Jul 132020
 

The Old Monk series of rums, perhaps among the best known to the Western world of those hailing from India, excites a raft of passionate posts whenever it comes up for mention, ranging from enthusiastic fanboy positivity, to disdain spread equally between its lack of disclosure about provenance and make, and the rather unique taste. Neither really holds water, but it is emblematic of both the unstinting praise of adherents who “just like rum” without thinking further, and those who take no cognizance of cultures other than their own and the different tastes that attend to them.

That’s unfortunatebecause we should pay attention to other countries’ rums. As I remarked in a rambling interview in early July 2020, concentration on the “Caribbean 5” makes one ignore other parts of the world far too often, and make no mistake, rum really is a global spirit, often indigenously so, in a way whisky or gin or vodka are not. One of the things I really enjoy about it is its immense variety, which the Old Monk, Dzama, Batavia Arrack, Bundaberg , Mhoba, Cor Cor, Juan Santos and Bacardi (to list just a few examples from around the world) showcase every bit as well as the latest drooled-over Hampden or Foursquare.

Which is not to say, I’m afraid, that this rum from India deserves unstinting and uncritical accolades as some sort of natural backcountry traditional spirit made in The Old Way for generations. To begin with, far too little is known about it. Leaving aside the very interesting history of the Indian company Mohan Meakin, official blurbs talk about it being made in the “traditional manner” and then never say what that actually is. No production details are provided, either on the bottle or the company websitebut given its wild popularity in India and the diaspora, and its massive sales numbers even in a time of demise (2016 – ~4 million cases) it suggests something made on a large scale, with an ageing process in place. Is it truly a blend of various 12 year old rums, as some sources suggest? No way of knowing, but at the price point it sells for, it strikes me as unlikely. Beyond that and the strength (42.8% ABV), we have nothing.

That means we take the rum as it is almost without preconceptions, and indeed, the initial notes of the smell are promising: it’s thick and solid, redolent of boiled sweets, caramel bon bons, crushed walnuts, bitter cocoa, coffee grounds, ashes, molasses, brine, even some olives. But it’s too much of the sweet, and it smellsI’m choosing this word carefullycloying. There is just too much thickness here, it’s a morass of bad bananas, sweet molasses and brown sugar rotting in the sun, and reminds me of nothing so much as jaggery, such as that which I recall with similar lack of fondness from the Amrut Two Indies. But as a concession there was a bit of brine and clear cane juice, just insufficient to enthuse.

The sensation of thickness and dampening was much more pronounced on the palate, and I think this is where people’s opinions start to diverge. There’s a heavy and furry softness of texture on the mouthfeel, tastes of molasses, coffee, cocoa, with too much brown sugar and wet jaggery; it reminds me of a hot toddy, and I don’t say that with enthusiasm. It’s a cocktail ready-made and ready to drink, good for a cold day and even a citrus hint (which rescues it from being a completely cloying mess) doesn’t do enough to rescue it from the bottom of the glass. And the finish, well, noting to be surprised atit’s short, it’s sweet, it’s thick, and it’s thankfully over very quickly.

I can’t rid myself of the feeling something has been added here. Sugar, caramel, spices, I don’t know. Wes at the FRP did the hydrometer test on it and it came up clean, yet you can’t taste this thing and tell me it’s as pure as Caesar’s Jamaican wife, not even close. In point of fact, though, what this rum reminds me of is its cousin the Amrut Two Indies, the Nepalese Kukhri (though not as sweet), a low-end Jamaican Rum (Myer’s, Appleton V/X maybe, or even a less interesting el Dorado 12 Year Old. Because of the profile I describe, it can certainly be had by itself or mixed into a sugar-free cola very nicely and therein lies, I suspect, much of its appeal as a spirit in Asia.

In Asia maybebut not in Europe. The bartender at the Immertreu Bar in Berlin showed some surprise when I selected it from his back shelf, and shook his head with evident disappointment. “For this, you don’t need a tasting glass” he sniffed, not even bothering to hide his disdain. And after I had smelled, tasted and tried it, then looked askance at the glass, he shrugged…”I told you so.” He didn’t understand that had to try the rum whether or not I believed him, but to be honest, this was one of those occasions where I wish I had listened harder. Back in the 1970s and 1980s Old Monk may have outsold all other brands in India, and ten years later could even price itself higher than Bacardi in Germany, and outsell it….but those glory days, I’m afraid, are gone. The world has moved on. Old Monk hasn’t, and that’s both its attraction and its downfall to those who try it for the first time, and go on to either love it or hate it. Few of these, however, will remain completely indifferent.

(#745)(79/100)


Other Notes

  • I am assuming a column still product derived from molasses or jaggery. Online background suggests it is a blend of 12 year old rums, but the official website makes no such claim and neither does the label, so I’ll leave it as a blended aged rum without further elaboration.
  • Whether it was distilled past 90% or taken off the still before that is equally unknown. The cynic in me suggests it might be flavoured ethanol, not just because of the taste, but also since the company never actually says anything about the production process and this invites both suspicion and censure in this day and age.
  • The bottle shape is not all glassfrom the shoulders up it is plastic.
  • Who the figure of the monk represents is unclear. One possibly apocryphal story suggests there was a British monk who used to hang around the factory where Mohan Meakin’s rums were made and aged, shadowing the master blenderhis advice was so good that when Old Monk was first launched the name and bottle were based on him. Another story goes it was the idea of one of the founders, Ved Mohan, who was inspired by the life of Benedictine monks. And a third variation is that it’s actually H.G. Meakin who took over the Dyer Brewery and distillery in 1887 and formed Dyer-Meakin.
  • Wikipedia, the Times of India, Business Today and Mid-Day.com (an Indian online paper) say the brand was launched in 1954, and some European marketing material says 1935. I think 1954 is likely correct.
  • The XXX in the title refers toVery-Extra-Good-Somethingand is not meant to be salacious.
  • The bottle shape was unique enough for me to give it a mention in the disposable clickbait list of 12 Interesting Bottle Designs.
  • A detailed biography of Mohan Meakin is available here.
Jan 302020
 

India is one of these countries that makes a lot of rum but is not reknowned for itand if you doubt that, name five Indian rums, quick. Aside from a few global brands like Amrut (who are more into whiskies but also dabbled in rum with the Old Port Deluxe and the Two Indies rums) rum makers from there seem, for the moment, quite happy to sell into their internal or regional markets and eschew going abroad, and are equally indifferent to the foreign rum festival circuit where perhaps they could get more exposure or distribution deals. Perhaps being located in the most populous region of the earth, they don’t need to. The market is literally right there for them.

One such product from India came across my radar the other day: named Rhea Gold Rum, it’s made in Goa on the west coast of the subcontinent, and I can truthfully say I knew nothing about it when I tried it, so for reasons that will become clear, let me run you straight past through the tasting notes before going on.

Light amber in colour and bottled at 43%, it certainly did not nose like your favoured Caribbean rum. It smelled initially of congealed honey and beeswax left to rest in an old unaired cupboard for six monthsthat same dusty, semi-sweet waxy and plastic odour was the most evident thing about it. Letting it rest produced additional aromas of brine, olives and ripe mangoes in a pepper sauce. Faint vanilla and caramelwas this perhaps made from jaggery, or added to after the fact? Salty cashew nuts, fruit loops cereal and that was most or less ita fairly heavy, dusky scent, darkly sweet.

The palate continued that deep profile of rich and nearly overripe mangoesbig, soft, yellow and juicy, just on the edge of turning mushy. Some tastes of pears, papayas, peaches, but not as sweet, accompanied by vanilla and nuttinessbut overall, the cloying thickness of overripe fruits became gradually dominating, even at that relatively tame strength, almost overpowering all others. There was no subtlety here, just a pillow fight. Finish was too faint and syrupy (in taste not in texture) to be interesting in any meaningful way. It has some fruit, some salt caramel, it finishes and that’s pretty much it.

In my original written notes I opined that this is a spiced or added-to rumsuch things are, after all, not unknown in India. But in point of fact, it reminded me more strongly of the guava-based “rum” from Cuba called the Guyabita del Pinar, with which it seems to share kinship from half a world away, without being quite as good.

As it turns out, that wasn’t far off the mark. The company that makes itRhea Distillersis much more famous (especially in Goa) for making variations of the local spiced alcoholic spirit based on cashews, or sometimes, coconut milk. Called feni, it is the most popular tipple in the region, a softer, easier cousin to clairins, somewhat akin to grogues though made from fruit, not cameand is, as an aside, subject to a GI in its own right.

The Gold Rum was made from sugar cane juice according to the site and that makes it a “real” rumstill, bearing in mind the priorities and main products of the company, the question of why it tastes so much of cashews is not hard to guess (nothing is written anywhere on the web page about production methods, except that cane spirit is the base). Moreover, in those competitions where it was entered (ISWC 2018 and World Rum Awards 2018), it won prizes in the ‘flavoured’ or ‘spiced’ categoriesnot that of a straight product.

What else? Well, the front label wasn’t very helpful; the back label says, among other things, that it is aged in oak barrels without subsequent filtration for about three years and consists of “rum distillate”, water, E150a colouring, and without additional aromatics or artificial additives (the rest is health advisories, distribution and manufacturer data, shelf life and storage instructions). Well, I don’t know: it may not have any artificial additives, but it sure had somethingmaybe it was natural additives, like actual cashew fruit or macerate.

The website of the company also lacked any serious data, on either the product or the company background, but whatever the case and however they made it, this is definitely a spiced rum, and for me, not a very good oneperhaps a native of Goa who is used to the local drinks and buys the ubiquitous feni on the street would like it more than I did. Rhea might be serving a captive market of millions but that’s hardly an endorsement of intrinsic quality or unique production styleor, in this case, of taste. I found the Rhea unsatisfactory as a sipper, dominated by too few strong and oversweet tastes, and not a drink I could mix easily into any standard cocktail to showcase what aspects of it were more successful. In short, not my thing.

(#697)(72/100)


Opinion

Full disclosure: I’m not really a fan of spiced rums, believing there’s more than enough good and unspiced stuff out there for me not to bother with rums that are so single mindedly flavoured to the point of drowning out subtler nuances of ageing and terroiretherealrum taste, which I prefer. So in a way it was good that I tasted it without knowing what it was. You really did get my unvarnished opinion on the rum, and that was also why I wrote the review that way.

Apr 062017
 

#354

Amrut, that Bangalore company which makes the Old Port rum I tried many years ago, as well as whiskies many swoon over, is no stranger to making rums, but their marketing effort is primarily aimed at the subcontinent itself, and perhaps other parts of Asia (maybe they’re chasing Old Monk, which was once the #1 rum in India). There’s not much of a range (five rums in all), and I rarely saw any of them in Canada – this one was bought in Europe. Given that this particular rum is a blend of – get this! – Jamaican, Bajan, Guyanese and Indian pot-still rum, one can perhaps be forgiven for asking whether they’re going in the direction of Ocean’s Atlantic Rum; and as far as I was concerned that one suffered from overreach. But at least we know where the “Two Indies” moniker derives, if nothing else.

It’s also worth commenting on one thing: the Indian component of the rum is supposedly a pot still originating distillate based on jaggery, which is a natural sweetener made from sugar cane…whose by-product is molasses so one wonders why not just go there and have done, but never mind. The issues (not problems) we have are two fold: firstly, jaggery is actually made from either sugar cane or the date palm, so I’m unsure of which variation is in use here (since sugar cane jaggery is cheaper, I’m putting my money there); secondly, assuming the jaggery is from cane, it is in effect a reduced version of sugar cane juice – a syrup – what we in the West Indies and parts of South America sometimes refer to as “honey”. So in effect there’s nothing particularly special about the matter except that its source product is made in Asia and widely known there. And, of course, the marketing, since it suggests a divergence and distinction from more familiar terms.

Anyway, all this preamble leads inevitably to the question of whether that basic ingredient lends a difference to the profile, the way for example a “maple syrup rum” would (and yes, there is such an abomination). I don’t really think so – the difference in taste and smell I noted seemed to be more a product of the entire geographical environment, the way a Bundie is linked to Australia, and Dzama is Madagascar and Ryoma is Japanese. I’m not saying I could necessarily taste it blind and know it was either from India in general or Amrut in particular – but there were differences from more traditional Caribbean or Latin American rums with which we have greater experience

Consider first how it smelled. The nose began by presenting a sort of lush fruitiness that spilled over into over-ripe, almost spoiled mangoes, persimmons and sweet tropical fruit and kiwi, something also akin to those cloying yellow-orange cashews the snacking nuts are made from (not those with the stones inside). In the background there lurked caramel and vanilla, some cloying sweet and also breakfast spices (cloves and maybe nutmeg mostly, though very light) just as the Old Monk had; and overall, the aromas were heavy and (paradoxically enough) not all that easy to pick out – perhaps that was because of the inoffensive 42.8% ABV it was bottled at.

I liked the taste a lot better, though that queer heaviness persisted through what ended up as a much clearer rum than I had expected. So, bananas, more of the mangoes and cashews, honey, papayas, and the spices. Adding some water released some chocolate and coffee, nutmeg, more vanilla and caramel, maybe some light molasses, some licorice, a nice twist of citrus rind, which I liked – it provided an edge that was sorely needed. Finish was soft and quick, reasonably clean and warm, but was mostly the spices and caramel than anything else.

Reading around doing the usual research (and there is really not very much to go on so I have an outstanding email and a FB message sent out to them) suggests there are no artificial flavours included: but I dunno, that profile is quite different, and the breakfast spices are evident, so I gotta wonder about that; and the overall mouthfeel does suggest some sugar added (no proof on my side, though). This doesn’t sink the drink, but it does make for an unusual experience. You’re not getting any Jamaican funk, Guyanese wooden stills or easier Bajans, nor any of that off-the-wall madness of an unaged white popskull. It is simply what it is, in its own unique way.

On balance, a decent enough drink. I liked it just fine, though without any kind of rabid enthusiasm – it was from somewhere new, that’s all. You could drink it neat, no issues. Personally I thought the flavours were a mite too heavy (it stopped just short of being cloying) and meshed rather clumsily in a way that edged towards a muddle rather than something clearer and more distinct that would have succeeded better. Much like the Tanduay, Mekhong, Tuzemak, Bundie or even the Don Papa rums, I suspect it is made based on a local conception of rum, and is for local palates. Add to that the terroire concept and you can see why it tastes so off-base to one weaned on Caribbean tipple. There’s a subtle difference from any of the British West Indian rums I’ve tried over the years, and though the Two Indies is a combo of several nations’ rums, I can’t separate the constituents and tell you with assurance, “Oh yeah, this comes from Foursquare” or “That’s Hampden” or even “PM! (and no, I don’t know whether these were the constituents).

So, they have used jaggery rather than molasses to make it, blended their way around a mishmash of profiles, and while I liked it and was intrigued, I didn’t believe all that was really needed and may even have made it less than its potential. In Guyanese creole, when we see that kind of thing showing itself off as an artistic blending choice we usually smile, grunt “jiggery-pokery” and then shrug and fill another tumbler. That pretty much sums things up for me, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a compliment or not.

(82/100)


Other notes

The rum makes no mention of its age, and nothing I’ve unearthed speaks to it. That was also part of my email to Amrut, so this post will likely be updated once I get a response.