Old Monk is the most famous alcoholic drink in India. It is enjoyed by people of all ages, social classes, and economic backgrounds.
Edward Abraham Dyer, an entrepreneur from Scotland, established a brewery in 1843. (who also happened to be the father of Colonel Reginald Dyer, who oversaw the unfortunate massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919). Born in Bengal in 1830, Edward Dyer studied engineering in England but apparently had little interest in a military career, returning to India in the 1850s. When he learned that the only way beer could be transported to India was through the Cape of Good Hope, he and his brother John made the decision to use the family fortune to start a brewery. Prior to this, in the 1840s, there was an abortive effort to brew in Kasauli, south of Shimla.
Dyer built up Asia’s first beer brewery in Kasauli. This area was chosen because it had historical significance (of the failed venture earlier), was close to his home in Scotland in terms of climate, had an abundance of clean spring water, and was relatively close to a large number of British soldiers and people in Shimla and elsewhere in Punjab. His first plan was to brew beer, but he soon found himself also interested in producing ale and whiskey. He brought most of the equipment from Britain by boat, ship, and ox carts up the Ganges and to Shimla, and then on to Kasauli, and started producing whiskey, India Pale Ale, and Lion beer—the latter of which was also a first across all of Asia.
In order to meet the needs of its expanding population, Kasauli diverted most of its spring water to the city proper; consequently, the brewery was dismantled and relocated to Solan, 10 km to the east, further downhill and closer to both the railhead and a better water supply; the distillery was left in place, and both are still in operation today. At its beginning, the brewery/distillery was simply titled the Kasauli Brewery. However, Dyer established the firm as Dyer Breweries Limited in 1855, which is the date shown on MM’s logo to this day, after the British East India Company seized Punjab in 1849 (this imperious conduct was one of the causes of the 1857 rebellion).
At first, the distillery’s flagship product was a malt whiskey, “Solan No. 1,” which dominated the Indian whisky market until the 1980s. The demand for Dyer’s ale, lager, and whiskey was so high that it allowed him to swiftly grow his business. In the decades that followed, he not only expanded his existing breweries and distilleries in Kasauli and Solan, but also opened new ones in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), Mandalay (Burma/Myanmar), Murree (Pakistan), Rawalpindi (Pakistan), and Quetta (Pakistan), with Murree Brewery remaining Pakistan’s largest and oldest manufacturer of alcoholic products and now a publicly traded company. He also acquired stakes in companies in South India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
HG Meakin was a member of a prosperous family of brewers in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England. There were several local breweries in the area, some of which dated back centuries.
Ranikhet, Dalhousie, Chakrata, Darjeeling, Kirkee, and Nuwara Eliya (Sri Lanka) were some of the places Meakin purchased or founded spirit businesses in. Since many British troops and government officials were stationed in cantonment towns, it stands to reason that this is where Dyer and Meakin set up shop.
During the 1930s, once H.G. Meakin had acquired Dyer’s Indian holdings, the company became known as “Dyer Meakin Breweries.” The stain of Edward’s son Reginald’s Jallianwala Bagh slaughter did not reach far enough to remove the Dyer name off the firm masthead.
As a result of this collaboration, business activities were reorganised, with brewing ceasing in Kasauli while Solan was renovated, expanded, and enhanced, and with considerable malting continuing at Kasauli. As the years rolled on, modernisation facilitated increasing output with the newest technology and apparatus, and several of the unsuccessful brewing centres were closed, with Solan, Kasauli, and Lucknow being considerably enlarged. Also, in April 1937, Burma became a separately controlled territory of Great Britain, and activities there had to be split from those of India for tax and administrative reasons. At this time, the joint venture was dissolved, and the resulting consolidated public company was listed on the London Stock Exchange under the unimaginative name of Dyer Meakin Breweries Ltd.
Maybe because of this, or maybe because of other subtle (and not-so-subtle) influences, the surviving Meakins and Dyer’s family members agreed to sell their shares to an ex-employee, Narendra Nath Mohan, in 1948, and Mohan became the company’s owner in 1949. Oddly, the name did not change, and it remained Dyer Meakin Breweries for another seventeen years, and the firm did not broaden its categories for another five.
NN Mohan established a number of breweries in the cities of Lucknow, Khopoli (close to Mumbai), and Ghaziabad. After establishing a brewery, distillery, malt house, glass factory, ice plant, and engineering works in Ghaziabad, he diversified into additional (sometimes complementary) industries over the course of the next several decades. He had an expansive view of his future and wasn’t content with only what he had acquired.
Till then, the corporation continued to produce the same whiskey and beer it always had. Lion and Golden Eagle beers, as well as Solan No. 1 whiskey, remained the best-selling alcoholic beverages in India, although they were the only ones that gained widespread popularity. NN and one of his three sons, Ved Ratan Mohan (“VR”), created the Old Monk rum in the early 1950s as a means of diversification. In an effort to challenge the dominance of the Hercules rum offered only to the military services, VR, then age 26, sought to embody the spirituality of the European Benedictine monks who had influenced him (he retired as a Colonel himself).
(Conjecture abounds as to the true identity of the Old Monk; in fact, three different accounts exist.
- V.R. Mohan, was influenced by Benedictine monks.
- It is a symbol of the ancient house’s founder, H.G. Meakin, and an acknowledgement of his impact,
- The name and bottle design of Old Monk Rum was inspired by a monk from Britain who often visited the distillery where the rum was matured and offered the master blender invaluable advice (this, of course, implies that aged rum was being made and sold by the company for years before 1954).
He and his father concocted the rum by using rums that had been matured in oak vats for seven years (it is uncertain where the original stock came from) and rums that had been infused with unknown spices. Standard bar bottles were the original plan, but VR found inspiration in the crinkled, short bottles of Old Parr whiskey and stole the concept, eventually resolving a lawsuit with Old Parr so that MM could maintain the clear bottle.
When the first batch of Old Monk rum was created in December 1954, it was distributed in small amounts to the military services, where it broke through social boundaries by challenging the notion that rum was just for the lower-class jawan and not the higher-class officer. Old Monk was so successful that distribution was widened to cover the entire country; over the subsequent fifty years, it remained India’s best-selling and most popular rum, despite the addition of new varieties. This success can be attributed in large part to its positioning as a more exclusive and upper-class rum.
Over the course of many years, whiskeys such as the Diplomat Deluxe, Colonel’s Special, Black Knight, and Summer Hall joined the company’s original Solan No.1 brand. They also branched into other spirits by creating their own brand of locally produced gins like Big Ben and London Dry, as well as vodka-Kaplanski, along with a growing collection of rums from the Old Monk.
The name of the firm changed too. Supposedly, when asked why he didn’t want to go to the brewery when visiting Shimla in 1960, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru provided the typical reason for the brewery’s being named after General Reginald Dyer and the sad and horrible connotations the name has. In 1966, it was renamed Mohan Meakin Breweries; by 1980, it had grown into a sizable conglomerate, so it was renamed again, this time to Mohan Meakin Ltd., and has been listed on the Calcutta Stock Exchange ever since.
After Narendra Nath Mohan died in 1969, his ambitious son, Colonel Ved Rattan, took charge. Apparently, he was quite a colourful figure: a member of parliament, the mayor of Lucknow, the head of the Censor Board of Film Certification, and a favourite of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. He often had parties at his house and counted Bollywood stars among his guests. His death at age 45 in 1973 cut short his contributions to the firm, but not before he had begun the expansion of the company’s product line to include cereals, fruit juices, and mineral waters, all of which were further developed by his successors.
Therefore, the second brother, Brigadier General Kapil Mohan, who was in charge of the company’s marketing and distribution division, Trade Links, became the new CEO. From 1975 to 2015, he led Mohan Meakins (he died in early 2018). In the wake of his brother’s successes in other areas of the food and beverage industry, he took the firm into the new millennium by expanding its liquor sector.
Even though he was a teetotaller, he made sure that the vatted 7 YO Old Monk would sell well by expanding the line to include additional rums, such as the Deluxe XXX Rum, the Gold Reserve XXX Rum, the Supreme XXX Rum, white rum, and Old Monk XXX Rum. Old Monk rum eventually became one of the most popular brands in the world, not only in India. It was common practice among the Indian diaspora to ask guests to bring a bottle, especially among the elderly who fondly remembered their first tastes of the beverage during their college years.
Surprisingly, the firm had not done any advertising until recently, stating they had no extra money to squander and that word of mouth would drive sales.
Up until about 2002, Old Monk had the lion’s share of the national branded spirits industry, including whiskey. And it included Bagpiper whiskey from United Spirits. McDowell’s “Celebration” rum didn’t even sell half as much as Old Monk. Like Bacardi is today in other parts of the world, the Monk was practically an emblem of the local drinking culture in India, a rite of drunken passage for young college graduates.
By the 2000s, the company’s flagship products were experiencing a decline in sales, which was partly blamed on the no-advertising policy as well as his martial, approach to innovation and development, which was poorly suited to less restrictive and less traditional newcomers who played by nimbler and more innovative rules. United Spirits, Radico Khaitan, Allied Blenders and Distillers, Tilak Nagar Industries, Khoday’s, Amrut Distilleries, John Distilleries, Simbhaoli Sugars, Empee Distilleries, Jagatjit Industries, and many others all made rapid changes, unlike Mohan Meakin, and saw significant increases in sales as a result. By 2011, McDowell’s Celebration was selling almost four times as many units as Old Monk, and by 2014, it was selling seven times as many units because of its savvy marketing and strategic positioning in the market (15 million cases to 2 million).
At one time, the Brigadier may have had reason to be optimistic; Old Monk was a global phenomenon that even outsold Bacardi in certain markets. But it was irrelevant since Old Monk’s share of the Indian rum market dropped from 15% to 5% between 2005 and 2015, the same time period in which the company began to show losses. The company’s finances improved briefly when it sold off land and other assets, but otherwise, no efforts were made to radically alter the product range, alter the company’s strategy, or permit advertising (“We do not promote. I won’t, and as long as I’m sitting here, neither will we, “scoffed Mohan, then 84 years old (and still a firm believer that happy customers are the best kind of advertising), in 2012.
In 2009, Mohan Meakin’s Lucknow brewery and distillery abruptly closed due to competition from Wave Distilleries, owned by Ponty Chadha. And while the Indian Army, a longtime bastion of the company’s sales, seemed to be purchasing more Contessa rum from rival Radico Khaitan, than Old Monk, the state of Tamil Nadu took over all liquor procurement and sales, which effectively removed Old Monk from state shelves for years in one of the most resolutely rum-drinking markets in India.
Mohan Meakin, on the other hand, was approached by Budweiser and Carlsberg for its beer business and even scuttled talks of a takeover by SABMiller in 2006 by insisting any lease (and not an outright sale) be for ten years, which was, of course, as good as saying no, despite the fact that United Spirits, the company that made McDowell’s, was acquired by Diageo in 2013–2014.
Brigadier Kapil Mohan retired in 2015 owing to health reasons (he continued to contribute in a consultancy role), and his nephews Vinay and Hemant Mohan took over as leaders. They knew from the time they started working there in the early 1990s that if they wanted to rise through the ranks and eventually become managers, they would have to learn everything about the whole firm from the ground up.
A group of Old Monk devotees called COMRADE (the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics) exists, and the diaspora and the military both have fond memories of the brand. However, the current leadership of the company has plans to move Old Monk beyond these notions of nostalgia and past success.