Old Monk was once by far the leading rum brand in India, and a favorite of the military. (photo by Jenny Gorman for the Wine and Whiskey Globe)

SOMETIMES YOUR FRIENDS know you better than you think. Sometimes this is a very good thing. I am, for instance, in recent receipt of a very unusual bottle of rum, acquired by a neighbor of ours at a duty free shop in an airport in India. She had gone to visit family, and during her return thought to pick me up something kind of amazing. Not only had I never heard of the brand, but I had never seen its like before.

This litre of Old Monk rum comes in a bottle shaped like the head of an aging, mostly bald monk. It sits in a little presentation box. He looks happy. When our neighbor brought it over, we promptly opened it for a celebratory toast. I took my first sip neat, and then we all had a Dark ’n’ Stormy. It was good. The rum itself is a nice rum. It is not transcendent, but it works. More on that later.

Our neighbor related memories of her father and uncles and other elders sipping Old Monk on the porch of her girlhood home. So far, the story checks out. As I came to learn, the brand has a long history in India.

How often do we encounter something that keenly interests us, but about which we know almost nothing? Not as often as we’d like, I’d venture. That’s the fun of the gift.

ALSO FUN: OUTSIDE OF INDIA, where the label is plenty common, not much is known about this juice. I did find an official  Facebook page. I think I did, anyway. Its last post was in March 2016. I’m not judging, but it may be fairly concluded that the makers of Old Monk are not seeking Influence. The About section, though, does indicate a poetic sensibility. It reads, in its entirety:

For 7 years u’ve been blended to a taste so fine.
U’ve always been around for us at any time.
A good companion, who comes at a very low price.
U bring people together from sunset to sunrise.

Another social handle, @oldmonkbengal, was more direct:

Old Monk – West Bengal

July 28 at 9:52 AM  ·

Experience the tang of lemon while you get buzzed 🍋

Bring home Old Monk #LemonRum today.

A buzz… and the tang of lemon! Sold.

THE MAKER OF OLD MONK is a diversified business in India called Mohan Meakin. According the Ultimate Rum Guide website, the company’s origins go back to colonial India and a brewery “founded by Sir Edward Dyer, at Kasauli, Shimla, in India of 1855. The Kasauli brewery launched India’s… first beer, which was in great demand by the thirsty British administrators and troops stationed in the sweltering heat of India.” An English chap named H.G. Meakin bought the operation, changing its name to Dyer Meakin Company. In 1949, Lt. Shri N.N. Mohan took over, putting the company into local hands. Old Monk itself was launched in 1954, and very rapidly became a dominant brand in the vast nation.

thecocktailstory.co relates that Jawaharlal Nehru himself—the first prime minister of the country, and the progenitor of the collar named for him—visited the facility sometime in 1964 or 1965, and (one supposes) gingerly suggested renaming the operation. The founder Edward Dyer had been the the father of Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, the chap who presided over something called the Amritsar Massacre, an extraordinarily ugly chapter of the nation’s history. In April 1919, a large, peaceful crowd had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, essentially a park bordered by buildings on three sides, to protest the arrest of some pro-Indian independence leaders. Reggie’s troops surrounded the crowd, eventually firing on them as they attempted to flee through the one possible exit. Estimates of the number killed range between 500 to 1,000, with at least that many injured.

After Nehru’s visit, the distillery became known as Mohan Meakin.

For decades, without any marketing effort, Old Monk gained shelf space throughout the nation. It remains today something of an old-school choice, analagous perhaps to Jack Daniels in the States. There have been a number of variations on the market over the years. The vessel for the “Supreme” bottling, aged 12 years, arrives in the shape of a standing monk, like a Mrs. Butterworth bottle. A so-called “Connoisseur Collection” featured Old Monk Orange Rum, Old Monk Lemon Rum, Old Monk Apple Rum, Old Monk White Rum, Old Monk Cola, Old Monk Cranberry and Old Monk Mojito.

In 2004, according to a piece in GQ India, a commercial photographer founded COMRADE, the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics, and it limps along on Facebook today.

The brand, too, appears to be in a diminished condition. At one point, Old Monk sold as many as 8 million bottles a year; today that number is reportedly down by at least 75 percent.  Five years ago, a deep dive in India’s Mint business publication was headlined “How Old Monk Went from India’s Star to Another Has-Been.”

Among other headwinds, the article details adverse tax policies; foreign competition on various fronts; a middle class drinking higher-end stuff; the general decline in rum consumption; poor distribution; and, possibly worst of all, out-of-touch leadership.

Sipping a single malt in a five-star hotel in Delhi (an establishment that did not carry Old Monk), Pramod Krishna, chairman of the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverages, summed things up: “[Other] domestic brands… realized they had to up their game and they did so by aggressively promoting and marketing the product. Mohan Meakin didn’t think it was necessary to reinvent.”

AND YET THERE IT WAS on the duty-free shelf, waiting to find me.

Some sources say this “vatted Indian dark rum,” just under 86 proof, is aged a minimum of 7 years; others say it’s unclear. My bottle doesn’t disclose, but I’d guess it isn’t seeing much rest; it has a kind of rustic quality in the glass that indicates fresher stuff. The predominant note is vanilla. There are strong tones of stewed fruit and burnt caramel. For me, it was reminiscent of Jamaican stuff. It works best dashed into some Coca-Cola, where those strong flavors get evened out. 

Though I may be looking in the wrong neighborhoods, I haven’t been able to find it in New York or New Jersey. And I’m glad of it. My round-headed fellow is, practically speaking, one-of-a-kind—a rarity that I can not source for myself.

It is, in short, the very best sort of gift.