A Drink With… Paul John, John Distilleries17th October, 2012 by Richard Woodard
Paul John is chairman of John Distilleries, best-known as the owner of Original Choice, one of the most popular whisky brands in India with sales of 10.7m cases in 2011.
Now he has launched a premium Indian single malt whisky, a single cask release of only 150 or so bottles, produced using Indian malted barley and bottled at cask strength (57% abv). He spoke to Richard Woodard.
Where did you get the idea of producing a single malt of your own in India?
During the course of my journey in producing and selling alcohol in India, I realised there was potential for a premium product, not only in India, but also internationally. I realised that in India we can produce that kind of quality. There is no rocket science in single malt production. The key is in the quality of the barley and the way you distil. In India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, we produce very good barley, and all our maltsters have experience working in Scotland.
But presumably distillation and maturation in India will be different to Scotland, for example?
We use copper pot stills made in India – they’re slightly on the longer-necked side. There’s no age statement on the whisky, but we are losing more than 10% [in terms of the angels’ share] every year because of the tropical climate where we are based, in Goa. So the ageing is happening quite fast, but it qualifies as whisky with a minimum of three years’ ageing. This particular cask was an ex-Bourbon cask.
Do you have plans for more releases?
We have a few single casks, and we will be launching a peated variant. This is a first offering with a lot more to come. We will also come out with a flagship Paul John single malt.
And which markets are your top priorities?
I am starting off with the UK. Depending on the demand and the availability of the stock, we will pick and choose the countries: the UK, France, Italy and probably Canada. I am convinced that if we can give quality, I don’t see any reason why they would not want to buy it. But, with the current capacity that I have, I don’t think selling to too many countries will be possible.
At the cheaper end at least, Indian whisky doesn’t have the best reputation. Do you worry that this might affect the perception of your premium whiskies too?
No, I am confident that the quality will speak for it. We are making good whisky first and being Indian second.
What’s the likely response to the single cask bottling in India?
Single malt drinking in India is still at a nascent stage. It could be 25 years before India becomes a serious single malt-drinking country. Young people are just about getting into white spirits – white spirits growth is about 25% a year. So it could be 25 years before they come around to single malts. The younger generation will mature at a faster pace and drink single malts at an earlier stage than people do now. Fifteen years ago, it would have been unheard-of.
What’s the potential for future growth for your whole business in India?
India is a huge market. We are only operating in three or four states in the south of India at the moment, and there are so many states.
And the tax regime? Any likelihood of reform there?
In my opinion, there may be some small changes, but nothing significant. Unfortunately, in the Indian constitution liquor is a state subject, so every state has its own laws. It’s impossible to get every state to come to an agreement over taxes. The entire tax system is all at a state level, so an FTA [Free Trade Agreement] will make no difference. A substantial part of revenue comes from the tax on alcohol, so it’s a very, very sensitive issue and no state is going to give up so easily just because the government signs an agreement.
There’s a lot of interest from Western companies in India now: for instance, the talks between Diageo and United Spirits. Has anyone come knocking on your door yet?
No, not yet. Definitely there is a lot of interest from Western companies looking at alcohol, because India is still growing at 7-8%. Also it looks like for the future this rate of growth is only going to increase. The population is still very young, so we don’t have to worry about an ageing population yet – 65% of the population is below 34 years old.
And what would be your response if someone did come knocking?
I am here to do business! I’m open to ideas. If anything makes sense, I am up for it. I am here to do business for sure!