Before Old Monk, there was Hercules rum that was distilled exclusively for the armed forces. In the 1960s the navy canteen in Bombay sold it as rations to sailors at Rs 8 a bottle.
Much of it ended up with bootleggers who sold it to us at Rs 25 a bottle. If you find the price astonishing, please remember that fifty years ago anyone with a monthly salary of a thousand rupees was doing quite well. I used to buy my bottle from my chemist in Colaba who moonlighted as a bootlegger.
Old Monk was superior to Hercules and it didn't cost much more than what I paid the bootlegger. But those were prohibition days and you needed a permit to buy Old Monk from the licensed liquor shops and not many of us had permits. Hercules disappeared from our lives when prohibition ended and Old Monk entered our drinking habits. It was a good rum then, and it is a good rum today. Some claim it is as good as the dark rums from the Caribbean, Myers's Rum from Jamaica for example, but I wouldn't go that far.
The Monk is ailing!
Old Monk still comes in a distinctive bottle, fat and short, which the devotees love. A few years back, Mohan Meakin, its distillers, decided to give the bottle a more conventional shape with disastrous results. There was a time when Old Monk had the rum market pretty much sewed up. There were other brands also, of course, but none came close in quality or popularity. About eight million bottles were sold annually. Today the sales are a quarter of that and they continue to decline. What went wrong?
First, with the easing of import restrictions other players entered the market. Rums from abroad began appearing in the liquor shops. Biggest of them was the Bacardi brand, an interloper from Puerto Rico. The company is the world's biggest producer of rum. Before you knew it, Bacardi was distilling and bottling it in India itself, in Karnataka. While Old Monk came only as dark rum, Bacardi gave us a choice: you could have it dark (robust), gold (smoother) or white (perfect for mixing cocktails). Now we had something to please everyone.
A victim of Gender Equality?
Old Monk or any dark rum for that matter is essentially a man's drink. I always have a bottle at home and I can't remember when a female guest last requested Old Monk. Women tend to drift towards wine if it is offered, or one of the white spirits which they like diluted, preferably as a cocktail.This is where Bacardi had an advantage. There were few bars around in the days when the sales of Old Monk were at their peak. Men bought a bottle, took it home, mixed it with coke or soda, added some ice and drank it before the food was on the table. Women never touched the stuff, if they drank at all.
Now women go to restaurants, bars or clubs in the company of men or with their women friends. They order wine or cocktails. Mojito, a white rum cocktail, became a very popular drink among women as well as men. There were other cocktails like daiquiri and pina colada that required white rum. Old Monk and other dark rums became passe as they were no good for cocktails. Dark rums were something parents drank at home watching television. Not cool.
But for some, the romance continues
However, Old Monk still remains popular with a certain class of people, mainly painters, journalists and those struggling in the performing arts. Many of them drink it because they like the taste, others because they can't afford Scotch. Old Monk tastes great sitting on plastic chairs in a barsaati in Delhi or on a beach in Goa with close friends, late at night with smoke from something illegal floating in the air. It is more Press Club of India drink than an Oberoi Hotel drink. Always was.
The only genuine spirit - rum
Pradeep Gaur/ HT
Let me tell you something wonderful about rum in general. It is the only genuine spirit produced in our country. Almost all Indian gin, vodka and whisky are fakes. Rum is distilled from molasses, a thick, sweetish by-product that is left after the cane juice is crystalized into sugar in the mills. Now let us take whisky. Genuine whisky is distilled from barley, wheat or corn. That does not happen in India. Our whisky producers cheat by using neutral, tasteless alcohol extracted from molasses to which they add flavours and colours and, occasionally, a bit of genuine whisky imported in bulk. Indian whisky is a closer relative to rum than genuine whisky. This is also true of Indian vodka, gin and brandy.
Goliath beats David
McDowell's No 1 Celebration, another dark rum, now outsells Old Monk by a wide margin. McDowell's' success is due to the fact that the label now belongs to an international giant, Diageo, the world's largest producer of spirits. It markets and promotes its labels very aggressively. The contest between Old Monk and McDowell's was one between David and Goliath. This time Goliath won.
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