Ten years ago, one can bet few people (except those very ‘up’ on their whisky) would have expected India to be keen to produce single malt whiskies for the export market. While the country’s population is one of the biggest consumers of whisky in the world, it tends to be for poor to medium quality blended whiskies which are meant for mixing with lots of soda or water and ice.
But with the emergence of Amrut whisky onto the UK scene in 2009, it was clear companies in India were keen to play with the big boys of Scotch. Amrut was the first whisky to be allowed into Europe because of regulations in place around whisky production meant to help protect the practices of the Scotch industry. It was well accepted within the whisky market, showing naysayers that a country as different in climate to Scotland had the ability to produce a good quality dram.
Now, the company – owned by Amrut Distilleries – is not the only single malt player on the scene. It is being joined by Paul John whisky, made by John Distilleries in Goa – the small, south west state famed over here for its eye-caching beaches and tourism draw rather than whisky. The company is a giant on the Indian spirits market – making the third largest brand of blended whisky in the country called Original Choice.
I went to the company’s official launch in London recently to find out a bit more about the whisky. I had been lucky enough to try a small dram of it at The Whisky Exchange’s dinner in September at Bombay Brasserie. However, I had – then – tried it blind, in a big room of chatty people and I didn’t have the time to really discover it. As such, I was keen to re-taste it to see what emerged.
John Distillers has been making blended whisky since 1992, but decided to try out single malt in 2008 to help enter the premium end of the market. Distiller Michael John has chosen to use Indian ingredients to keep it true to its country of origin (although, a second release from the company will be peated and use peat from Scotland). The wash he creates also differs from more traditional whisky by coming out at 5%, compared to a more standard 8% – this is said to help create a sweeter flavour in the final product. Interestingly, it is put in the casks at 55% but because of the heat the alcohol actually goes up in strength as it ages, leaving the final product at 57% – very odd, indeed! This heat causes the whisky to evaporate more quickly – the angels in India must be very happy as they get between 10-12% of the cask’s fill every year. This means, after only three years, a hogshead has 150 bottles left in it (compared to around 350 in a Scottish equivalent).
Now, I know what you’re thinking – far less stock of a whisky made on the other side of the world…it will almost certainly be very expensive. That was my first impression as well. Which is why I was most intrigued by the fact the first release from the company – the Paul John Single Cask 161 – of which there are only 150 cask strength bottles, is being sold through distributor The Whisky Exchange, for £60. All around – it’s not bad.
On the first nosing, the whisky was an instant hit of sweetness – but a fresh sweetness rather than cloying. On further examinations, I picked up salted caramels, honey and orange blossom notes. On the palate, the whisky was thick and beautifully oily, making it a heavy treat in the mouth. That orange nose came through for me in the mouth and was joined by banana and toffee, before finishing on cherries and cream. It was an easily drinkable whisky and would make a perfect substitute for pudding!
Jim Murray gave this whisky 94.5 points in his Whisky Bible and I have little doubt it will be sold out quickly enough at The Whisky Exchange. If you do get a chance to pop by the shop, see if you can try some or pick up a bottle. For a single cask with limited bottles from a good distillery, the price is very good. And, it might just open your eyes up to yet another country producing great drams.