The Single Malt Men of India
Meet the man who put India on the whisky map
The Cuncolim Industrial Estate in Goa, about 10 kilometres from Margaon, looks as dreary as it sounds. The sky and the red earth are streaked with industrial grime. Plot no. SB -1 produces bi-axially oriented polypropylene tapes; SA-36 houses a rubber manufacturing unit; and SA-22 deals in natural manganese dioxide powder. But, amid the irredeemable desolation, Paul John has been distilling a whisky so good that it softens the cold glint of steel and provides a deliciously false hope that the world will be a better place tomorrow. Since they were introduced in late 2012, Paul John’s single malts – among them, the mildly peated Edited and the un-peated Brilliance – have won a clutch of awards and attracted the fond attention of none other than whisky guru Jim Murray. Each year, Murray, a former journalist, releases the Whisky Bible, which rates whiskies from all over the world. Murray is the Alex Ferguson of the whisky world, and, if he thinks a certain whisky is good, it always is. Murray gave the Edited 96.5 points and the Brilliance 94.5 in the 2013 Whisky Bible. Here’s what he has to say about the former in his tasting notes: “Chocolate mint evolves from the delicate peats which sit beautifully with the lesser oaky theme; a comfortable, yet always complex, nose with the smoke soft and relaxed and refusing to bully the juicier barley… Grassy barley shows first, but then slowly gives away as those most gentle peat notes dissolve on the palate and begun to build momentum and intensity…All is beautifully weighted, patient and poised… A new Indian classic: a sublime malt from the continent. To be more precise: a world classic!”
Paul John is a quiet, amiable man. He has gleaming white teeth, a well-manicured moustache and a happy, bouncy manner of walking. When I meet him at his distillery in Cuncolim, he is dressed conservatively, in grey trousers and a navy blue jacket. John, son of T John, a former politician and liquor and plantation baron, heads the Bangalore-headquartered John Distilleries. John, who also has interests in hospitality and the furnishing business, started young. He helped his father with his alcohol trading business, set up National Distilleries in the early 1990s, “learnt from his mistakes quickly” and rebranded National as John Distilleries. The company manufactures a range of brandies and whiskies. Its Original Choice whisky sells over 10 million cases annually.
The spirits he makes might be mass market, but John has fine tastes — he vacations regularly in Aspen — which he cultivated while in the United States, where he moved in early the 2000s and from where he steered his many businesses. He learnt about wines, bought a Lear jet and loved piloting it, and also spent time visiting distilleries in Scotland.
“The Scots make excellent whisky, but, the more distilleries I visited in Scotland, the more I realised that whisky making is not really rocket science. In a controlled environment, with all the necessary, high-quality ingredients, anyone could produce as good a single malt,” says John, who speaks in a matter of fact manner. So, some nine years ago, he got his longtime colleague and master distiller Michael John D’Souza on board and set up a pot still at his distillery in Cuncolim. “I love my Scotch whiskies, but we never wanted it to taste like any of them. The whisky I was making had to have its own character. It had to be an Indian single malt made in Goa rather than an exceedingly good imitation of, say, a Balvenie or a Macallan.”
The Cuncolim distillery has a set of copper pot stills (wash and spirit) that are capable of producing over 3,000 litres of spirit a day. The barley comes from north India, and the maturation is done in Bourbon barrels. If you were to ignore the lack of glens, fresh mountain streams and ancient legends, John’s setup feels and smells the same as any distillery in Scotland. What about the water used for Paul John’s whiskies? The Scots never fail to harp on the purity of the water in Scotland. “Even if it is pure spring water, it has to be filtered. Our water comes from a well close to the Sal river, and, once you remove minerals and the hardness, it is as good as any,” says D’Souza.
John started distilling his first malts in 2008 – the first batch was clean and malty, says D’Souza – and, in 2012, he released the first bottling, a single cask offering, in London. “At Heathrow, the immigration officer asked me what I would be doing in London, and I told her I had come to launch my single malt whisky. She couldn’t believe it,” says John. That bit of disbelief aside, John’s whiskies have been sold across Europe, and, this year, they will be available in the US and Japan as well. Before I leave, I ask him about how they arrived at the whisky’s name. His answer is illustrative of the calm confidence he has in his dram. “It had to be Paul John. I mean, if William Grant could do it, why not me? It will be a nice legacy to leave behind.”
“The main difference between a scotch and an Indian single malt is that you cannot age the latter for long periods of time. Three years of maturation in wood in India is equivalent to 10 to 12 years in Scotland,” says Sukhinder Singh. “But, in blind tastings against scotch malts, it is virtually impossible to pick out the Indian malts.” Singh runs The Whisky Exchange (TWE). Based in London, TWE, set up in 2000, is one of the world’s largest and most respected online retailers, and Singh’s word carries a lot of weight in the world of whisky. Singh says he never expected exceptional single malts to come out of India. “But, Amrut and, now, Paul John have proved that it is not difficult to make single malts in India.”
Amrut Distilleries, the company in whose footsteps John Distilleries has followed, is helmed by a soft-spoken, Newscastle United F.C. supporter. Rakshit Jagdale, scion of the N R Jagdale Group, which owns Amrut Distilleries, parts his hair in the middle, addresses older colleagues with a ‘Mr.’ and carries a calculator in his shirt pocket. He had his first drink with his father when he “started earning”.
In the early 2000s, when he was a student in Newcastle, Jagdale diligently executed his father, Neelkanta Rao’s, plans. Amrut Distilleries is one of Karnataka’s oldest distilleries. The distillery, located near Bangalore, manufactures brands such as MaQintosh and Prestige whisky, Old Port Deluxe Rum and Bejois brandy. “Back in the late 1990s, my father asked me to find out how our malt whisky would fare in the UK and Scotland. We had accumulated a lot of distilled spirit in our warehouses and he knew it was good.” So, on a cool evening in October 2000, after having got Amrut Distilleries’ UK agent, Alistair Sinclair, to make a few introductory phone calls, he hopped over to the famous Pot Still pub, in Glasgow, and got the owner to sample his miniature bottles. “He loved it and decided to check out what his customers thought about it. The pub was unusually crowded for a Wednesday evening, and there were many regulars. We waited at a corner table as he poured the contents into the customers’ glasses and asked them to guess the origin of the whisky.” The Pot Still’s customers nosed and sipped the whisky, and their guesses ranged from a Lowland 12 Y.O. to a Speyside 15 Y.O. When they were finally told where it came from, they raised a toast to the whisky.
Jagdale launched the company’s first dram, Amrut Single Malt Whisky, in 2004. A year later, it was noticed by Jim Murray. In 2010, Murray rated Amrut Fusion the world’s third-best single malt. It also became the first ever Indian whisky to be stocked at London’s iconic Harrods. Today, Amrut’s quiver contains over ten distinctive expressions, such as Two Continents (whisky distilled in India and matured both in the country and Scotland) and Herald (in which bourbon barrels containing whisky are shipped to Helgoland, in Germany, for maturation), besides several in-demand cask-strength whiskies. Amrut sources its barley from north India (a few of their whiskies also use barley from Scotland), and the whisky is matured in new American oak and, of late, for some whiskies, sherry barrels and bourbon casks.
“A lot of people have asked me about the unique characters our whiskies acquire, but, apart from ensuring that quality ingredients are used, there is also, I think, the involvement of the ‘hand of god’. You can control the process to a certain extent, but what happens in the cask is a miracle,” says Jagdale. Bangalore’s micro-climate, too, he says, contributes to the way his whiskies taste. “The angel’s share is high in Bangalore, almost 12 percent a year, but the flavour of the whisky gets more concentrated in the process.” At times, says Jagdale, the strength of the whiskies in the casks actually goes up. “It is quite strange, but I think the constant change in temperature and the humidity in the warehouses coupled with Bangalore’s dry climate causes the whisky to breathe and expand. It sounds quite stupid, but I can’t see any other explanation.” Amrut’s Greedy Angels, released last year in the UK, is one of the whiskies that seems to become better when a lot of it evaporates. Over the course of its maturation in two bourbon casks, which lasted eight years, Amrut lost close to 270 litres of spirit, but gained many fans, including Sukhinder Singh. “It sold out in a matter of minutes as there were only 144 bottles going around. The whisky was amazing with flavours of tropical fruit,” says Singh.
Amrut, which sells its single malts in around 30 countries, sold about 15,000 cases last fiscal and, this year, it plans to work on expanding its presence in Indian metros. Jagdale is also proud of his recently-launched Two Indies rum, a blend of rum from the Caribbean and India, which won top honours at the 2014 edition of the Ultimate Beverage Challenge, in New York, earlier this year. But, if you are a whisky lover, Amrut’s master distiller, Surinder Kumar, says he is working on a triple-distilled single malt like Springbank. That should be something to look forward to.