Originally published as a standalone review in October 2023; revised and extended to Key Rums series in January 2024
Few rums from India make a splash in the western world, and that’s a peculiar thing since it’s entirely possible they were among the first people to actually make any kind of spirit from sugar cane (although it’s likely the crown goes to the Iranians whose “good wine of sugar” Marco Polo supposedly enjoyed on his travels) and for sure have some of the best selling rum brands on the planet. We may not hear of them very often but McDowell’s No. 1. Contessa, Old Port, Hercules, Two Indies and a few others, have a huge market footprint out east.
Historically, rum in India has always been a down-market tipple for the masses, largely because it lacked the snooty pretensions of whiskies (though they, for decades, laboured under similar perceptions until they changed their game), and was made in large quantities using relatively easily available molasses, panela or cane juice. On a larger scale, rum was popular when made by distilling companies because its method of production was essentially column still near-neutral alcohol plus additives for taste: cheap and easy to make at scale, priced to sell. This made rum do well at the rural level — where the majority of Indians still live — but cut no ice at all in the rest of the world.
Among the first to break this mould was the company of Mohan Meakin (previously Dyer Meakin), which was established in the mid-1800s. They made at least some kind of rum all along, but it was the 1950s that were key: in December 1954 they released the first Old Monk rum to the armed forces in its signature Old Parr-style bottle, aged around seven years. It shattered class barriers by being marketed not just the rank and file jawans but to the officer class, and gave rum as a whole a boost by making it more socially acceptable, even respectable, up the social scale.
From that humble beginning sprang a brand of uncommon durability and popularity. For the next fifty years, anchored by huge sales to the military and canny placement in five-star hotels, Old Monk rum was the most popular brand of rum in India, with increasing sales abroad. It became the spirit of choice among university students for decades, and as these educated young people fanned out and emigrated across the world they brought their nostalgic love for the rum with them, establishing the brand in new countries where the company set up distribution arrangements in many countries to satisfy this demand. For a while, so strong was cultural attachment to Old Monk that the global diaspora regularly requested relatives bring some with them when they came visiting, or brought it back themselves when they did.
Yet even if its sales were gargantuan (for decades, it was one of the five top selling rums in the world), outside a few major regional, internal and historical markets, it was never a truly global widespread seller; one rarely if ever saw the squat and tubby bottles at international spirits or bar expos, and though I’ve passed the vatted 7YO several times on local shelves in several countries, I’ve never seen it at a single festival. And the general opinion of those modern reviewers who have tried it is somewhat dismissive: adjectives like “crude”, “oversweet”, “rough” and “spiced” are common in most write ups I’ve seen, and it’s often relegated it to mixer status, with grudging compliments occasionally thrown in. The Old Monk series of rums, then – and there are quite a few – attract a curious mix of indifference, scorn and loving nostalgia from rum drinkers, some of which is understandable, some less so.
It continues to be made, however, and continues to sell and for all intents and purposes remains almost a cultural institution in India, so its importance to understanding rum around the world must be accepted. Unlike Appleton, say, it doesn’t look like they have continually tweaked the recipe, and the bottle we see nowadays is recognizable the same as the original. It remains a vatted 7 year old rum from molasses, or that nutrient rich variant called jaggery, which we’ve met before (opinions vary, and the company isn’t telling).I don’t know what the original strength was back when it was first introduced, but at least for the last decade and a half I’ve only seen it sold at 42.8%. Let’s take it as it is, then, and move on.
As a rum it presses all the right buttons. You can smell molasses, sandalwood, some tar, and overripe bananas, plus some tannics. That’s the first pass. After opening up it reaches further and hits the spice jar: ginger, vanilla, cardamom, cumin, I would say, and some sweet paprika, all of which is nice and heavy and almost perfumed, while never losing sight of the fact that it’s a rum.
On the tongue the taste is dark and medium heavy, with strong notes of salted – almost bitter – caramel and unsweetened chocolate, coffee grounds, molasses and licorice. The strength is just about right for all this smorgasbord of subcontinental notes and doesn’t burn a whole lot going down, so sipping neat is an option. It’s not that sweet and there’s that vague spice shelf drifting in from the nose even here. The finish is like that as well, being mild, short, breathy, warm, and again, redolent of licorice, caramel and spices, plus what the Little Big Caner called a mix of pepsi and jerky (go figure).
If pressed for a comparison, I’d suggest that the Old Monk has a fair bit in common with the dusky heaviness of the Demeraras, or perhaps Goslings and other dark molasses-forward rums. You can sense the similarities with the Amrut’s Two Indies or the Old Port as well; except that it has its own vibe and that might be because it is either (wholly or partly) made from jaggery, or because it really does have something added to it. We don’t know. Old Monk has always been looked at slightly askance, because it’s hard to shake the feeling this is not what we’re used to, not a rum that’s made completely “clean” and something’s been sprinkled in. But honestly, it’s not too bad, though it sometimes feels a little unfinished. I like the offbeat and unusual in rum, and in the main the Old Monk is very much like Amrut’s whiskies are: definitely what they’re supposed to be — a rum in this case — just with a slight kink and twist to mark them out as noticeably different. On its technical merits and how it noses and tastes I can’t say my score is wrong: but since this is a rum from outside our regular area, there are bound to be variations.
So with all that, does it deserve to be in the pantheon of those rums I deem “key” to understanding the spirt? I argue that it is. Firstly it remains immensely popular and among more than just expatriate Indians, and needs to be seen for what it is. Secondly, it has a long history, both as a company and a brand, and shows something of how rum developed outside the more comfortingly familiar regions we extol in every other post on the subject. We need to understand and appreciate more than just rums from the Caribbean and Latin America, and have to learn about profiles that are at odds with our perceptions of how rum should be made, or should taste. No rum that has lasted this long without serious change and still sells this well, can be ignored just because it’s not in current fashion. It needs to be acknowledged as a rum from its region, for its people, maybe even of its time. Amrut conquered the whisky world by making whiskies to global standards. Old Monk becomes a key rum by resolutely adhering to its own.