, our story begins in Goa, in 2006, right after we took the decision to enter the premium end of the market with single malt. John Distilleries (based out of Bengaluru) has been into blended malts since 1992, but it was time to try out the single malt, and give the world a taste of India. Although by 2009 we had established the first distillation process, for a whisky to be called whisky in the true spirit, it has be matured for a minimum of three years in wooden barrels. So we waited for four years before we could come out with our single malt cask in the summer of 2012 in UK. First came the 100 per cent un-peated Brilliance, then the partially peated version called, Edited, followed by Select Casks and the last was Bold which is 100% peated whisky bottled at 46%. In fact, all our flagships are bottled at 46%.

And the award goes to – That was a shock, really. We were not expecting instant recognition or appreciation from people, especially from Jim Murray! The man whose Whisky Bible makes or breaks a brand gave us a 96.5 out of 100 for Paul John Edited expression, it was invaluable. Bagging more than 20 awards like the World Distiller of the year 2014, Asian Distiller of the Year 2015 and the Wizards of Whisky Gold Award 2015 were not only humbling experiences, but a shot in the arm too, one that gave us the confidence and assurance that the world was recognising Indian brands. 

The Globetrotting malt – To be exact, 14 European nations – starting with UK, followed by New Zealand, Australia, couple of Asian markets including Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. For the second half, we have dispatched goods for United States of America for a prospective launch in September this year. If you ask us our vision for the next five years, it is getting aggressive with exports – 11 states in the US, more Asian markets like Korea and Japan by the end of the year. 

Percentage Split – Between domestic and international export, India is less than two per cent at the moment. Our presence in India is in Goa and Bangalore while rest all is exported.

Stock Taking – Here’s a little fact – we have distilled 40 million litres over last seven years and it is time to double the numbers. Today, we distill 3000 litres everyday, 70,000 litres a month. At the moment we have 1.5 million litres of whiskies under maturation. In six months we will be adding another set of pot stills, doubling our capacity to 6000 litres a day.

Sizing up the cask – Whisky making is a fine balance of art and science, and when it comes to the cask, it is directly dependent on climate. Thanks to the warm climate of India – the moist air and salty sea of Goa in our case, the interaction with wood is very high, and hence, the maturation period very rapid. Where the Scots fill a cask and leave it for 12 years to mature, we have only months to watch – it’s a race against time. There is more extraction of barrel compounds during the course of maturation. So, for PJ, we found the American oak cask most suited, as it is conducive to the Indian climatic conditions. 99% of our whiskies are matured in bourbon barrels, lending it a fine elegant nature. You see, climate plays a huge role, and each and every environment will present a different profile.

Where’s the Warehouse – Glad you asked, because there is no brick house or dunnage one walks into. This is a well thought out deliberate design keeping in mind the climate. So, we have below the ground level and above. The underground cellar is darker, humid and offers a better climate and hence gives a more elegant whisky. Yes, we lose 8% per annum to angel’s share, but with a different water to alcohol ratio. Compared to it, the upper warehouse, which is in direct contact with the environment, is hotter and hence produces a whisky that is more robust. So, we have two diverse whiskies at two levels to play around with, and when I say play, I mean borrowing different characters from both the warehouses and blending. So fast is the maturation process that every six months I get a different whisky, and I have to sample 30 to 50 barrels a day to keep checking the taste. We lose a lot to climate, and that, amongst many other things, is a challenge.

Notes on the Indian Single malt market – The inherent challenge with an Indian market and people is the brand consciousness. Unfortunately, we drink the brand and not the whisky. Consumers should belong to the occasion, not the brands. While our fixation on brands is huge, our knowledge or understanding of the product is evolving. Ask and not many would know the difference between a single malt and blended. Hence it makes the Indian market very tricky and difficult to convince or reach, especially to buy an Indian brand. The irony is that India is one of the largest whisky producing and consuming countries, but when it comes to knowledge, appreciation of whisky, the awareness about single and blended malts, we still have few miles to go.

So, easier to sell an indigenous brand outside of India – That’s another tough cookie because Europeans and Americans don’t have a very good perception about Indian whiskies. They are still hesitant to accept or believe that Indians can produce something that is world class and in a premium segment. Thankfully Amrut made the job easier and changed this perception. To gauge market mindset, I’ve travelled extensively, find ways to better ourselves, develop and mature the finest and deliver it to a global market that is now ready to experiment. If we are evolving, so is the world. Today, the Europeans, although young, are mature and aware – they know the product and the concept, and are, to our advantage, constantly looking for change.

Does it boils down to the education of the consumer – Yes, most certainly. Like I said, it is still a prestige thing for us  – we are so overpowered by brands that we fail to understand the whisky – how it’s made, it’s characteristics, it’s story. It is also important at the same time to get under the skin of people, to get a hang of their thoughts, likes, dislikes etc. It is invigorating and enlightening to be asked questions, to explain, to share for it adds value to our product. Only when you develop a palate, increase your knowledge and appreciate what you drink will your repertoire and value for whisky grow. Who says it is easy? There is a long way to go for less than two percent consume single malts! So, we hold training modules, workshops, interactions, technical and tasting sessions with people, F&B staff, etc. It’s my third year, and it is exhaustive yet engrossing with the vantage of a learning curve.

Any favourites from the PJ portfolio – We have five expressions excluding the single cask; five different fillings of five different age. Personally, I enjoy cask filled whisky, and am not a huge fan of peated malts.

In the pipeline – We started with IMFL in 1999, with wines in 2006 and single malts in 2009. It is after all just the beginning. Also, all these years we had been focusing on whisky making. Next year on, we are looking at doubling our capacity, full fledged whisky tours and visitor focused tasting rooms. This is the next big project. 

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One of our favourites was Paul John Peated Select Cask (55.5%)

This beauty gently astonishes the seriously indulgent. The smoke slowly blows forward and cushions layers of stark sweetness, demerara, hints of spice, dominican style cocoa with muscovado peeping in. Experience Goa swirling gently on your palate with every swig !