Paul John Whisky Evening

Every once in a while our merry monthly malt group breaks with our sacrosanct meeting approach to throw ‘open’ our doors to a sociable evening with better halves. As luck would have it – we managed a full house this month!

The motivation for the evening was a delightful ‘score’ from a recent trip to Goa… With 4 lovely bright bottles of India’s Paul John single malts distilled in sunny Goa, how could we resist?

While John Distilleries has been around in India since 1992, their first Paul John single malt was launched only in late 2012 in the UK. Now a few are available in India (Goa!) and it was a rare treat to try four expressions from the same distillery!

We sampled in the above order – without reading the distillery tasting notes.

Then my partner read out in his rich baritone the Paul John whisky descriptions… let’s just say they are unlike any notes we’ve seen!

All are distilled in copper pot stills and while ‘NAS’ are understood to be matured for 4-5 years in ex-bourbon casks. As I keep being reminded, whiskies matured in warm… ok let’s admit it HOT climes (in the case of Goa) have an accelerated maturation cycle and heightened ‘angels share’ loss. However when done right in such conditions, the whisky sipper is the ultimate beneficiary!

Paul John Brilliance, Edited, Classic, Peated (Whisky Lady)

Paul John Brilliance, Edited, Classic, Peated (Whisky Lady)

An immediate indicator of preference is the quantity consumed. After the initial pour, the bottles are available for further enjoyment. You can immediately see Classic was ‘tops’, followed by Peated then Brilliance. In fairness to Edited, we tried it earlier so a couple of late-comers skipped the sample.

Tasting notes links provided above however overall had the following observations:

  • Clear stamp of being part of the same family – all had a luscious tropical feel yet varying degrees of bitterness on the palate proved none are wimps!
  • Brilliance and Edited are like twins – one with blue eyes the other brown!
  • Some preferred Brilliance’s fruity sweet perfume (blue eyes) over the lightly peated qualities of Edited (brown eyes)… whereas for others it was the reverse
  • Classic shows considerable promise – clear favourite of the four
  • Much speculation over whether the brilliant ‘gem-like’ colour could possibly natural!?

It would be interesting to compare the Paul John expressions side-by-side with Amrut – such as their entry-level single malt or Peated. Based on our recent experience with Amrut, suspect Paul John would come out ahead. However a ‘blind’ head-to-head would still be an enlightening experiment! Particularly as within our group are a range of palate preferences.

Regardless, how fabulous that India is now producing REAL single malts not just the mass-produced blended ‘whisky’ which is often coloured spirits masquerading as whisky.

Comment of the evening summed it up:

“An interesting work in progress!”

And we look forward to seeing what more is to come!

The real test for me?

I think a Paul John just might join an upcoming trip to Canada end June. My Aunt and Uncle have a whisky tasting club. They also quite enjoyed their time in Goa a few years ago…. So bringing a whisky taste of Goa to Canada sounds like a perfect gift!

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Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish 40%

It is no secret that I quite like some Japanese whiskies.

But what about Taiwan? For years there were rumblings about Taiwan also doing something special.

So you can imagine that when I had a work trip to Taipei years ago, I was terribly excited about the opportunity to snag something interesting.

It proved slightly tricky. Why?

  • Limited time
  • Limited communication
  • Limited options

I did find a couple of stores with a decent selection of whiskies from everywhere BUT Taiwan. I could only find Concertmaster plus small samples of other Kavalan expressions – naturally at a wallet-pinching ‘full-retail’ price! I grabbed the samples and risked catching Kavalan’s Soloist or other expressions at the duty-free.

As luck would have it, after a few re-directions, I did find ONE little Taiwan whisky section with a rather bare range of Kavalan at the airport! Nope – no Soloist only Concertmaster that day.

For those not aware, the Soloist range is the one garnering the special attention – including the Soloist expression Vinho Barrique recently receiving the 2015 World Whiskies ‘Best Single Malt’ Award! However Concertmaster also has a goodly number of awards to its credit too.

Concertmaster (Whisky Lady)

Concertmaster (Whisky Lady)

So what about the Kavalan Concertmaster?

It is one of Kavalan’s entry-level single malt which is aged in American oak then finished in three port casks (Portuguese ruby, tawny and vintage) – hence the ‘concert’ of finishes.

And what did I find?

Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish 40%

  • Colour – Burnished gold with a ruby glow
  • Nose – Tropical fruits, coconut, honey sweet, tincture or a slightly medicinal quality when freshly opened that wafted away after time…
  • Taste – Sweet almost overly fruity sweet, berry sweet, some dry coconut, then an undertone of bitterness, a little kopra
  • Finish – Short and dry is the initial impression… pause and then noted a subtle remnant of coconut and port for a bit… just a bit

Now… here is where I must admit… when I first tried it, it was a disappointment. Especially after the excitement and effort… and certainly not for its price range.

I’ve tried it a few times since and my overall conclusion is that while it is enjoyable and certainly worth trying at least once, it doesn’t seem quite balanced to my palate.

Rather than a symphony of tastes, it is like the sweet violin strings are a little too discordantly brash without enough other instruments to bring depth and richness. This is like an unbalanced quartet masquerading as a symphony.

Concertmaster (Whisky Lady)

Concertmaster Port Cask Finish (Whisky Lady)

I honestly would have wondered what all the fuss was about with Kavalan had I not sampled from the Soloist range – much more interesting!

So while I do not regret buying a bottle, it isn’t one that I will run out to acquire again! For the money, there are other many more options to explore.

Here’s what others are saying:

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Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask 47.5%

Australia is one of those countries that I kept expecting to get to… even had a plan once or twice and then something intervened.

Knowing there wouldn’t be a trip anytime soon, when I first heard of Sullivans Cove, I did the next best thing – shamelessly ask for a bottle from Australia!

In a rather round-about plan, I was hoping it could be brought by a project cohort who lives in Australia to Indonesia and then while there for a project, I would bring it back to India.

Alas, thanks to the instant popularity of Sullivans Cove post Jim Murray‘s rave review, dreams of acquiring this dram were dashed when I discovered it was SOLD OUT at regular retail in Australia.

Good thing another member had a full year earlier acquired it in Dubai! As a result, we were lucky enough to sample this whisky – go guys!

Sullivan's Cove (Whisky Lady)

A well-travelled Sullivans Cove (Whisky Lady)

Sullivans Cove 47.5% (bottle 120 of 455)

1st impression from April 2014:

  • Nose – Instant aaah!  A bouquet of scents with a little peat, spice, citrus, pear and fig, chocolate, even coffee bean and toffee
  • Taste – Spicy sweet, licorice, peppery chillies, just oodles of character even if not as complex as the nose hinted
  • Finish – All chilli spice yuminess
  • With water – Smoother but character slightly quashed

Speculation: Clear it has a slightly higher alcohol content, guessed around 47 – 48%. While must be a young whisky, had plenty of character.

Pairing: Should be fabulous with chilli chocolate. Also aged cheddar and crackers.

Sullivans Cove close-up (Whisky Lady)

Sullivans Cove close-up (Whisky Lady)

2nd impression from March 2015

I recently revisited Sullivans Cove from the small ‘take home’  sample shared at our original tasting. Here is what I found the 2nd time around:

  • Nose – Dark chocolate with a zest of orange, then honeyed vanilla, cinnamon
  • Taste – Delightful chilli pepper, bright yet smooth, chocolate raisins, hint of liquorice
  • Finish – Dry, not a lingerer but an enjoyable nip of chilli while it lasts
  • Water – Not interested in even trying!

I jotted down these impressions without looking at our original experience… It was largely consistent with the 1st tasting and, once again, thought it an enjoyable dram.

From our original tasting, we had the following conclusion:

A remarkable find picked up by chance a year ago from Dubai duty-free. Now thanks to its award-winning status, near impossible to obtain.

This Tasmanian treasure has no age declared yet clearly takes full advantage of the warmer climes speeding up the aging process in new French Oak barrels. A treat for the merry samplers!

While I doubt will have a chance to sip Sullivans Cove again any time soon, it whetted my appetite to try other Tasmanian whiskies.

The gents over at Whisky Waffle have a good Tasmanian Whisky list… so now… let’s see if I can cook up a convoluted plan to acquire one of the more promising sounding ones!!

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Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2%

When Jim Murray was influencing us to guess an Islay when sampling blind the Amrut Peated, the closest I could think was perhaps an Ardbeg expression.

So when I found myself a few days later in slightly peaty mood, decided to go for a ‘real’ Ardbeg.

Of the Ardbeg stable, the Uigeadail has become a ‘classic’. A bottle of it also just happens to find its home in my cabinet… So why not revisit?

Ardbeg (Whisky Lady)

Ardbeg Uigeadail (Whisky Lady)

Ardbeg Uigeadail NAS 54.2%

What did I find?

  • Colour – Light gold
  • Nose – Hello peat! With a dash of espresso, then a delightful curl of maple syrup, underneath a whiff of iodine, then liquorice
  • Taste – Peaty dancing around a camp fire! A bit of tar, like chewing the end of a cigar, an odd almost flat cola flavour, raisins…
  • Finish – Smoky, dry, rubber… then elements of dried apricot
  • Water – Cranks up the spice… then mellows out with the peaty smoke enveloping, chased by sherry sweetness. Doesn’t harm but doesn’t really enhance.
  • Ice – I threw in a mini cube (gasp!) Not something I’m inclined to try with most whiskies – however we have now entered into the post Holi ‘warm’ season so decided to risk. And? Let’s just say it doesn’t do wonders for the nose however it brightened and lightened up the whisky. Can’t say it works for me. Maybe I’m just too stuck on the ‘no ice’ adage.

What was my conclusion after the revisit?

Well.. I can understand why Uigeadail has its fan club. It is also priced reasonably. What it pulls off best is bringing a chewy peatiness without clobbering you over the head with it.

Personally, I prefer it best neat and it has been nice to have around for those times when the peaty mood strikes!

Ardbeg (Whisky Lady)

Ardbeg Uigeadail (Whisky Lady)

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Party whisky – Amrut’s MaQintosh

While there are so many fabulous single malts out there, what about those sociable evenings where folks prefer quantity over quality?

The usual suspects in Mumbai for around Rs 1,000 are Blender’s Pride, Antiquity Blue, etc. However one evening, supplies were dwindling and the local liquor store didn’t have any of these.

That’s when my friendly neighbourhood ‘wine’ shop suggested MaQintosh.

Thanks to Amrut‘s marketing efforts (with a nod to Jim Murray‘s Whisky Bible review), most would have heard of this Indian international contender in the single malt category.

However few outside of India’s local booze shops would know of MaQintosh. Touted as a ‘Premium’ whisky, just what the heck?

  • Well… it immediately comes across as fake Scottish with appalling spelling… I mean after all isn’t ‘u’ after ‘q’??
  • It declares boldly that it is ‘genuinely’ made from Scottish and Indian malts… (as opposed to…?)
  • It is also ‘aged’ and ‘married’ in imported Oak barrels
  • Admits uses ‘permitted’ caramel
  • Strength 42.8% and NAS
  • Price Rs 900 in Mumbai (That’s $15 for you folks who don’t live in India!)
MaQintosh (Whisky Lady)

MaQintosh (Whisky Lady)

And tasting notes of the whisky?

  • Nose – Toffee sweet
  • Palate – Mildly oaky, apples, pleasant but not memorable
  • Finish – Warm burn

Yeah, I know… not exactly much, eh?

But here is the deal… If you compare it with your average cheap – oops! I mean ‘premium‘ Indian whisky – it fares better. Far better.

As most folks I know aren’t familiar with MaQintosh, initially they would still reach for the usual suspects. Several parties later, I couldn’t quite seem to convince anyone to polish off the bottle. Hmm…

But the thing is… that is starting to change. More and more folks are starting to realise they can get a certain level of taste and enjoyability in an affordable package. Just the other day, at the local Bandra gymkhana, talk turned to “Have you tried MaQintosh?”

Me? I’m still on the quality over quantity side of the equation whereas party whisky should be the opposite.

But that’s just slightly snobby me. Don’t let me stop you!

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The Mumbai Amrut Jim Murray Experience

We came, we sniffed, we spat and were decidedly NOT conquered!

Over 150 folks showed up at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel Crystal Ballroom for a whisky tasting with whisky guru Jim Murray on 10 March 2015.

The invitation card said to arrive at 7:15pm as the tasting would begin sharp at 7:30. The doors were tightly shut until the appointed hour as the staff poured out 6 samples of whiskies in tulip glasses for each attendee.

Amrut

And then we experienced classic IST (Indian stretchable time) as those who reached on time, waited and waited and then la la di la la waited some more until 8:45pm when one of the ‘special guests’ meandered in…

Then the ‘show’ started. And it was a show… carefully curated to show off Amrut whiskies.

Beginning with a tribute to Jamshedji Tata on his 175th Birth Anniversary, the Amrut founder took us through Amrut highlights over the last decade before introducing Jim Murray.

After some crowd warming chit-chat, Jim began with lessons in how to nose through pointing out what NOT to do (push full snout into the glass), regaling us with tales and anecdotes while we warmed our glasses nestled next to our bodies.

Tasting steps according to Jim Murray:

  1. Lift cover off glass and take the first fresh whiff – dabbing against an imaginary moustache both right then left nostril
  2. Cup glass with both hands to seal the whisky in and warm it against your body for approx. 5 – 10 mins
  3. Hold covered glass away from body, lift hand to let alcohol evaporate while drawing close to then nose again
  4. Take a tiny sip to rinse mouth – the ‘mouth wash’ step – and spit
  5. Then a few seconds later take another whiff right and left nostril followed immediately by a large sip – the 1st taste – roll it around in your mouth, chin up, opening and closing your mouth like a fish, then spit it out
  6. ‘Listen’ to the whisky to ‘hear’ what it tells you about its character
  7. After a few minutes, take a 2nd taste… again whiff, sip, tilt head back, open and close fish style, then spit out or… perhaps… if so inclined… swallow
  8. Again ‘listen’ to what the whisky ‘says’
  9. Repeat steps 2, 3, 7 and 8 as required…

We were discouraged from discussing our impressions at the table, to reduce influencing each other, as part of the ‘lesson’ was to discover how the whisky ‘speaks individually.’ What this means is the notes that follow are the impressions of the two members of our whisky tasting club who jotted down our thoughts.

Sample setting

Sample setting before tasting…

I’ve kept the labels as per the place mat however notes in the tasting order.

And here come a BIG caveat – in fairness to all the whiskies – they were poured from 6:30pm so by the time we sampled, two to three hours had elapsed…

Whisky 1 – Glenmorangie 10 year

  • Nose – Initially very mild perfume (fruit) then nothing! Very light, slightly floral, perhaps hidden peat and apricot, dry. Post warming slightly sweeter, still very soft, remained exceedingly light
  • Taste – Dry ash, bitter, mildly briny, like weak (not very good) coffee,  slightly rancid undertone
  • Finish – Dry oak, short
  • Impression – Insipid

Whisky 2 – Amrut Single Malt

  • Nose – More character than the 1st, overripe fruit, dirty socks, sweet, very little peat
  • Taste – Oily, fruit gone slightly bad, with the 2ndtasting coaxed out a little chocolate after extra ‘warming’
  • Finish – Medium short, nothing to write home about
  • Impression – Weak and not terribly interesting

Experience – The first two were ‘revealed’ after we sampled both. We were challenged to identify which was Scottish vs Indian which lead to positively contrast the entry-level Amrut Single Malt against the mass produced entry-level Glenmorangie. While I’m not trying to defend Glenmorangie, I should note the sample was so small it could easily be misleading – the Amrut pour size was far more generous. While Jim extolled the virtues of Amrut vs Glenmorangie, neither were terribly noteworthy.

Whisky 3 – Jim Beam White Label 4 Year

  • Nose – Varnish, ash, an agave / almost tequila quality
  • Taste – Paan betel leaf sweet, a bit minty, dry, not quite leather, slight spice, after oxidizing even sweeter
  • Finish – Not exceptional
  • Impression – No body, no character

Experience – Universally this was noted as ‘different’ than the others tried but not particularly good. Two lone souls identified it as a bourbon. Jim asked one if he was a bourbon fan – the retort was ‘No!’ (and turned out to be a distributor so at least he knows his business!).

Whisky 6 – Amrut Peated

  • Nose – Peaty, smoky sweet, little citrus after warming
  • Taste – Spice, chewy, leather, not peaty on the palate. After further warming and again tasting, bit of coffee, still quite sweet, smooth, no longer spicy
  • Finish – Medium long, tinge of bitter cacao
  • Impression – Most interesting of the evening (which wasn’t saying much), also the most generous pour

Experience – Jim was clearly trying to get us to guess this was an Islay and shared insight into the art (and follies) of adding peat to whiskies – so why not to an Indian whisky? Certainly no objection from this corner!

Whisky 4 – Talisker 10 year (tried after Whisky 6)

  • Nose – Slight smoke, hint of blue cheese, light sweet… in short quite bland
  • Taste – Dry, spice, off-balance, toothpaste? ‘weird whisky’
  • Finish – Jim shared how the ‘weird taste’ lingers
  • Impression – Jim was definitely steering the audience to discover something ‘off’ with this whisky

Experience – Here is where Jim really got after the Scots for their laziness and neglect of their craft – justifying adding caramel vs what Jim would like to see – a ban on caramel! Also castigated Scottish distilleries in general for their methods of cleaning and re-using casks. Shared how Talisker may have been the 1st distillery he visited, however Indian distilleries are now taking much more care with the craft of making single malt.

Whisky 5 – Amrut Fusion

  • Nose – Sweet, varnish, smoke, tannin from oak, clean, mild peat
  • Taste – Oily, mocha, smoke, sugar, oaky
  • Finish – Medium long
  • Impression – Jim shared how ‘well balanced’ the whisky is with its different elements

Experience – Jim extolled the use of quality wood however (not sure if others caught this) did later admit an ‘inconsistency’ with this whisky. Which remains my ‘beef’ with Fusion – either quality control issues at the distillery or massive incompetence and neglect in storage before it makes it to our table. Even after our blind sampling a couple of years ago when we went ‘Yuck!’, I’ve had very mixed experiences with Amrut Fusion ranging from ‘passable’ to ‘no way’ to ‘tolerable’ to ‘ok’ and back to ‘average at best.’

Evening close…

When Jim took a poll at the end of the evening, Amrut was preferred over non-Amrut whiskies, with more preferring the Peated than Fusion (though Fusion also had its fans). He also observed more women preferred the Peated than Fusion.

Jim finished his part of the evening by sharing how he believes India has two outstanding distilleries – Amrut and Paul John – that are way ahead of anything else.

While I certainly applaud his recognition of the efforts of both Indian distilleries and appreciate Mr Murray is an expert genuinely devoted to the world of whisky, not sure the evening truly achieved either the stated objective of ‘education’ or unstated but understood aim of promoting Amrut.

Jim Murray is certainly entertaining and his enthusiasm and love of whisky undisputed, however his slightly bombastic claim of rampant independence was belied by obviously steering the evening in one direction.

And while he repeatedly said how he will keep Amrut ‘on their toes’ if he sees quality slip, the question really is – where does Amrut aspire to be?

If it is truly wants to out-class Scottish whiskies yet with a distinctly Indian character, then why fear including at least one ‘aspirational’ whisky in the sampling to show what true quality single malt craftsmanship is about? Better question, if Amrut is producing cask strength whiskies, why not showcase at least one of those which may have proven more interesting?

The only answer seems to be that clearly this event was targeted primarily at novices to whisky.

For those more familiar with single malts, one could hear various versions of the following remark:

“Have you ever had so many bad/mediocre/below average whiskies in a single eve?”

For me, even the ‘best’ of the lot – Amrut Peated – didn’t stand the test when revisited later in the evening without being juxtaposed next to Jim Beam!

If anything, the evening did a disservice to Amrut, dumbing down what could have been a more interesting debate with a renowned authority on the world of whiskies and, more specifically, where one Indian distillery is forging ground.

Not a complete waste of an evening but I for one was highly grateful to make copious use of the spittoon!

View of the Gateway of India from Taj Mahal Hotel

View of the Gateway of India from Taj Mahal Hotel (Whisky Lady)

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Tapatio Excelencia Gran Reserva Extra Anejo 40%

While Whisky Lady was created to celebrate sampling whiskies, every once and a while I come across something that is just too exceptional – it deserves sharing even if it isn’t whisky!

I should start by confessing, I’m generally not a tequila drinker. Shots aren’t my thing. Neither are margaritas, daiquiri, etc… To top it off, nights where tequila is involved have a tendency to end strangely.

However on a trip through Singapore last year, I challenged the great guys at La Maison du Whisky to suggest something entirely different for our Mumbai whisky sampling gang.

Out came this remarkable tequila… I had a few sips and could not resist!

Tapatio Excelencia Gran Reserva Extra Anejo 40%

  • Colour – Burnished copper
  • Nose – Herbs, clean, turmeric, sweet… as it opened up with air even more sweet notes joined the choir – vanilla, stewed fruits, salty almonds
  • Taste – Bitter medicinal, briny sea salt, wet forest, undertone of dark chocolate
  • Finish – Peppery, buttery, spicy yet smooth

It was without a doubt, the real ‘googly’ of the evening for my whisky quaffing companions.

All expected another whisky, so when I brought out for blind tasting an ‘extra anejo’ – tequila matured in bourbon barrels – palates were pre-calibrated to anticipate whisky. The colour could almost pass as whisky… naturally our resident expert caught on however I gave him ‘the look’ to not spill the beans and instead let others discover without influence.

An exceptional tequila in a class of its own – 100% agave anejo from Carlos Camarena of the La Altena distillery using traditional production methods with brick ovens, wooden vats and copper stills. This extra anejo is aged for around four years – making it one of the oldest tequilas on the market.

I pulled out a premium blue agave to compare – clearly proving just how different it is from its brethren!

Tequilla

It really is something else and exactly the kind of tequila which appeals to whisky aficionados!

I first shared this special find with our whisky tasting team on 14 June 2014 together with Tyrconnell, Ledaig 1997 and Talisker Dark Storm.

It occasionally gets pulled out again for the appreciation of a few extra special true tequila lovers… As I do not expect to source another bottle of this rare find… will continue to be stingy about sharing for as long as it lasts!

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