India gets under your skin like few other countries on earth. It assaults you with a raw vibrancy and many find it shocking in its impact. It is hard to leave without having been changed in some way and one of the experiences that I remember most is the flavour nuances of the food and drink.
When I visited Kerala in 2005 with food-writing colleague Christine McFadden, it was to help her research black pepper. I took a few days off and jumped on a train heading north to experience the story behind Monsooned Malabar coffee. If only I had got back onto a train heading north to Goa to visit Paul John whisky! Then unknown to me, Paul John had already been in existence for more than a dozen years. Now, however, I have the perfect reason to return to an utterly amazing country, to learn about and drink their whisky.
Many describe India as a complete assault on the senses - and whisky might be described by those new to it in the same way! It must be said that I have drunk some terrible Indian whiskies - one in particular was a grain whisky very similar to semi-dissolved palm sugar. Maybe that is not surprising as sugar is indigenous to India and there's all that terroir thing that we could talk about but, suffice it to say, that whisky goes into my mincemeat each year. Nothing from Paul John that I have ever tasted goes anywhere except into a glass of enjoyment and it was no surprise to read that their Master Distiller, Michael D'Souza, was recently created an Icon of Whisky, a huge accolade and achievement.
That Boutique-y Whisky Company (TBWC), in common with other independent bottlers, sell 'bin ends' or odd barrels of whiskies that could not otherwise be offered for sale, except as Distillery Specials. TBWC go further and offer whiskies from many countries, not just from Scotland, and at cask strength or a higher abv. The bottles are also 50cl, so be prepared for less and more if you purchase - less whisky but more unusual drams and at a greater ABV (alcohol by volume) than you might be used to.
TBWC have 3 batches of single malt from Paul John. I had my first taster from Dave Worthington at The Whisky Exchange Show and was amazed when he explained that I was enjoying a 6yo Indian whisky - it could have been a rare Speyside for all I knew. I was already a fan of Paul John's Brilliance, but these 3 drams are a special experience, and one in which I am hoping to encourage you to indulge.
Batch 1, bottled at 55.5%abv, has hot dusty earth, spices and a touch of the fragrant exotic on the nose. It's cassia rather than cinnamon, galangal rather than ginger: that sort of depth of aromas. The first sip is sweeter than expected, vanilla butter toffee but then a fabulous carnival parade of spices with ginger and pepper dancing wildly at the end comes along. The sweetness disappears as your mouth warms up. Sip two is more rounded and the sweetness is dwarfed by the assault of the spices. If I was describing food I might suggest that they were slightly uncooked but it's like sitting round the embers of a bonfire on a beach at sunset. Warmth is the lingering sensation. Whisky-in-hand sort of happiness. At this strength the whisky happily accepts a few or a dozen drops of water, which change it out of dusty clothes into silk tropical evening wear, finding an elegance about it that was never there when the whisky was first nosed.
Batch 2, a 6yo bottled at 54.7%abv, is the richest in colour of my 3 samples. More rounded and fruitier on the nose, there is spice but it is balanced by sweeter and more herbaceous notes, making this a much easier whisky to contemplate, but the complexity is obvious from the first moment. The first sip is about sweetness yes, but not sugary notes. It's about vanilla, pure vanilla, bourbon pods and natural extract, nothing at all to suggest essence and synthetic flavours. This is artisan flavouring from brilliantly prepared casks. The vanilla is there while you hold the whisky in your mouth then, as you swallow, it is completely replaced by allspice and pepper, balanced, fruity and glorious. (I hope you can tell that I am enjoying this?!) Sip two marries the sweetness and the spice. Speyside distilleries could never achieve this depth of flavour in so few years. New World whiskies v Old World are facing up on my palette. However, with no water, this has a trademark terroir finish that definitely says this whisky was crafted in the Tropics and not in a colder climate. The spice finishes in a slightly flat way - how would this be with a few shavings of lime zest? I'll check it out and let you know! With water we're back at a country club rather than at a spice market, but the finish still reveals the terroir that produced this whisky.
The barley for Paul John whiskies is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, the same area which produces basmati, the king of rices for flavour and texture. Brought to Goa for crafting into whisky, the heat of the tropics really plays a part in intensifying the development of flavour in the whiskies. Some notes that linger after the spice disappears - stewed apple is one - are surprising but these whiskies ask a question. Will a slow, gentle (cold climate) maturation produce 'greatness' more consistently than this rapid acquisition of (life's) flavour and experience? Who can decide? Think how New World 'ready-to-drink' wines shook up the old world of cellerage and laying vintages down to mature. It is interesting stuff. Would the freshly ground intensity of pepper lingering on my tongue right now stale with further barrel aging? Such questions must be revisited in a few years time for answers.
Batch 3, another 6yo Paul John at 52.9%abv, is the most elegant on the nose of the three samples that I have received. It is more suggestive of peat and smokiness, and there is a fresh saltiness about it which I have not found in Batches 1 and 2. It is more akin to Batch 1, but with a greater elegance and maturity. The first sip of this is much more elegant than the previous 2 samples: the spice takes a good time to come through a muted sweetness which grows into vanilla and then that toasty spice arrives with roast butter-basted chicken skin. Wow! I've never found chicken skin in a whisky before! Sip two adds adult barley sugar to the mix, spiced and not too sweet. This plays with my tastebuds and challenges my perceptions of how flavours can mingle! The saltiness is the bridge between the sweet and the savoury in my mouth with any vanilla notes being transformed into caramel. Gosh! With a drop or two of water, this Batch 3 becomes a whisky of immense yet accessible complexity with bejewelled poise and elegance.
Well, after that total taste experience, I am just going to take a peek at prices, remembering that they are for a 50cl bottle. Masters of Malt have the Batch 3 at just shy of £100 a bottle. If Mr Moon hadn't said that I must run down my whisky stocks as we are hoping to move house soon I would be clicking the BUY NOW button.
With many thanks to Paul John and That Boutique-y Whisky Company for supplying the samples for this review.