In a dimly lit basement bar in Oxford Circus, a scene takes place that a few years ago may have seemed highly unlikely in the whisky world.
Here, a row of glimmering bottles are arranged neatly on a large, black square tabletop. Inside those bottles is whisky, but not from Scotland, Ireland or America. In proud, gold lettering below the curlicue brand name are three words: Indian Single Malt.
While long-term whisky drinkers and industry professionals in the UK are becoming increasingly accustomed to world whiskies and changing our mindsets to this idea, the fact that India makes single malt whisky will come to a surprise to many people who are either just beginning their whisky journey or who have only ever drunk more traditional Scotch.
The latest release that hit shelves – and the tables of the &Co Bar on Great Marlborough Street for its launch – came from Paul John, a distillery owned by John Distilleries. It’s based in Goa, that southwestern state better known for its hippie beckoning calls and beach parties than for its whisky.
In the humid heat, distiller Michael John (no relation to the owners) has been working away since 2009 to make and age spirit that can be sold legally in the UK as whisky. Due to European regulations, much of the whisky made in India – which has a huge consumption rate of this spirit – cannot be imported because it isn’t made the same way or to the same standards as the product we get over here, with many distillers there choosing to use fermented molasses in its production instead of malt.
Paul John is, of course, not the first Indian distillery to hit UK shores. Amrut – made by Amrut distilleries, which was established in 1948 – launched here a couple of years back with brands such as Fusion and Peated and can often be seen giving out samples at whisky festivals in the UK.
But Paul John is making steady in-roads to compete against its Indian malt rival. It released a pleasant single cask, single malt back in October 2012 (which I reviewed here) and a second single cask release arrived at the Whisky Exchange (which has the distribution rights) this past spring.
This recent event in London saw the launch of the company’s two flagship brands: Brilliance and Edited. The former is an unpeated single malt made up of whisky that’s been aged for around four years while the latter is made with a combination of peated and unpeated malt and is around the same age.
So how does Indian whisky differ? It is a point that distiller Michael was keen to discuss when we met.
“People cannot expect the Indian single malt to be like Scotch,” he said.
As a distiller, that comes down in large part to the fact his whisky is being made with Indian barley – a six-row, rather than a more common two-row, variation (although, some distillers such as Bruichladdich and Arran have been experimenting with six-row in recent years; a very informative article on this appears on the Whisky Sheffield site here).
“We tried importing barley from Scotland and tried maturing it but we noticed a difference; the two-row barley is not suitable for Indian maturation,” said Michael, who has been with the company since 1993.
Add to this the fact the heat and humidity in India will decrease maturation time (higher heat means increased cask evaporation) and allow for greater wood extraction, and you end up with a product that gets a very different treatment from that of a whisky matured in chilly Scotland for 10 years.
At the moment, the company is using first-fill American oak ex-bourbon barrels from distilleries such as Jack Daniels and Buffalo Trace, which help to add a lot of colour and sweetness to the whisky since first-fill casks are more active.
While Paul John is focusing on exporting to the UK and European markets at the moment (the UK has been allocated 2,000 cases of Edited and Brilliance) there is a hope that by establishing the brand over here, it will eventually become accepted in India.
“Even in India, people prefer Scotch rather than high quality Indian whisky. So it gives us more of an advantage to have it available in the UK first; people in India will accept it more if it has that approval,” he explained.
With goals to make it of interest to the burgeoning middle-class on the distillery’s home shores in the future, Michael said the whisky has been created “for the Indian palate: it’s not overly peated, it is floral and it is sweeter.”
And sweeter it is – naturally, those first-fill barrels will have had a rich effect. When I tried it recently, the Brilliance was full of malty toffee and floral notes on the nose and had a sugary sweet, oily palate with a slightly salty finish. The Edited, with its dashes of peat influence, was preferable for me, giving a slightly dusty peat, honey and fresh grass note on the nose and an oily richness, drier edge on the palate that I found slightly better balanced.
The company will release a fully peated version called Bold later in the year to help finish the portfolio.
For Michael, this has been a big achievement and he is keen to show that Indian single malt can play ball on the world stage, even if that fact will come as a surprise to some for a while yet.
“It’s a proud moment for me. I really enjoy making whisky and it is definitely my first love,” he concluded.