Varsha Naik shares her first-hand experience touring the Paul John Distillery in Goa
As I walk into the ground-level warehouse at John Distilleries at Cuncolim, Goa, a whisper of “wow” falls from my lips as I gaze up at the marvelous sight of American oak barrels piled high till the ceiling. Michael D’Souza, Master Blender, smiles at my expression, and allows me a moment to soak up the aromas inside the massive, quiet warehouse – peat, vanilla, wood, a hint of spice – the heart of Paul John single malts. As he moves on I reluctantly follow, out of this magical, silent place and on to the loud distillery floor for an education in whisky-making.
Malting, Mashing and Distillation
The process begins with malting (germinating the barley, by soaking in water), after which the barley is crushed into grist (each batch at Paul John uses two tonnes of grist) and mixed with hot water; this is known as mashing and releases starch from within the grain converting it into sugar. The mash is allowed to rest for a couple of hours so that all the starch converts to sugar. Once done, the solid is separated from the liquid (the solid known as draff is sold as cattle feed) and the sweet liquid (wort) goes into the pot still where the distillation takes place. Yeast is added and fermentation takes about 70 hours to complete. Batch by batch, the liquid is transferred first into the wash still. Low wines are distilled here, and transferred into the spirit still for a second distillation.
“The clear product from the spirit still, is called new-make spirit,” Michael says, “It cannot be classified as whisky unless matured for three years. During maturation it extracts certain flavour compounds from the barrel in addition to flavours from the grain, and the pot still during fermentation and distillation.” Before it goes into the barrel though, three fractions of the spirit are taken. The foreshot, with the highest impurities is discarded. The distiller checks the alcohol strength of the liquid, lower strengths (heads) are separated. The good quality liquid, which is called the heart, goes into the barrels. When the alcohol strength drops below a certain degree, the spirit (now know as tail) is removed as well. This process is one of the most crucial steps in the newmade spirit fractioning, as impurities can spoil the whole batch. The heads and tails are known as faints, and are then mixed with a new batch of low wines and recycled.
Speaking of faints, as we make our way through the facility, I’m zapped back in time to a distillery tour in Scotland when I was a wee 11-year-old. It’s the pungent aroma in here that throws up the distinct memory of stumbling out of that distillery. I remember feeling strange and woozy, and the parents had a good laugh when they realised I was sort of tipsy high on whisky fumes. It’s a smell I will, unfortunately, never forget. So right about now, after a short 10 minutes around these similar fumes, faint feels about right.
Cask Selection, Maturation and Warehouses
Thankfully, we quickly move on to understanding the importance of chosing barrels with the characteristics and essences desired in the whisky. Michael explains, “In America, as per whisky regulations, the barrels have to be virgin oak and can only be used once. So, other brands purchase these once-used barrels for their own use. At Paul John, we have a contract with Jack Daniel’s and Buffalo Trace to use their casks.”
Michael outlines the process that the new-make spirit undergoes while in the barrel. “It keeps evolving day and night and goes through two phases. The extractive phase is when the whisky inside the barrel interacts with the wood and start extracting certain flavour compounds that are present in the wood, including colour. This occurs when the temperature is higher as the liquid expands. The reactive phase is when the chemical compounds within the whisky start reacting together, mostly during the night or during winter.”
Each barrel has a capacity of 200 litres and is made of 32 staves (wooden planks), and each one could be from a different tree; the growth is different, the grains are different, and thus the alcohol matured in every barrel has different characteristics. Barrels have a coding system for easy identification: cask number,filling date, and filling number. “Certain barrels have all the desired characteristics, and these are bottled as single cask. I label some barrels as 3++, which are excellent quality and kept aside only to be used for limited editions,” Michael says.
The ground-level warehouse is warm and holds about 6,000 casks and set up like a US rickhouse. There are 13 tiers here and flavours become more woody and citrus in the higher tiers. Lower tiers are cooler and it gets warmer as you go up. Barrels are swapped regularly so that the top tier barrels do not evaporate dry. Due to the way rickhouses are designed, with wooden racks, if you remove a barrel from one corner, another one has to be removed from the opposite corner, otherwise the rickhouse will tilt.
A second warehouse is underground with a capacity of 4,000 casks, a more comfortable temperature and less humidity. Michael points out different types of barrels stored here – European oak and sherry barrels that create notably different whisky expressions, and even some hogsheads and butts that can hold 250 and 500 litres respectively. There are a few virgin oak barrels here, and sherry hogsheads that Paul John is experimenting with to discover some original flavours.
Visting the Facility
As Paul John grows in great strides across the nation and world, their facilities are growing as well; a new warehouse with the capacity to hold 5,000 barrels is under construction. In September this year, their visitor center will be ready to open to the public as well, where one can sign up for whisky tours and even learn about the manufacture process through videos in the AV room. A special tasting and a counter to buy alcohol will serve to complete the experience for all visitors.