Paul John: The Man and the Whisky

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If there’s one message the whisky industry is sending to Consumerville right now – both implicitly and explicitly – it’s that for malt whisky drinkers looking to try new drams, your options extend well beyond the shores of Scotland. Malt whisky is being made all over the world, both from serious contenders set up for large scale production, and from the plethora of craft distilleries forging small but new ground.

The trouble for many of these newer distilleries is that finances and cash flow almost demand that they put their product out to market early. Yes, we all know that these early releases are works in progress and that these “Hey, I’m here” bottlings at two, three, and four years old are all immature and not a true reflection of what the whisky might one day become.   But one wonders if such producers might do their brand a favour if they were to simply sit back and patiently wait until the spirit was truly ready?  Nonetheless, regardless of the marketeers or the accountants, every distillery has to get through its awkward years of puberty until it can put world class whisky on the shelves.

Meanwhile, one country that continues to press on and build on an already firmly established foundation is India. Paul John is certainly one distillery that has its teething years behind it and is now bottling impressive whisky. Very impressive whisky.   Whisky & Wisdom has previously told parts of the Paul John story, and you can read much of the background information, plus read tasting notes on the core range here.

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A lounge room chat with Mr Paul John

Imagine going back in time and having a private audience and tasting with Mr John Walker after his whisky business had been going for 12 years.   Or being able to ask questions of Mr George Smith, a decade after he set up Glenlivet and put his name to it?   What would you talk about?  What questions would you ask?  Such was the situation a small number of local Sydney whisky folks found themselves in when they had the opportunity to sit down with Mr Paul John himself, owner and producer of the Paul John single malt whiskies.

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Paul John recently held a tasting and promotional night in Sydney, coinciding with the launch of the incredible “Oloroso” expression. Courtesy of Dramnation and the Sydney Cocktail Club, a few “regulars” sat down with Mr Paul John himself and chewed the fat over a dram or two.  So what did we learn?  (For ease of distinction in what follows, Paul John shall refer to the whisky; Mr Paul John shall refer to the man).

First of all, Mr Paul John is a wonderfully warm, engaging, and down to earth gentleman.   Secondly, he is an upbeat and optimistic man.  Talking with many distillers around the world today, one quickly detects an undertone of strain or misfortune as they lament rising production costs, shrinking markets, or ongoing production difficulties.  In contrast, Mr Paul John is more upbeat.  “India is a difficult and challenging country in which to get things done,” he explains.  “Compared to the daily challenges of life, the issues we encounter making whisky are very minor!” he smiles.  Thirdly, it is quickly apparent that his venture into single malt is made with strictly honourable intentions.   His company, John Distilleries Ltd, was and is already an established concern, producing local Indian spirits since 1992.  With its flagship brand (an Indian blended whisky) already selling over 10 million cases a year, the Paul John single malt range is truly a drop in the ocean and is thus neither a token effort to tick a box, nor an avenue to getting rich.  Rather, Paul John simply set out to create a world class single malt.  It’s a phrase he uses several times in our conversation.  It is this ethos that drives all aspects of the brand and production:  From sourcing the finest ingredients and casks, to choosing how and when to bottle the spirit. And even though there are no regulations or even guidelines on the production of whisky/spirit in India, Paul John elects to follow the rules spelled out by the Scotch Whisky Association.   This obviously makes for more expensive costs in materials and production, but it is this commitment that demonstrates that quality is first and foremost the key objective here.

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A case in the point is the star of the show, the new Oloroso release. The whisky comes from Paul John’s first ever oloroso cask (yes, just one!), and – with evaporation being so high in Goa – the cask yielded a mere 252 bottles.  “It must have been tempting to water this down to 40 or 46%, in order to produce and sell more bottles?” I ask.  But Mr Paul John replies with a glint in his eye: “But then it would not be world class”.

And world class it truly is. The whisky was matured initially for three years in an ex-bourbon barrel, before being transferred to the oloroso cask for a four year finishing period.  As such, the whisky is seven years is old – although in keeping with Paul John philosophy, the age is not stated on the label.   The resulting whisky is a sublime enigma – one that offers both unusually strong and abundant bourbon characteristics (lots of leather and vanilla), yet counterpunches immediately with the fruit and spice of oloroso.  I found it almost impossible to delineate between the two:  It is the near perfect fusion of two different cask types having equal say in the whisky’s outcome.  It is a wonderfully complex and intense whisky (bottled at 57.2%) that will surely appeal to all palates.  The nose is sweet, rich, spicy and full; the palate equally so, and more.   In spite of the relatively high ABV, the whisky is remarkably soft, balanced, controlled, and with not even a hint of aggression.  The oloroso cask in question was used in the sherry industry for 55 years before being filled with Paul John spirit.  With merely 18 bottles of the 252 being made available in Australia, you’ll need to move fast.  RRP is $250.

So what other gems of wisdom did we learn on the night?   Mr Paul John was wonderfully generous with his time and information, and the following are just a few snippets of what he shared:

  • The distillery has recently doubled its production capacity with additional fermenters and an additional pair of stills. Production is now 6,000L per day.
  • With time and experience, Paul John’s Master Distiller has learned that six years’ maturation is about right for 1st Fill casks, and eight years’ maturation is about right for refill casks.
  • Whilst aging for longer periods and aiming for older expressions might be a fun or curious experiment for Mr Paul John, the high evaporative losses that would be encountered make long-term aging an unlikely and non-commercial venture. Besides which – in the pursuit of quality – there is no point aging a spirit for longer if the oak becomes too dominant.
  • Until 12 months ago, all Paul John whisky was exported to international markets. In the last year, Paul John has launched in the domestic (i.e. Indian) market. The domestic market currently accounts for around 35% of all sales. Internationally, France and the USA are the most successful markets.
  • The casks used for maturation are generally from the likes of Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam.   Casks that were filled with bourbon for four years generally seem to produce the best results for Paul John.
  • Unlike Scotland, which produces and uses two-row barley, India primarily produces six-row barley. The result is a lower-yielding barley (in terms of sugars and thus ABV), although owing to the higher husk content, the barley produces an oilier wash. This obviously translates to an oilier spirit. This is one of the key reasons why all Paul John whiskies are bottled at at least 46% and are non-chillfiltered: The whisky thus already has a deliciously oily texture and mouthfeel, and Mr Paul John feels it would be inappropriate to lose this inherent oiliness that almost defines his spirit.
  • A visitor centre is planned for the distillery in the not-too-distant future.
  • The distillery has been in continuous 24/7 production now for the last two years.

As part of the evening, we were also afforded the opportunity to taste several other expressions of Paul John, including the Brilliance, the Peated (a truly spectacular expression that features peated malt sourced from both Islay and Aberdeen and is a must for any fans of young Port Charlotte bottlings), and also an impressive single cask bottling of Cask 987 which was bottled for the Oak Barrel, a leading liquor outlet in Sydney.

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An impressive bar with nibblies, Paul John whiskies, and Paul John cocktails.

Following our cosy chat around the table, the evening unfolded for the general public at the J&M Cocktail Bar in Angel Place.  Paul John made its way around the room (both the whisky and the man!), and Inoka Ho of the Sydney Cocktail Club must also be commended for a truly excellent cocktail that featured both the Brilliance and Peated expressions in its concoction.

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Sneha Rao, Madhu Kanna, and Paul John.

One can only admire the quality of the bottlings and the fact that such a rich and consistently good malt whisky has been developed and produced in such a relatively short era, and in conditions that are almost the polar opposite of Scotland. “You’re obviously striving for the best?” I asked Mr Paul John.  I liked his reply:  “I have to.  My name’s on the bottle!”

Cheers,

AD

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Author: AD

I'm a whisky host, writer, presenter, educator, taster, critic & all-round malt tragic! Also Director & Cellarmaster of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @whiskyandwisdom and also on Twitter @SMWS_Australia

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