India has always had a preference for dark spirits; be it whisky or rum, they were always preferred to most other drinks. Maybe it has something to do with what the armed forces got as part of their stocks, or in their canteen stores. Rum proliferated faster than gin or vodka. Gin, for that matter, was considered by many to be a ladies’ drink. Two things changed that: awareness about how wrong it is to be sexist and a realization of just how awesome good gins are irrespective of who is drinking them.
But that was much later – the darker spirits had already established an unquestionable supremacy over palates and markets. The history of Indian rums is less about the manufacturing processes or the quality of ingredients and more about the way people embraced some of these homegrown brands. Let’s try and look at some top names in the field which went from being military rum rations to weekly rations. Also, because today, while some of these brands may not be as popular among the younger lot as they once were, the nostalgia, pun intended, keeps these very spirits alive.
Show me a person who likes Old Monk and I’ll show you someone who went to college in India. No story on Indian rums could ever be written without paying due allegiance to this very unique brand. The hard-to-miss square stocky bottle with it’s monastic stained glass like mosaic walls is a staple in every bar across the country.
The history of the brand dates back to the set-up of General Edward Dyer which dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Although the first rum was made in a distillery based out of modern-day Kanpur (in 1805), it was only in 1954 that Old Monk was introduced. At this time, the army rations already included rum so, as flavours go, rum wasn’t new to the drinking populace.
It remains India’s favourite rum through the ages even if sales have dwindled in recent times. One reason is the younger generation’s affinity for lighter spirits and another is competition from other local brands that have managed to put commendably good products on the shelves.
The XXX (triple X seems to be a popular nomenclature for rums in India) eight years vatted (meaning oak-aged one presumes) is the most popular variant – the majority of people don’t even know there are others – but they do have other more aged versions too; although, when put to test, some very good tasters were hard pressed to be able to tell the difference between all of them. The levels above are aged longer and come in (1) a monk-shaped bottle (Supreme) and (2) a monk’s head-shaped bottle (special edition). There’s also a Gold Reserve somewhere in there which comes in a less flamboyant flacon. ‘Flamboyant’ and ‘monks’, never thought I’d use these words together so.
The flavour across the spectrum is largely marked by caramel and vanilla with some gentle spices, so think Christmas cake in a glass. It lends itself well to cola, so well in fact that if you ask a bartender for another recipe, you’ll surely have him tongue-tied. I have tried it in some hot toddy (with honey, lemon juice, hot water, and maybe some ginger if you wish) and it was smooth and soothing.
In college, it wasn’t uncommon to see people having it with water. The reason for that was simple – as mixers go, water is free. Cola, juice, even soda cost money; filtered water is easily procured. And thus got established a signature drinking style, one which could last for a long time, but usually it lasted only till the person got a job and then their first salary, at which point they graduated to other beverages and revisited Old Monk either at college batch reunion parties or at bars serving crap wines and average scotch at obnoxious prices.
Excerpted with permission from The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Alcohol in India, Magandeep Singh, Penguin Random House.