Given my whisky spiked imagination, the picture was very clear in my mind before the distillery visit. I had fantasized of an Indian Ardbeg bang on the shores of the ex Portuguese colony with the warehouse making a picturesque appearance along the banks. Disappointed thoroughly to find the distillery in the midst of an industrial estate and nowhere close to the coast; shattering the mental portrait. The distillery is a very tidy establishment with focus on producing quality spirit rather than looking pretty.So when you read ‘Goa’ you think of holidays, beaches, casinos, beer, hippies, and tropical sunlight. Whisky is something that may not be the first thing that pops to mind when you think of Goa, but yet this was the place that Mr. Paul P John selected to set up John distilleries. Not sure if the decision was a deliberate one, but after tasting the sublime brine which is like a silver lining around the rich malt whisky that is produced here, I think it is a darn good decision!
John Distillers Goa, with Michael (The Master Distiller)
In my e-mail to the distillery thanking them for the visit I have acknowledged my presumptions about Paul John Single malt whisky. Let me assure you this was not a reflex notion about the prospects of Single Malt whisky from India, I had my reasons. John distillery is known for Mont Castle brandy, Big Banyan wine and Original Choice whisky, most of which along with other production brands cater to the economy segment of the Indian consumer market. So an announcement of an exclusive Single Malt whisky from the same distillery launch did not evoke too much of interest. But the real prop for my notion about this whisky was its launch in close succession to the resounding global success of a Single Malt whisky from India. So it was a simple math for me; someone just wants to be an impersonator while the going was good and what better time than now when Asia is getting international recognition in producing quality spirits? I am hoping that all these grounds will work as good escape routes when you are grading my naivety which now I feel is closer to the realm of silliness.
The unit was set up in the year 1992 and back then was known as National distilleries, the same was rechristened to John Distilleries in the year 1996. The flagship brand from the distillery ‘Original Choice’ whisky was released from its stables in the year 2006; this daily dram sells a staggering 10 million cases annually. Apart from this whisky the distillery is also known for its Mont Castle brandy which is very popular in southern part of the subcontinent. The preparation to produce premium Single Malt whisky began in the year 2006 and distillation began in the year 2008. The Barley used for malt creation is from Punjab and the distillery uses authentic copper pot stills imported from Briggs of Burton from the United Kingdom.
The master distiller & blender for the distillery is Michel John who has been associated with John Distilleries for over 20 years in various capacities; quite surprising considering Michel is only 44! Talk about starting early!
Michael at his work desk?
My volley of questions to Michel was obvious considering apart from the few reviews that I had read I had no clue about the whisky itself. If this seems surprising to you let me explain, Paul John Single malt whisky was a 100% export oriented product till very recently. The period of international presence has not been very long considering the first expressions were released as single cask versions in late 2012. Dec 2013 was when ‘Brilliance’ & ‘Edited’ which are the mainstream single malt variants of whisky from the production house was introduced to the local market of Goa. Plans shared reveal that Bangalore in South India is the next stop on the roadmap with the rest of the country waiting in anticipation.
The mainstay casks that are used for maturation are American Oak ex-bourbon casks which are sourced from various parts of the world but I was able to see some of the future releases ageing in Sherry, Porto and Fino casks. After tasting the ‘Select Cask’ whisky samples I am very keen to see the outcome of these trials. So while chatting up with Michel we discussed the various challenges that they faced at production this included the notorious ‘Angel Share’ of India which devours 11-12% annually, this particularly was very surprising to me, somehow I had understood humidity in the weather to be inversely proportional to the evaporation. Hence I expected this to be lower than the comparatively drier climate of Bangalore where these greedy angels have been clocked. I was earnestly corrected by Michel and my own research confirmed that while the humidity does have an effect on the evaporation it is not in the manner I had assumed. In a relatively drier climate water will evaporate mainly, letting a dryer whisky with a higher alcoholic percentage remain in the cask as compared to a humid environment the alcohol will evaporate, letting a rounder whisky with a smoother taste. This is a very crucial point to observe; assuming that if the distilled spirit is close to 70% ABV before it enters the maturation period, a loss of 10% annually would mean that at the end of the third year this whisky would be barely 40% which would be the bare minimum. So while the distillers of the subcontinent will struggle with the mounting losses due to this unusually high share lost to evaporation they also rejoice the accelerated ageing making the whisky comparable to one having matured for much longer time. My personal experience is that a whisky matured here for 5-6 years is comparable to an 18-20 year old Scotch whisky. One thing is pretty much certain; the chance of me having a 15 year old Indian whisky is very remote!
A quick tour of the distillery made me marvel at the unique marriage of technology with tradition. A well equipped lab at the distillery and the precision engineered ramps for barrels storage in the warehouse were a delight. The distillery has two warehouses where the spirit lies in slumber, the older one which is underground houses close to 4000 barrels and this has a wonderful familiar earthen smell to it. The second one which is the more modern one is on the surface and proudly accommodates 6000 odd barrels. The stills as you can see in the picture are very uniquely placed; this is for the first time I saw stills with their arms facing each other. This was a resultant of the distillery having to house the stills without having to disturb its existing architecture this was explained by Michel after my lost expression. Unfortunately my visit was during the receding monsoons and I was not able to witness the actual production but the pristine maintenance of the equipment told me something about the focus towards quality.