No bar in India is quite complete without the obligatory bottle of the country’s most famous rum. Antoine Lewis explores its near-mystic allure
Ian Pereira is a devout follower of the “budha sadhu”. For the last 27 years, the commercial photographer has been religiously drinking at least two pegs of Old Monk every evening, abstaining from his daily ritual on just two days a year, when he drinks nothing – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
His obsession with Old Monk is absolute. “My secondary email is oldmonkian at Gmail, and if you do a Bluetooth search for my Mac, you’ll find it as old monk. Even my Skype ID is oldmonk,” he says. Unsurprisingly, his friends call him Old Monk, and after years of trying to tempt him away with expensive single malts and other spirits, they’re now resigned to always making sure there’s a bottle in their bar cabinets with his name on it.
It was only natural, then, that Pereira should have sounded the clarion call to kindred spirits in 2004, when he founded COMRADE – the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics – on the now defunct professional networking site Ryze. The group has since moved to Facebook, where it jostles for attention with innumerable other groups and pages devoted to the rum.
None of which, it’s worth pointing out, have been created by Mohan Meakin, the producers of Old Monk. The beaming old man has developed a legion of followers without a single rupee being spent on advertising, according to the company. A remarkable achievement when you consider that rum in India is synonymous with the brand.
So, what is it that makes it so popular and keeps drinkers unwaveringly loyal? Software entrepreneur and COMRADE member Jiten Gajaria favours Old Monk because he’s found it to be the smoothest drink he’s ever tasted. And it rarely gives him a hangover. Gajaria, who travels on work frequently, has even managed to lay his hands on the stuff in New York and London. Mixologist Shatbhi Basu also finds Old Monk smooth and mellow, and attributes this to the seven years it has been aged. Compared to other rums, she says, “Old Monk is heavier, sweeter and a little more pungent. Someone who likes Old Monk will find it hard to move to other rums.”
What has worked in the brand’s favour in terms of retaining customer loyalty is that, since its launch in 1954, the product hasn’t changed – at least, not in its most popular form, though a Supreme version is available, aged for 12 years and presented in a bottle shaped like, well, an old monk. But the classic blended, chocolate-brown rum continues to be aged for seven years, and the bottle’s shape and design have remained exactly the same, as has its taste. Discerning Old Monkians debate the subtleties of its bouquet and flavours, with descriptions veering towards the sweet end of the spectrum: notes of vanilla, burnt caramel, toffee, chocolate, dried fruits and even rich Christmas pudding.
By and large, though, these intricacies are lost on most drinkers, for whom Basu believes the attachment has more to do with feelings of comfort and nostalgia. The hardcore loyalists, who’ve been drinking it for decades, started their relationship with Old Monk in the Seventies and Eighties as college students. Many have since moved abroad and dabbled in other spirits, but the passion for Old Monk remains. Often, it’s the only gift that relatives living abroad ask Basu to bring, and Pereira reveals he once carried six litres for friends and family in Australia.
As with all things that evoke nostalgia, Old Monk stories abound. Perhaps one of the best comes from Suresh Hinduja, CEO of gourmetindia.com, who prefers his Islay single malts but will never forget a memorable encounter with Old Monk in Rajasthan, at what he calls “the world’s quickest bar”. At the Desert Festival, organized on the first full moon night of February by army wives, he noticed a tent that was completely closed up but had a long line of men waiting to get in. Curious, he joined the line, and when he reached the front, saw a big burly Sardarji with two glasses in one hand, a jug of water in the other and a table full of Old Monk on the side.
You poured yourself one drink – which you could consume neat or with water – and once you were done, the quickly washed glass was handed to the next person. If you wanted seconds, you went to the back of the line.
And there you have it: Old Monk may have lost its position as the third-largest selling rum in the world, but nothing is going to change the fact that it’s a tasty, no-fuss tipple for which people will happily rejoin a queue, all for that second glass.