Paul John, an affable, mild-mannered lawyer-turned-first-generation-entrepreneur is no stranger to the world of spirits and wine in India. His company, John Distilleries, started out in his home state Kerala, is now recognised internationally with a portfolio including the seventh largest-selling whisky in the world – Original Choice. His wine brand, Big Banyan, has grown nicely under Italian wine making advisor Lucio Matricardi and his successful foray into hospitality boasts the luxe Kumarakom Lake Resort, favoured by celebrities like Prince Charles, and The Paul, a suite-only hotel in Bengaluru.
The father of two may eschew a high-flying lifestyle, celebrity-studded parties or page three appearances but nurtures a passion for flying that he developed when he lived in the US. “I loved taking to the skies whenever I wished to!” He qualified from flying school there, bought a single engine aircraft, traded it for a double engine and finally a Lear jet which he sold once he returned to India with his family, and put this passion on a back burner. “The flying infrastructure in India isn’t really conducive,” he explains.
However, his great love for travel manifests in intensive 10-day family holidays exploring Asia and Europe mainly. He loves the Bahamas. “My most memorable holidays were there when we lived in the US, flying to the islands in my aircraft.”
A yen for perfection
“I ventured into the hospitality business with boutique luxury hotels to do something meaningful at the premium end,” he says. Years of meticulous planning went into the Kumarakom Lake Resort, a high-end retreat created to showcase Kerala, to discerning travellers.
John started by buying abandoned old Kerala houses and painstakingly reconstructing them. The result – an eclectic array of old historically perfect individualistic cottages, landscaped to create an organic whole. “It took me over two years to find the land, with a team scouring the state for abandoned old homes. The restaurant itself was built by the Maharaja of Travancore as a gift to his martial arts teachers. It’s just as it was, not an extra nail has been added.”
The Scotch whisky vision
John has explored and enjoyed the world of single malt whiskies after tasting them in the US. “There I was exposed to a variety of wines and single malts and realised I could do more than make high volume-low margin spirits.” He figured it was just a matter of time before India could produce quality single malts, an idea initially pooh-poohed by many. A hangover from the days when Indians drank whisky, but rarely understood the value of a single malt. So 15 years ago, John began visiting Scotland. “I had to be positive the idea would work out. People would say malts could only be made with water from the Scottish streams. I soon realised we in India could do it too. So why not challenge the Scots’ supremacy and get into the European market?”
John picked Goa as the place to base his single malt distillery for several reasons. “Goa is already known internationally and I had an existing unit based there. Goa weather is also perfect – the high humidity during the monsoon escalates the maturation process tremendously. Our young single malts have the intensity of 18-21-year-old Scottish single malts. Also, at no time do we see freezing cold, as Scotland does. Yes, we lose up to 10 per cent to the angel’s share (evaporation), but we strictly follow maturing conditions followed by the Scots. Though caramel is an additive permitted by Indian law, our whisky’s extraction colour is rich enough to bottle as is. We have deliberately kept the strength to 46 per cent to avoid the need for chill-filtering which deprives the whisky of character.”
Playing catch up
John believes the Indian single malt drinking market is “25 years behind the West and 10 years before Indian drinkers realise 46 per cent alcohol whisky is meant to be drunk neat or with just a dash of water. Until such time, we must educate the consumers.” So the current focus is on exports to more ‘mature’ Western countries. “We have launched already in six European countries, Canada, Australia, and US is next.”
The reactions pouring in from whisky fairs and blind tastings to his malts have been gratifying, even shocking. “‘I can’t believe this is made in India!’ It has been so encouraging to meet single malt drinkers to understand their tastes. All the hard work and uncertainty is worth it when I see their expression at their first sip,” shares the connoisseur.
Of course, with the attention that Indian single malt whiskies are garnering internationally comes the obligation to deliver. “It’s not going to be easy. Huge responsibilities come with huge expectations.” But while Scotland will always remain Scotland, the home of whisky, other countries are quickly catching up. “It was just a matter of time,” he says when I ask him about the growing Asian reputation for quality single malts. “If you follow procedures, it can be done.”
John has already done early tastings of his single malts with discerning Indian whisky connoisseurs and the result has been pleasing. “But we have a double challenge ahead – how to promote the brand and how to teach the inexperienced to enjoy single malts. We are conducting tasting sessions with small gatherings, but the journey will be a long one.”
All in the detail
The whiskies are made with ‘6-row Indian barley’ rather than the more popular ‘2-row European barley’ which is maltier with a higher carbohydrate content. The 6-row barley contains more protein and enzyme and is grainier. “Our barley from the foothills of the Himalayas is equal to, if not better, than Scotland’s. We import our casks from the US — I oversaw this personally. The peat is from Scotland. The bottle and label design is close to my heart – I’ve put my name on it after all! And have overseen everything from distillery construction to packaging size, given every briefing. We also follow every specification the Scots do for their single malts. India’s malt whisky makers are individuals who are in it because of their own passion. That is, I believe, the major reason for our excellence so quickly in the field.”
Pics: Jithendra M