Only two Indian brands feature in the Drinks International magazine’s annual survey of the alcohol brands that patrons of the Top 100 bars across the world consumed and talked about in 2020. While Amrut featured in the list of Top 10 bestselling World Whiskies, Amrut and Paul John made it to the Top 10 Trending World Whisky brands. Those on the trending list usually go on rank in the bestseller list next year.
Drinks International is among the world’s most respected alcohol-related magazines. Being a part of a prestigious list like this one is a brilliant achievement for the two Indian brands. While Amrut’s parent company, Amrut Distilleries, had been in the liquor manufacturing business for more than five decades before they launched their single malt, for Paul John founder Paul P John, it was a stunning vindication of the bet he made in the 1990s as a first-generation alcobev manufacturer to move away from making biscuits and setting up a distillery.
Paul is still only 55. His company, John Distilleries, is also one of few Indian alcohol manufacturers that has attracted foreign investment in recent times. The investor, Sazerac Inc., is a leading North American alcoholic beverage group. It now features Paul John as one of the prestigious names in their bouquet of international brands on their website, alongside American bourbons like Buffalo Trace, Pappy Van Winkle and Benchmark, Sazerac Rye, Irish whiskey Michael Collins, and other whiskies like Southern Comfort, Seagram’s Canadian, and Fireball.
Paul’s international success is in marked contrast to what has been happening in the mid-rung of Indian alcobev companies. They have been mostly content with staying at the low end of the product spectrum, not willing to take the risk to enter the premium categories, although this has also changed of late. The high-ground has been left free to MNCs. They not only dazzled customers with their range of international brands, but have also built local brands from the ground up, challenging the dominance of Indian companies, particularly amongst mid-priced Indian whiskies.
In that sense, companies like John Distilleries and Amrut Distilleries have stood out because they also chose to create products in the top end of the alcobev market. And knowing that it would be a big task building a market in India, they decided to first make a name for themselves in the international market, and then use that success to tap the local market. Considering how demanding global consumers are about their single malts, it is remarkable that both companies were able to achieve critical acclaim for their products in such a short time.
Paul’s connection with alcohol started relatively young. His family was based in Bengaluru, and his father ran a chain of liquor stores and was also involved in the distribution of alcohol. Though he was trained to be a lawyer, the entrepreneurship bug bit him quite early. His first foray into a biscuit-making enterprise, luckily for whisky consumers in India, did not take off. That is when he decided to get into manufacturing alcohol.
His focus on the blend quality of his whiskies ensured early success. By 2005, John Distilleries was selling upwards of four million cases of whisky annually. One of its brands, Original Choice, was among the top-selling whiskies globally in terms of volume. The company now has eight manufacturing units in seven states across the country, employing more than a thousand people.
Paul’s tryst with single malt whisky began in Florida, where he had shifted at one point in the mid-2000s. Satiated with his success at the bottom end of the market, he had a leap of imagination. Why not get into manufacturing single malts in India? “I had always enjoyed single malts,” he says. He had also seen the critical acclaim showered on Amrut single malt in England and Scotland, where it had been launched at that time.
Amrut was then led by Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, who had turned his passion for single malt into commercial and critical success. Paul is fulsome in his praise for Jagdale, and about the debt he owes him for opening the door to international success. He remembers him as a passionate and caring individual who did a remarkable job in taking Indian single malts to the world stage, and getting the recognition it required from the world. “He has to be credited completely for having paved the way for Indian single malts to be recognized worldwide,” Paul says.
Launching a single malt brand at the time they did was a prescient move by Jagdale and Paul. It was when the Indian consumer was moving up the alcohol value chain in keeping with their growing prosperity. For Paul, there was another motivation. “It was a wonderful challenge to create something world-class. And perhaps I wanted to create a legacy of my own.”
Paul got his trusted colleague from John Distilleries, Michael John D’Souza, who had worked with him since the early 1990s, to start work on the project soon after. They chose to set up their new distillery in Goa because of its weather and water quality. “Mountains surround John Distillery, and all the water used is drawn from underground water sources and nearby streams. This water is also sweet in character,” says Michael, who was appointed as the Master Distiller in 2009.
Work began in earnest in 2006. Extensive groundwork involved several trips to Scotland to understand and master the distilling process, and expertise on the kind of water and barley to be used. The six-row barley grown in places like Rajasthan, Haryana, and the Himalayan foothills was found to be decidedly better than the two-row barley used in Scotland. It is their higher protein content that gives Paul John Single Malts their robust flavour.
India, however, poses a unique challenge when it comes to the maturation of whisky. The state’s tropical climate (similar to Kentucky’s) allows the whisky to mature far faster than Scotland. It impacts the whisky’s flavour profile, imparting a wide range of flavours including coconut, almond, honey, citrus, and tropical fruits and spices, making the whisky rich in flavour. The hot and humid climate also impacts the whisky’s evaporation in the barrel, with an approximate eight per cent loss each year as Angel’s Share, compared to two to three per cent in Scotland. Paul John whiskies are aged in once-used American Oak bourbon barrels in three 16,000 cask capacity warehouses, including an underground one, within the malt plant premises at Cuncolim in South Goa.
Paul John’s first expression was launched in 2012. Recognition and success came thick and fast in the international market. Among the early big awards include World Distiller of the Year in 2014, and Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible Award in 2015. Jim Murray is the world’s leading authority on whisky. A listing in his annual Whisky Bible is a coveted honour reserved for the best in the world. Paul John has been part of the list consistently for many years.
Of the 12 expressions of the single malts currently made (with alcohol content ranging from 40 per cent ABC to 57.8 per cent ABV), the three flagships are Brilliance, Edited, and Bold. There is also a Select Cask range, including Pedro Ximenez and an Oloroso Sherry, both of which refer to finishes applied to the whisky in these casks.
In 2018, Paul John released the first whisky in their Zodiac collection, The Kanya, followed in 2020 by Mithuna. Mithuna, to the delight of Paul John and the Indian alcobev industry, picked up the signal honour of being selected as the third best whisky in the world in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible for 2021. Over the years, Paul John’s Single Malts have also picked up more than 200 international awards.
I’m keen to know from Paul how he would define the style of Indian single malts. “Globally, we are closest to Asian whiskies, like the Taiwanese and Japanese single malts. Fruitier in nature, with Indian single malts, also standing apart because they are rich with enticing aromas, tropical flavours and exotic spices,” he says.
2017 was a milestone year for Paul John when Sazerac took a significant stake in the company. The investment allowed the family-owned US company to launch their brands in India. Fireball, a cinnamon whisky, was the first to be locally bottled and launched. The deal also provided John Distilleries with the opportunity to use Sazerac’s international distribution network to make its presence felt worldwide.
Premium alcohol, at the end of the day, is all about the experience, and that’s how top brands are built the world over. It also syncs well with Paul’s other significant business interest: travel, and tourism. From an eponymous hotel in Bengaluru to a top-end resort in Kerala’s Kumarakom that’s taken multiple shapes, and more recently, the Coorg Wilderness Resort. Paul sees both businesses complementing each other with a “premium lifestyle experience synergising premium single malts with hospitality par excellence”.
In Paul John’s case, experience has also taken root in the form of the Paul John Visitor Centre’s launch in 2018. PJVC, as it’s popularly known, is the first such visitor experience centre in the Indian spirits industry. Located at the distillery itself, visitors are taken on a walk-through of the distillery and the warehousing operation before they proceed to the well-equipped tasting room.
Paul doesn’t aim at confining his interest to single malt alone. In the last three years, India has seen a flurry of innovation in spirits categories like gin, native spirits and more recently, rum, by more often than not, first-generation entrepreneurs keen to build and grow underserved categories in India. Like them, Paul has also been trying his hands at a variety of new projects.
Not long ago, he set up a vineyard and winery outside Bengaluru under the supervision of Lucio Matricardi, an Italian winemaker. The wines are sold under the brand name Big Banyan. 2019 saw John Distilleries launch Paul John XO Brandy, a premium 100 per cent Indian grape brandy. Distilled in Goa, the brandy is matured in specially selected, medium toasted, new French Limousin oak barrels. Next on the anvil is a gin.
Paul feels it’s only a matter of time before the world recognises the quality of Indian single malts in the manner Japanese single malts have been in the last few years. He likes to unwind over a nice dram of whisky with close friends and family, but happily enough, his preferred choice of desert island drink is rum and Coke.