There are Indians who don't watch Bollywood. Take me, for instance. Then there are others who will have nothing to do with politics. Encore, me. And then there are some who absolutely just can’t stand anything spicy or hot. Yet again, moi! But there is practically nobody who has been enchanted by the spirit-lifting and palate-tingling joys of alcohol but doesn't enjoy Old Monk.
Single Malt has its detractors, wine is eschewed by every socialist hippy I never even entertained, and beer for some may be too plebeian to be even debated, but the only reason why someone who went to college in India (and preferably stayed in hostels) will remain unimpressed by a measure of Old Monk is because they are six feet under.
I know I could have said rum but that’s too generic, and for most Indians, it’s not even the same product. We like our Old Monk even as we remain oblivious to what the world drinks by way of rum. Not that Old Monk is a bad rum — it is mighty decent — but it differs from the international styles.
For one, Old Monk presents a much sweeter palate with notes of banana, vanilla and caramel — Christmas in a glass really — and this ripe profile may explain why it pairs so well with cola. Okay, I meant Thums Up. Maybe Coke if you must. But nothing else.
That established, it is important to know that Old Monk, in its own decadent monastic ways, has a brethren who are equally given to the rituals of pure enjoyment. These include the Supreme, The Gold Reserve, and the Big Papa of their clan, the one that very discretely says, “Very Old Vatted”. It comes in a bottle shaped like the monk’s head, and I think it alludes to how “wisdom” is something to be shared. There is also a white variant but it’s mostly a case of tinkering with perfection.
The different ageing prior to bottling creates tactile differences in the variants but, in all honesty, none of them are worthy of being consumed neat. Even the top-of-the-line head-shaped variant is “pleasant with a harsh edge”, at best. The taste difference is subtle, it tries to introduce nuances (a little more caramel here, some vanilla there) in more or less the same broad flavour profile. You may need lesser Thums Up in the more refined variants and can hope for a softer hangover. Either ways, Old Monk is a lot lighter than traditional dark rums that define the style.
If any of you readers claim that Old Monk doesn't give you a hangover then clearly you aren't drinking enough to induce one. It has as many congeners (hangover-causing compounds) as the next spirit so any positive effect that you seem to be extracting, is pure placebo. But hey, if it works for you, then know that I am jealous.
But for a rum that has been around almost since independence and has gained more popular vote than any political party in any election ever, clearly it has charted a growth path that few brands can match. And yet nobody can ascertain as to why it became so successful. I would say that while taste and price sure would have played an important role, a lot of it also comes down to distribution. (Surprisingly, the success of many a brand in almost any field is still dependent on this and yet so often, brands get it wrong.) But imagine this, back in the day, in times when we had to wait for basic amenities to turn up at the local grocery store and a trans-continental call took a good part of an hour to connect, to have rum rations, pun intended, could have been a much needed diversion. Today, the brand is synonymous with the category and if I have ever served up true-to-style “Rhum Agricole” from the French Indies to my friends, it has only been met with sneers and upturned noses to convey disgust, never mind the fact that they cost ten times more and have been awarded the world over.
As a wise one once said, a billion can be different, but they can’t be wrong. Old Monk is testimony to the adage — if we like what we like then it matters little what the world has believed all along. Old Monk may not be a rum style but it definitely has a taste profile that has amassed a massive fan following.
So, to conclude, as a child do you remember reading some stories that had no moral at the end? No? Well, then here is one now. Think of this as an ode, a rant, or just a collection of thoughts on what can be unanimously, albeit unofficially, considered to be India’s favourite dark tipple.