The Telegraph
| Sunday, October 27, 2013 |

Graphiti

Whisky whiz

Bangalore-based liquor magnate Paul John is hoping his new single malts will take the world by storm, says Aarti Dua

Paul John likes to chase his dreams in measured pegs. Ten years ago, the chairman and managing director of the Bangalore-headquartered John Distilleries, dreamt of producing a world-class single malt whisky in India. He then spent the next few years researching that dream, visiting Scottish distillers and even comparing and testing the waters — a key ingredient — in Scotland and India.

John made his first big move in 2005, when he set up a traditional pot-still distillery in Goa and started distilling his first malts by 2007-08. Now, six years later, whisky connoisseurs in UK and across Europe are raising a toast to his newly launched Paul John single malts.

"I was convinced that we could produce an international-quality single malt in India," says John, who's also the man behind Original Choice, India's sixth largest whisky brand. The aggressive entrepreneur whet whisky drinkers' taste buds by first releasing three Paul John Single Casks in UK late last year. After raising an initial cheer from consumers, he then launched his two single malt brands, Paul John Brilliance and Paul John Edited, this May.

Now, his malts are already picking up awards. Whisky guru Jim Murray has awarded a Liquid Silver to the Paul John Single Casks in his famous Whisky Bible 2013. And Brilliance and Edited have won gold and silver medals in the Asian Premium Single Malt category at the World Whisky Masters 2013.

Of course, it was Amrut, the single malt produced by Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries, which first showed the world that India could produce a top-notch dram — Murray ranked Amrut Fusion as the third-finest whisky in the world in 2010.

Says whisky specialist Sukhinder Singh, owner of the online The Whisky Exchange in UK, who's distributing the Paul John malts there: "Amrut has done very well because the quality is very good. And now Paul John will also do well because its quality is also very good."

  • The Paul John Brilliance and Edited single malts are already winning accolades abroad

"It's fantastic. A lot of connoisseurs are saying good things about our single malts," adds John.

A non-peated dram, the £38.5 Paul John Brilliance resembles a light Speyside whisky, "a little bit like Balvenie", feels Singh. "It's very sweet and creamy," he says. And the £42.5 Edited "strikes the right balance" with its mix of peated and non-peated malt.

Both the single malts are made from barley procured from North India at the company's 8,00,000-litre distillery in Goa. "People are amazed with the maturity of our malts," says John. India's tropical climate results in a large loss due to evaporation. But it also makes the whiskies mature faster so that a four-year-old dram from India feels like a 12- to 15-year-old Scotch, points out Singh.

As a single malt connoisseur, John believes he has a winner on his hands. But then, he's no stranger to the world of spirits. The thrill-seeking entrepreneur — he takes a skiing vacation in Aspen with his wife and two daughters each year — learnt the ropes young, assisting his father, the Karnataka politician T. John, in his alcohol trading business. "From Class 12, I used to travel to the north to procure alcohol since Bangalore was a big trading hub then," he recalls.

"Impressed by Dhirubhai Ambani", he aspired to be "a big businessman". So he acquired a distillery licence while still in college. Then, after graduating with degrees in commerce and law, he commissioned his first plant, National Distilleries, in 1992, launching brands like Master's. In 1995, he launched Original Choice, a blended mass-market whisky.

Realising that the liquor multinationals were focusing on the premium end, John decided to exploit the "big scope" in the medium and lower end instead. Still, it was a few years before Original Choice became the success it is today with sales of over 10 million cases. Business picked up when the Karnataka government took over the state's unorganised liquor trade in 2003, propelling John Distilleries's volumes.

By then, he was piloting the business' growth from Florida where he'd moved in 2000 — "I wanted to do some business abroad," he says — setting up a silk furnishing fabric venture. "I grew the most while I was there," he says. He also soared in other ways, getting into the pilot's seat and even owning a Lear jet. "I haven't flown since I moved back five years ago but I'd definitely love to go back to it," he says.

The US is also where he began appreciating wine — he later founded his Big Banyan premium wines in 2007. And he also diversified into hotels, starting with his Kumarakom Lake Resort in 2002 followed by The Paul in Bangalore. "I got into hospitality purely out of passion," he says.

Now, his passion for single malts is driving him. As with wines, he's a stickler for quality and consistency. Like other liquor players, he knows that premiumisation is the way forward. So he's launched brands like Mont Castle brandy and Grand Duke whisky in recent years, and now the premium brandy Roulette. He's also maturing grape spirit for a cognac-standard brandy that he may launch after four years. "We produce our own alcohol and grape spirit and have our own maturation facilities. So, I'm confident of delivering quality," says John.

  • Whisky guru Jim Murray has awarded a Liquid Silver award to the Paul John Single Casks

He's in no hurry though. "Slow and steady is the only way," he feels. For now, the single malts are available in UK as well as in the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Germany. He also plans to take them to the US and Japan next year. But he's not looking at India immediately. "Indians are more interested in international brands although Amrut has created a lot of interest," he says.

Singh feels that size is the key difference between Amrut and John Distilleries. So while Amrut's smaller supply has restrained its growth, John Distilleries "will do better as they have the production to fulfill the demand once it picks up", he says.

John too is confident. "I have over 1.2 million litres of malts maturing, and we can expand further," he says. For now though, he's relishing the fact that everyone's surprised by his Paul John malts. "They can't believe they're from India," he says. That's enough to raise a toast.