Old Monk's forgotten creator was not Kapil Mohan but his brother who died in 1973
Colonel Ved Ratan Mohan wore many hats: from Rajya Sabha MP to Lucknow mayor for two terms and even the chairman of CBFC.
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The passing of Brigadier (retd) Kapil Mohan, chairman of Mohan Meakin Limited, did bring an era to an end, but the obituaries made one critical error. He was not the creator of Old Monk – the iconic rum brand, which in fact, saw a relentless decline in numbers over the past decade under his watch. It was his brother, Colonel Ved Ratan Mohan, who gave birth to it.
The Colonel wore many hats – he was a Rajya Sabha MP, Lucknow's mayor for two terms and even the chairman, Central Board for Film Certification; a favourite of Mrs Indira Gandhi, he was honoured with both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan in his short life; and he was a bon vivant with playboy looks, whose home would come alive with soirees attended by politicians and film stars, with legends such as the singer Mukesh keeping them entertained.
Colonel Mohan, who took over the reins of the company from his father, Narendra Nath Mohan, in 1969, launched Old Monk in 1954 after a visit to Europe, where he was very much impressed by the Benedictine monks and the liqueurs they produced. The name Old Monk was his tribute to these holy men who lived the life of simplicity and silence. The jolly face of a tubby man that you see on the bottle, though, is believed to be that of HG Meakin, who had taken over the brewery and distillery business of Edward Abraham Dyer (father of the man infamous as the Butcher of Jallianwala Bagh, Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer) in 1887 and eventually got it listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Matured in oak wood vats for seven years (hence the strong vanilla notes) and infused with spices (I have always believed one of them is cinnamon), Old Monk was a rum in a league of its own, which explains its immediate popularity. Initially, it came in long bottles in which Indian whiskies have been packaged forever, but not for long.
Colonel Mohan was so impressed by the squat, crinkled, short-necked bottle of Old Parr Scotch whisky (it is now a brand owned by Diageo and a best-seller only in Colombia!) that he decided to adopt it for Old Monk, although it was quite a technological challenge to pack the rum into the bottle of that shape in that day and age. A number of these bottles would break on the assembly line till the company got the process right.
The makers of Old Parr, meanwhile, took Mohan Meakin to court over the bottle and eventually the two companies agreed to let the English company keep its dark-hued bottle, whereas Old Monk moved to the transparent one that is still in use. When Colonel Mohan (the Indian Army has honoured him an Honorary Colonel) was busy doing all this, his younger brother, Brigadier Kapil Mohan, was heading a company called Trade Links – it was the marketing and distribution arm of Mohan Meakin.
The Brigadier, who was in the Territorial Army, took over the company in 1973, when his elder bother met with an untimely death, took Old Monk to greater glory and diversified the product range of the company, from corn flakes to bottles, before the irreversible decline of the iconic rum brand started in the early 2000s.
The late Brigadier belonged to the age that was presided over by old-economy Czars such as Vittal Mallya and he, aided by indulgent Congress-led governments, before economic liberalisation paved the way for global players, notably Diageo, Pernod Ricard and SAB Miller India, to enter and take over the market. The now-maligned Vijay Mallya, Shaw Wallace and Company (now merged with Mallya's and now Diageo's United Spirits Limited-USL), Kishore Chhabria's Allied Blenders and Distillers (ABD), and Lalit and Abhishek Khaitan's Radico Khaitan were the only ones to stand up successfully against the foreign wave.
The Grand Old Company, Mohan Meakin, however, got progressively weaker and nothing could highlight its plight more poignantly than the progressive decline of Old Monk, which till 2002 was the country's No 1 spirits brand and the world's No 2 after Bacardi. It was overtaken by USL's McDowell's No. 1 Celebration, the present No 3 in the world (it was briefly No 1 in 2014), which enjoys the company of two more Indian brands in the top 10 – Radico Khaitan's Contessa (No 7), which also dislodged Old Monk as the Indian Army favourite by 2008, and Old Port from Amrut Distilleries (No. 8).
A number of factors contributed to this decline, but let us remember the good times and ask for an Old Monk – the beverage with many of us lost our alcoholic virginity – the next time we go to a bar. We owe it to the Mohan brothers to restore the Old Monk to its old perch at the top.
(This piece first appeared in Indian Restaurant Spy.)