According to legend, a rum-loving British monk would be seen lurking around the rum barrels belonging to the company Mohan Meakin in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh.
He would apparently taste the rum in its ripening season, and hang out with the master craftsmen. Over time, the monk became a bit of a rum expert himself and offered valuable advice to the craftsmen at Mohan Meakin who dedicated India’s first brand of rum to the benevolent monk.
The truth is staider but the drink, ‘Old Monk’, is India’s most iconic and popular alcoholic beverage, savoured by the young and the old, rich and the badly off.
Popular Delhi-based mixologist (mixes cocktails) Yangdup Lama says nostalgia and a “secret recipe” are what make Old Monk such a hit.
“Old Monk holds a special place in the hearts of every Indian because it is everyone’s first drink,” Lama said. “You associate it with the best times of your lives, drinking it takes you back to the time when you were wild and free, so even if people upgrade to drinking single malt whiskies, they’ll never say no to a peg of Old Monk.”
In 2019, Hurun Indian Luxury Consumer Survey revealed that Old Monk was the most preferred brand of Indian liquor for high net worth Indians.
But it isn’t only the drink’s emotional value that is its USP. Lama said there’s “something” in the drink’s recipe that makes it so appealing.
“Of course Old Monk is nowhere near the fine rums of the world,” he said. “But there’s just something about the drink’s recipe that makes it so addictive. And I don’t know what it is; it has been kept a secret, like coke’s (Coca-Cola) recipe,” Lama says.
Avantika Mehra, the founder of The Ladies Compartment, an online magazine on intersectional feminism and culture, agrees.
“Old Monk is the only dark rum I drink. It tastes better than all the other imported stuff,” Mehra told ThePrint. “A lot of it might still be nostalgia, but the fact is that it is a superb dark rum at a surprisingly cheap price.”
Reminder of happier times
Old Monk is an integral part of many people’s college lives. Who doesn’t have a crazy story to tell of the time they sat in a dingy old bar with cheap Old Monk and fried Chinese food?
“I have a lot of happy memories attached to the drink,” said Sukrit Koul, a Delhi-based copywriter. “My first trip with my friend was somewhere in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh. Under the stars, surrounded by majestic mountains, we lit a bonfire, and I remember sitting there drinking Old Monk all night long, chugging glasses and glasses of the drink until the bottle got over. It gets you a happy high.”
This nostalgic value is so high that even if people can afford higher-end rums, they still prefer Old Monk.
“I love gifting it to people outside India if they’re ever travelling here or if I am visiting abroad since the drink is unique to India, and even they’ve all admitted that it’s the best tasting rum they’ve ever had,” Mehta said.
An iconic drink
While the company website states the drink was launched in 1935, it’s widely reported that Old Monk first hit the stands in 1954.
It is produced by Mohan Meakin, which was first incorporated as Dwyer breweries in 1855.
It was set up by Scotsman Sir Edward Dyer who had opened a brewery in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, to meet the beer demand of Britons in India. His ‘Lion’ Beer is widely regarded as Asia’s first beer.
The brewery was taken over by H.G. Meakin and renamed as ‘Dyer Meakin Breweries’ in the 1930s. In 1949, the brewery was acquired by Narendra Nath Mohan and came to be known as Mohan Meakin Breweries.
According to the magazine Homegrown, Old Monk was launched in December 1954 by Ved Rattan Mohan, the then CEO, after he visited Europe and was impressed by Benedictine monks and the liquors they produced. When he came back to India, he introduced a drink that matured in oak vats for seven years, and was infused with spices. He named this drink Old Monk, after the Benedictine monks.
The company, on its website, says the unique taste comes from the fact that they uphold the traditional method of distilling.
“The craftsmen of Mohan Meakin Ltd. take care of the manufacturing process from the birth of rum till the bottling in the same way as their ancestors have done. Indeed, representatives of the third generation of the dynasty are working in the company today,” the company states.
“They have acquired the knowledge and skills from their ancestors. Throughout the Old Monk rum production process, from the fermentation of cane molasses till bottling, the original production is imitated, as it has been since 1935. This ensures Old Monk Rum’s high quality and authenticity.”