It was a small group of us cradling, swirling and sipping their Paul John single malts in monogrammed Glencairn glasses. Guided by Michael John, the master distiller of the two variants — Brilliance (elegant, unpeated in the style of Highland malts) and Edited (a classic expression with a hint of peat) — each of us commented on the flavour profiles of the new single malts to join India’s burgeoning ranks of top-notch malt whiskies.
Ahead of the tasting, I had a quick chat with Michael. Growing up as a young hockey-playing athlete from Coorg, he took to distilling as a natural extension of watching his grandfather make wine at home. He’s now completed 23 years with John Distilleries. Quiet, but clearly knows his stuff. Surprisingly, I got none of the marketing jargon that usually accompanies such launches. Instead, I got barrel loads of facts and learnt a few things I hadn’t during tours around famous Scottish distilleries.
A single malt can be made anywhere in the world, he says, but must be the product of a single distillery, produced from one specific grain (generally, malted barley), double-distilled in copper pot stills and matured in oak barrels not less than three years. The Paul John single malts have all this, plus are matured for four to seven years minimum. There are five variants of which two have been launched abroad. Most have already begun picking up awards. The Edited was awarded 96.5/100 points by whisky critic, Jim Murray, beating many Scottish malt whiskies. Their Goa distillery was named the World Distillery of the Year 2014 and Asian Distillery of the Year 2014/15 by Wizards of Whisky. It piles responsibility on the distiller, I say. He agrees. “It’s 50 per cent science and 50 per cent art. We must stay consistent in quality and profile.”
Why isn’t age mentioned on the Indian bottles? “Age isn’t really a criterion,” he says. Scotland’s cool climate means their malts take 10-12 years to age and are bottled thereafter, hence the mention of age. “But in India’s warm climate, a year is equivalent to four in Scotland in terms of maturation so our seven-year-old whiskies are as mature as 30-year-old Scottish malts. But we lose out on the angel’s share (evaporation while maturing in the barrels).”
Michael knows this early success is just the start. “Indian whiskies are still perceived poorly,” he says of impressions gathered during his travels abroad. “In Australia, they were stunned that the malts I gave them to taste were Indian. Amrut’s success has made our path easier, but there’s a long way to go.”
What’s his preferred sip when he’s not sipping a Paul John? He thinks. “The Glengoyne Bourbon barrel or Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, perhaps.” Then smiles. “I was lucky recently to sample the latest World Whisky of the Year – the Yamazaki sherry cask 2013 (97.5/100). Everyone sees something different in the whiskies they enjoy. I see technique.”