The year began on a chilly note in the capital, furthered darkened by the sad news of the passing of the man behind the ‘Monk’. Few brands have enjoyed, or shall enjoy, the reverence and loyalty commanded by this brand of local rum. For someone who grew up in India and attended college here, or further still, stayed in a hostel, Old Monk was more than just a spirit. For some, it was the first sip of alcohol they ever had—one that they had paid for and which wasn’t just a sip they were taking from their father’s glass. For others, it was their first taste of freedom. Just out of school and away from the influence of parents or guardians, college kids snuck away to small bars or liquor shops to treat themselves to a little local firewater. The name surely must have helped. So saintly and noble, surely, it constituted a good deed to imbibe some! Unlike whisky, which others expected you to down with plain water or soda, rum was more embracing. It mixed happily, and seamlessly, with cola. The final drink was sweet and tasty with just that right touch of vanilla and cinnamon to make every sip seem festive. With such a joyous tingle in every sip, there was simply no sorrow left by the end of your drink. Only happiness was to be found at the bottom of your glass.
Abroad, Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 cemented its relationship with Coca-Cola when a famous Scotch blend decided to give the offer a miss (“What!? Mix us with cola and sell it as a pre-packaged drink!? Preposterous!”). The American Jack Daniel (JD) was more intuitively quick on the uptake and so was born a legend of a drink—one that is the rite of passage for every college attendee that side of the Atlantic. The Scotch brand, decades later, realised its mistake and tried to make amends, but by then, the JD-Coke combo was too popularly established in college vocabulary to be displaced.
Old Monk enjoys a similar status in India. When one says “rum n’ Coke”, it is almost by default Old Monk. The appearance of another rum may not always incite similar levels of excitement (even though market data tries hard to remind us that McDowell’s’ Celebration, and not Old Monk, is the largest-selling rum in India). Here, no college get-together is complete without the Monk’s blessings. From a first-year freshers’ party to a silver jubilee reunion, the occasion must involve a visit to the old sanctuary. Even as diabetes grips some and the doc advises us to switch to softer alcoholic beverages, fans will still try and indulge in a small pour every now and then just to relive the vigour of their youthful days.
A drink that invigorates and also revives youth. Truly then, it is elixir. Purists may argue that it’s no rhum agricole, but then that isn’t Old Monk either. This is not just the story of a spirit or a brand, it is the unfolding of post-independence India, a historic landmark in the coming-of-age story of our country and its people. Today, millennials may feel less of a connect with this local brand, as international trends occupy their social and mental spaces more prominently. Perhaps, it’s time for the Monk to evolve. Or perhaps, one hopes, wisdom will bring millennials back to pay homage to this squat bottle. For what it’s worth, the weather is most suitable to pay your tributes to the passing of the grand old man behind India’s most popular spirit brand with a sip of his elixir. The writer is a sommelier