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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Paul John Indian Single Malt Whisky Reviewed & Explored!

A new (to me) Indian Single Malt to explore!

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!

Paul John 'Select Cask Peated', 55.5%. 
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!


Sunday, 10 April 2016

Laphroaig An Cuan Mor Whisky Review!

Another travel-exclusive Laphroaig! I love the PX expression, which offers brilliant value for money. So how does An Cuan Mor compare?

Well on face value, it can't compete, at least as far as value goes. It's a duty free-only 700ml bottle, selling for $115 AUD, while the PX is a 1L bottle, selling for around $100 AUD. Both are bottled at 48% and are non-chill filtered, and neither carries an age statement. But all is not as it seems, and there's a reason for that higher cost...

There were a few rumours on the interweb that the mysterious An Cuan Mor is actually 18 year old Laphroaig, finished in European Oak casks, with no mention of the previous contents of said casks. But I wasn't so sure. So I asked the venerable and ever-helpful Dan Woolley, Beam Suntory's national brand ambassador for Australia, who checked with the venerable and ever-helpful John Campbell (yes, the John Campbell), who shared a little golden nugget of information:

Laphroaig An Cuan Mor has been matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks (from Maker's Mark) for around eight years, followed by a second maturation of a further two years in... wait for it... virgin European oak casks! So there's no mention of the previous contents on the label, because there were no previous contents! I wasn't actually planning on reviewing this one for a couple of weeks yet, but after learning this, I couldn't resist bringing it forward in the line-up.

The use of virgin (a.k.a new / fresh) casks of any sort is still rather unusual in the Scotch world, especially for such a relatively long length of time, as the new oak can overpower many spirits if it's given the chance, giving too much wood influence (known as being over-oaked). The use of virgin European oak casks is even more unusual, largely because of the expense involved, with no previous owners helping to offset some of the cost. But Laphroaig is not just any spirit, and these guys definitely know what they're doing. Getting thirsty now...

Laphroaig Select also contains some virgin oak-matured whisky, and the travel-exclusive QA is finished in virgin oak casks, but both use the American Oak variety (hence the name, Quercus Alba), and both of those are down in strength to 40%. An Cuan Mor (Gaelic for 'Big Ocean', as a tribute to the distillery's proximity to the Atlantic) is up in strength to a much-better 48%, and is non-chill filtered. One could interpret the name to suggest more of a coastal influence in this expression than others, but that may not be the case here. So let's find out...
Laphroaig An Cuan Mor, NAS, 48%. Islay, Scotland.
Matured for around 8 years in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, then around 2 years in virgin European oak casks. Non-chill filtered.

Colour: Copper.

Nose: Just gorgeous. Peaty, salty & sweet. Quite mineral-y and a little flinty as well. Sweet, fresh cigar boxes. Burnt sweet apricot jam. Furniture polish, and toasted oak. Becomes more fruity with more time, hint of strawberry lip balm?

Texture: Medium-weight, no heat at all, juicy. Smashing!

Taste: Dry, mineral-y peat, some trademark Laphroaig ash & salt as well. Candied fruits and warm, sweet & spicy oak behind.

Finish: Long, but becoming quite soft. More damp, earthy peat now, and more coastal. Sea salt flakes and seaweed, and more of that warm, buttery oak. Mouth-watering.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Delicious, and very drinkable. It could certainly pass for an older whisky than it actually is, as the extra oak has tamed it a little, as you would expect. I can see why they went the NAS route with this one, and it's a shame that that may turn some people away. It shouldn't, because An Cuan Mor is well worth giving a go, if you ask me. A very interesting and quite unique expression of my beloved Laphroaig.

But the obvious question is: how does it compare to the PX expression? It's not that easy though, they're basically totally different and thus difficult to compare. It's hard to overlook the excellent value of the PX of course, plus I'd say it's more 'Laphroaig-y', but I'd also say An Cuan Mor is worth the extra because it is a little different to what you'd expect, without straying too far. These guys can do no wrong, in my book!

Speaking of which, there's a new Laphroaig coming! Named 'Lore', it's another NAS expression, but it's bottled at 48% and is non-chill filtered. Supposedly the 'richest of the rich' and 'the richest ever' (big claims there!), it's made up of whisky matured in both European and American oak, including smaller quarter casks, ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon barrels, of a variety of ages. It won't be cheap though, it's going for 75 GBP from the distillery, so we'll have to wait & see what it sells for in Australia. As usual, I can't wait to try it!


Sunday, 3 April 2016

Glenfarclas 105 Whisky Review!

My first Glenfarclas review, and it's also my pick of their standard range. Next stop, sherry town!

I must admit, given the choice between what are two of the most popular sherry-matured whisky distilleries in Scotland, Glenfarclas and Glendronach, I would usually go for the latter. Some will disagree, but personally, the majority of Glenfarclas whiskies I have tasted so far simply do not measure-up to the current competition from Glendronach. I'm yet to come across any of the 'family cask' single-cask bottlings or 30+ year old expressions from Glenfarclas, so thus far, this '105' expression has come the closest to being an exception to the rule.

But before we get into that, let's have a look at the story behind this Speyside distillery. Officially started in 1836, the distillery was purchased by John Grant roughly thirty years later after the death of the original owner, and it's still independently owned by the Grant family today. The distillery uses six large direct-fired stills, although they are gas-heated rather than coal-heated, and all whisky is matured on-site in traditional dunnage warehouses, before bottling off-site near Edinburgh.

Importantly, Glenfarclas mature the majority of their whisky in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks, mainly Oloroso and Fino sherry, and they age their spirit for a minimum of eight years. So if, like this '105' expression, your Glenfarclas doesn't carry an age statement, it's at least eight years old. Naturally it's quite unusual for a distillery to make a statement like this, as it limits their options somewhat, but it's also great to see!

So, on to this particular expression, which is certainly my personal pick of the standard Glenfarclas range. But why the name '105'? It's named after the bottling strength, in British proof, which equates to 60% ABV in modern terms, which is said to be cask strength. So it's a similar style whisky to Aberlour's brilliant A'Bunadh, or Glendronach's excellent Cask Strength (NAS) series, and we're looking for big sherry influence, high strength and plenty of youthful character.

On the cask strength note though, this is not a single-cask bottling, it's a vatting of selected casks. So I'm wondering how the bottled whisky can consistently come out of said vatting at exactly 60%, without adding any water (which would then not be cask strength), every time? The new-make spirit may go into the casks at a consistent strength (63.5%), but evaporation (the angel's share) is not a precisely predictable thing. I'm not sure how this could be accomplished, unless they're carefully selecting and blending the casks used for this bottling while taking the ABV into account.

Making me even more curious on this point is the fact that there have been 20 yo and 40 yo limited release versions of the 105, which are still bottled at that same 60% strength, despite being aged for at two or four times as long as this expression. But the label says cask strength after all, and I'm not suggesting it isn't, I'm just wondering how they do it. It would seemingly be easier to release it in batches at different strengths, but then that would render the name slightly redundant, I suppose.

Glenfarclas do not add any colouring to their whiskies, and while I couldn't find any official mention of chill filtration, I don't believe it has been chill filtered. What I did find though is a note on the distillery's website, which states the non-age statement (NAS) Glenfarclas 105 is actually 8-10 years old, which is pleasingly honest, although it may have been better served printed on the packaging. Let's see how it goes...
Glenfarclas 105, NAS, 60%. Speyside, Scotland.
Aged 8-10 years, natural colour, believed non-chill filtered.

Colour: Copper

Nose: Semi-dry sherry - slightly musty red grapes and wood spices, and a fresh, bright, sweet malty spirit accompaniment. Well balanced in that regard, actually. A little spicy oak in the background, some dried fruit, and a little spirit-y bite as well. 

Texture: Medium. Some heat, but very nice regardless. 

Taste: Quite a bit of heat initially. Some of that sherry & malty spirit are still there, plus some dry fruit, but they're having to fight against the heat. It could use some water, but that's not normally how I review, so it wouldn't be fair. 

Finish: Medium. Still some prickly heat, which lasts quite a while. A little bitter oak & spice at the end, then the malty spirit comes back to say goodbye. 

Score: 2.5 out of 5. 

Notes: It's definitely young and spirit-y, but that doesn't make it bad. I really enjoyed the nose (it would've scored lower without it), but the palate and finish were disappointing. I did actually add some water to see if it helped, and it didn't make a huge difference, the heat was still bashing everything else into the ground. Adding water killed the nose a bit, too. 

It's important to note this is just my opinion of this particular sample, but for me, the 105 can't compete with the A'Bunadh batches I've tasted, or basically anything from Glendronach. It is quite well priced, though. Having said all that, I'd still love to get my hands on one of Glenfarclas' 'family cask' bottlings, for scientific purposes of course. The distillery is ticking all the boxes otherwise, so maybe I just haven't found the right expression yet. Which calls for more research...