The Monk Who Sold Rum

Kapil Mohan (1930-2018)
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Kapil Mohan (1930-2018) started the legend of an Indian drink

IT IS AN UNUSUAL occurrence when a man dies, quietly and unnoticed, over a weekend; and a few days later, a connection is arrived at, probably on social media; and then everywhere you now cast your gaze over the World Wide Web, all you can see are virtual glasses raised and clinking in memoriam.

This is what happened when Kapil Mohan passed away. The 88-year-old man, as people found out, was behind the cult of Old Monk. A generation of people, even without knowing Mohan, were touched by him.

For a long period of time, perhaps even now, the heavy and sweet taste of this beautiful amber dark rum was the bridge that connected Indian adolescence to adulthood. It was a drink that liberated the people of a pre-liberalised era. It nursed broken hearts, warmed cold nights, and gave company to lonely souls. And led to passionate online groups like that of Comrade (the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics) on Facebook.

As a drink, despite the humility of its presentation and its highly affordable price, it isn’t a poor tipple. A velvet, smooth dark rum with a hint of vanilla, it does not give a hangover like many other Indian Made Foreign Liquors (IMFLs). It is blended and aged for seven years, although in recent times newer versions have been introduced. It is made from molasses, and doesn’t contain industrial alcohol like most other IMFLs. As Comrade passionately puts it: ‘With the first drop of Old Monk Rum, the tippler gets the sheer aroma of distilled cane sugar grown in the lush green fields of India and stirs up the age old legend of Som-ras of India’s centuries old scriptures—The Drink of Gods and Lords of India.’

Old Monk was first introduced in 1954. It was brought out by the company Mohan Meakin, which had purchased a brewery set up in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, by a Scotsman named Edward Dyer, the father of Colonel Reginald Edward Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh infamy.

Mohan took over the brand sometime in the early 1970s, following the death of an elder brother. Ironically a teetotaller, Mohan was a retired brigadier of the Indian armed forces. Under his watch, Old Monk became the country’s most popular tipple, and according to some reports, at one point, the world’s third-highest-selling rum. It became the Indian Army’s best loved drink. You would see its bottles glittering on the shelves of wine shops and distant Army canteens.

The company never advertised the rum. Its popularity grew entirely by word of mouth. When asked in an interview, Mohan said, “The best way of my advertising is the product: When it comes to you and you taste it, you look at the difference and ask what is it. That is the best advertisement.”

Yet, by the turn of the century, the company had fallen on bad times. It struggled in the face of modernity and new competitors. It began to disappear from some outlets. McDowell’s Celebration Rum, which sold less than half the volume of Old Monk, took over the rum market by 2005, by some media reports. People’s tastes and spending power changed. They moved to more expensive drinks, towards whiskies, gins and brandies. Then there was the emergence of rivals like the Wave group, whose owner Ponty Chadha was seen as close to then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. The group brought much of the liquor business in UP and other northern states under its control.

Rum is many things to many people. The way it is made, the way it tastes, the way it is consumed. For a long time, to all Indians, rum was a bottle of Kapil Mohan’s Old Monk.