I had noticed Paul John's elegant packaging on the shelves a few times, but had never 'taken the plunge' and bought a bottle, or tasted their whisky. So when Paul John's export manager, Mr. Madhu Kanna, offered to send some samples for review, and to meet up for a chat, I jumped at the chance!
Paul John's Single Malt distillery is located in Goa, on the Western coast of India. Parent company John Distilling, one of India's largest spirits producers, has been around since 1992, and is based in Bangalore. Paul John single malt (named after the company founder) was first launched in Europe in 2012, and has enjoyed wide-spread success since (including multiple major awards). It's now sold in 15 countries world-wide, with more on the way, and is due to launch in the US shortly. There are currently five core expressions available, two un-peated, and three peated (yay!).
Goa has a very hot and humid coastal climate, which among other things means much faster whisky maturation. Around three times faster than in colder climates. Which is why, like most 'world whiskies', Paul Johns' expressions do not carry age statements. Which is absolutely fine, because if they did, the age statement would not reflect the level of maturation, and would therefore be irrelevant. So while Paul Johns' casks are aged for 5-7 years depending on the expression, for comparison's sake they are more equivalent to a much older (roughly 12-15 yo) Scotch in terms of maturity.
That faster maturation does have a downside though, the hot climate results in a considerably higher angel's share (evaporation), which is in the region of 8% per year, far higher than Scotland at around 1-2%. Which means that, on average, almost half of the cask's contents has been lost after just 7 years. Which is one of the reasons why it's unlikely that these whiskies will be matured for much longer than that, or it wouldn't be economical.
Paul John are really ticking a lot of boxes with their single malts. They're using a pair of Indian-built copper pot stills (spirit still pictured above, with master distiller Michael John - no relation to the founder). All bottlings are naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and are bottled at 46% and above. And they're only using first-fill or virgin oak casks, of the American oak variety, although there will be sherry cask-matured expressions in the future. They're also using Indian six-row barley in all of their expressions, despite it having a lower yield than the more common two-row variety. And on that note, there's one more point that I'd like to highlight before we get into the malts themselves.
Note that I've said "in all of their expressions" above, and crucially this includes their peated whiskies. There are no peat bogs in India, so then how does one make a peated Indian whisky? The usual thing to do, and this is what the competition does, would be to import peated malted barley from commercial maltings in other countries (e.g. Scotland), 'ready-made', so to speak. This long delay between malting and milling/mashing, and the conditions it's kept in during shipping, can have quite a negative impact on the barley before it even reaches the distillery. And in my opinion, you're then left with a less authentic product, because you're distilling from Scottish, rather than local, barley.
Paul John do it rather differently. They import the peat itself, from two different regions of Scotland, for use at the maltings in India. So they're still distilling from the Indian six-row barley, malted and peated in India, to a level of 30-35 ppm, using Scottish peat. So with Paul John's peated whiskies, you're getting as close to an authentic peated Indian single malt as is geographically possible. I think this is a brilliant idea, and I think more distilleries with no local peat source should be following Paul John's lead!
Now, time to taste some whisky! Rather than comprehensively review all five core expressions, I'm going to give my impressions and brief notes on four, and then focus on my personal favourite of the range for a more in-depth review. All were tasted neat, and spread out over multiple sessions. And as I've mentioned above, all expressions are naturally coloured and non-chill filtered.
Paul John 'Brilliance', 46%.
Un-peated, the entry level expression. Around $85 AUD, available here.
Tasting Notes: Sweet on the nose, with some warm spices and salted butter, and a definite hint of bourbon. On the palate, sweet barley and soft spice, with no (alcohol) heat whatsoever. On the finish, more bourbon and soft spices, plus a hint of oak.
Notes: Sweet & easy-drinking, but still has a great silky texture and pinch of spice. Certainly well-suited to a Speyside Scotch, or perhaps bourbon drinker. Not quite my desired style these days, but not unpleasant by any means.
Paul John 'Edited', 46%.
Lightly peated, using around 20% peated malt, and 80% un-peated. Around $90, available here.
Tasting Notes: Grassy and herbal on the nose, with a subtle sea-side influence. Warm, soft & silky on the palate, with more spice, and a little sherbet-y fizz on the tongue. A subtle hint of dry peat and a little bitterness on the finish.
Notes: Less sweet than the brilliance, but also with a shorter finish. Very nice nose with those sea-side / coastal notes, and a great subtle pinch of peat on the palate.
Paul John 'Select Cask Classic', 55.2%.
Un-peated, reduced slightly from cask strength for the desired flavour and balance. Around $110, available here. Great value, especially considering the strength.
Tasting Notes: Big and robust, with honey sweetness and tropical fruit on the nose, and sweet barley still shines alongside. Honeyed bourbon and sweet pineapple on the palate, plus a little pepper adding depth. Again, no heat at all, even at 55.2%. A nice balance of sweet and spice on the finish, which is also the longest so far.
Notes: Very nice, and my wife's pick for the winner. Has a great (natural) colour as well, as does the rest of the range.
Paul John 'Bold', 46%.
Peated, using peat from only one of the source regions. A recent addition to the core range. Around $90, great value again. Available here.
Tasting Notes: Peat-forward initially on the nose, a sharp & vegetal peat. Thick toffee sweetness, with plenty of spice, and a hint of aniseed. A little coastal as well, with oily smoked fish, and a hint of dried raspberry. Spicy and peaty on the palate, the peat is the main player here; a dry & spicy peat, with a little black pepper and honey sweetness behind. More of that dry peat on the finish, then becoming quite oily and savoury in flavour.
Notes: Nice and peaty, a great nose, and an interesting finish.
Now on to my personal favourite!
Peated, using peat from both source regions. Reduced slightly from cask strength for the desired flavour and balance. Around $110, available here. Excellent value for money again, especially considering the strength.
Colour: Polished copper.
Nose: Lovely. Multi-dimensional peat - dry, sharp and sweet. A wisp of light smoke, sweet bananas fried in brown sugar. Semi-sweet dark chocolate, a little prickly pepper spice, and sweet golden barley.
Texture: Also lovely. Silky and slightly oily, plenty of body, and no heat again.
Taste: Sweet initially, then that sharp, dry peat comes to the fore. More pepper spice, and a little thick, ashy smoke which coats the mouth. A little sugar / toffee sweetness behind.
Finish: Medium-length, with the peat and ashy smoke carried through to the end, and sweet, juicy barley.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: A great whisky, which I'd have no trouble lining up against some of the great Scottish heavyweights, and with a few refreshing points of difference. Peated Scotch drinkers will find the peat influence familiar, as they should given the source of the peat, but it's the Indian barley, the intense maturation, and the authentic production methods that put this peated whisky above many others. I can confidently say that to my tastes, this expression is one of, if not the, best peated non-Scotch / 'world' whiskies that I have tasted so far.
Overall impressions: Very impressive indeed, and I'm particularly impressed by the two Select Cask whiskies. But all expressions are of great quality, well-balanced, well-matured and naturally-presented. The mouth-feel and lack of alcoholic heat in all expressions clearly shows that no corners have been cut, and nothing has been rushed. They're certainly looking for quality here, not quantity. Great stuff.
I suppose the big question everyone will want answered is how Paul John whisky compares to it's closest rival, Amrut. Well comparing like-for-like, since there is no sherry- or port-matured expression of Paul John whisky (yet), I'd say Paul John wins it. Especially in the case of the peated expressions, and even more so in the case of the Select Cask Peated, I'd say Paul John beats it's closest competition by quite a large margin.
Competition notwithstanding though, Paul John are doing some very good work, which they clearly take pride in. There does still seem to be some negative predisposition towards Indian single malts in some members of the whisky world, and the range of Paul John whiskies are an ideal remedy for that, and I predict they'll continue going from strength-to-strength from here on in. So the next time you're looking to try something a little different that also won't break the bank, I highly recommend taking a further look at Paul John Indian Single Malt. I'm very glad I did!