The news of Kapil Mohan’s demise last week would have gone unnoticed, unreported, and ungrieved, had it not been someone who was plain grateful for his sweet, memorable days of youth, or who just knew with a keen sense of history what the departed meant to a generation of men who grew up in the 70s and 80s.
No legends are made in a day.
The quintessential drink, which took the country by a storm in the 70s, looks at its lineage that goes back to Edward Dyer in 1855. The Englishman fathered two strains that struck the country hard — the first one disastrous — his son Colonel Dyer who oversaw the Jallianwalla massacre on 13 April 1919, but the second one not as ominous as the first —a brewery in Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh, from where he launched the Lion brand of beer.
The brewery changed hands, first by merging with the British-run brewery Meaking & Co, and with the Indian independence falling into the hands of NN Mohan, an ambitious businessman. The renamed Mohan Meakin Pvt. Ltd flourished in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad diversifying its reach into new fields — breakfast foods, fruit juices, and even cold storage.
Colonel Ved Mohan who took over the company from his father in the 50s knew where to focus. He had already been inspired by the serene life of Benedictine monks and the drinks they brewed as they led their ascetic life in the mountains where they lived in the continent. He came back from his European journey with a dream.
Could he capture the essence of their spirit in a bottle?
Finally in 1954, Old Monk, the iconic product of Meakin distillery came out as a tribute to those men whom Ved Mohan saw and read about during his journey.
But it was when Kapil Mohan took over the helm of the company in the 1970s with the demise of his brother Ved Mohan, that Old Monk’s tryst with destiny was made. In a matter of years, Kapil made sure that dark rum had only one synonym in the country — Old Monk.
It cockily wore the uniform marched in knocking off Hercules as the army’s most preferred brand.
OM now had a tough image to brandish.
Soon a cult began to grew around the drink. Remember. There was no advertising. No marketing. No celebrity endorsements. The word just got around, making Old Monk, the largest single liquor brand in the country, second only to Bacardi if you look at the world scenario.
The 42.8% alcohol with its rich vanilla flavour, contained in a squat bulb-shaped bottle had everything to capture the fancies of the youth. Its cheap price when compared to other kinds of drinks — the colonial whisky and the ‘womanly gin’ — garnered further dollops of admiration for the colour black. In campuses, where boys had their first taste of spirits, Old Monk became a veritable passage of right all by itself. If you could down a few pegs without batting an eyelid, well inside a ring of seniors with critical eyes watching, you were taken bold, handsome, manly, fit to carry their legacy in the campus.
There were further distinctions in the hierarchy. The ever popular popular rum and coke combination must in course of time mature into rum and water combo to reveal your macho side.
Outside campuses, artists, writers, filmmakers religiously sat around those squat bulbs in evenings to discuss big ideas. How many classics — books, paintings, and films — should pay tribute to Old Monk, Bacchus only knows! For the aged, Old Monk was distilled from the sighs and tears of male nostalgia — a nostalgia for good old times, good old music and good old women! Soon the whole country (of course not the saintly teetotallers), sang, danced, reeled and fell over India’s most favourite rum in the history of its spirits.
Many attribute the heavenly (ask an Old monk fan) taste and success of the spirit to the water that goes into the drink sourced from the springs of Karol mountain in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. Many put it on its army tag. A few others think, it is the bottle which had the shape of a monk’s head that hit it off with the youth.
Whatever be the reason, a love for Old Monk these days, spills out at worst, your age, however hard you try to hide it behind your makeup.
Yes, the salad days are over for the quintessential drink of yesteryears. Ever since the country opened its gates to global players who peddle in alcohol, Old Monk has begun its climb down. The adamant stance of the company which bothered to cater only to its traditional followers stood in the way of redefining the drink for the modern times and tastes.
Sales might have declined. But not the spirit of those avid fans of the drink who are of course well past the prime of their youth.
The volley of response in the social media as the news of the demise of Kapil Mohan slowly spread around, once again brought forth to the surface, the undying passion for the dark drink.
Cults do not die easily. Old monks too.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)