Old Monk lovers will raise an additional toast of their favourite rum tonight — its creator, Kapil Mohan, has passed away in Ghaziabad at the age of 88.
Kapil Mohan was an unusual man to be leading what was, for a while, the largest selling dark rum in the world. He was a teetoteller, and hardly ever drank the rum that drew a passionately loyal following. And unlike most alcohol companies, Old Monk never advertised — Mohan believed that growth should be fueled from the quality of the product alone.
“We do not advertise. I will not, and as long as I am in this chair, we will not (advertise),” Mohan had said in an interview in 2012. “The best way of my advertising is the product: When it comes to you and you taste it, you look at the difference and ask what is it. That is the best advertisement.” Old Monk’s unusual strategy clearly worked — till the mid 2000s, was the undisputed leader among the single-brand, not just among rum labels, but the entire branded spirits market in India.
It helped that the product had a pedigree that few of its competitors could match. Old Monk’s roots go all the way back to 1855, when an entrepreneurial Scotsman named Edward Dyer, quick to spot demand for cheap beer among the British, set up a brewery in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh. Dyer’s son would later become the infamous General Dyer who’d carried out the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, but his firm would eventually bring much joy to millions of Indians — it merged with Meakin & Co. Ltd., forming the Dyer Meakin & Co.Ltd in the 19th century.
In 1949, NN Mohan, an Indian businessman and patriarch of the Mohan family, acquired the company. One of their first products was Old Monk, which was launched on 19th December, 1954. In 1966, the company was renamed Mohan Meakin Breweries, and as the company diversified — it launched other brands, and also a glass-making factory — the term ‘breweries’ was dropped from the name.
Kapil Mohan was pushed to the helm of his family business in the 1970s, after the death of his elder brother. In 1980, the company changed its name to Mohan Meakin, and Mohan oversaw the growth of Old Monk. Old Monk, thanks to its competitive price point and distinctive taste, became the favourite drink of the Indian army, remaining the most-sold drink at army canteens till 2008. At its heyday, Old Monk was selling 8 million bottles a year, and was, curiously, even popular abroad — budget travelers who came to India in that period carried back tales of Old Monk with them, and Old Monk began being sold in many international locations. Kapil Mohan was awarded a Padmashree for his entrepreneurial efforts.
Old Monk, however, found it hard to compete with foreign brands of liquor when they started appearing on Indian shelves post liberalization in 1991. Domestic competitors also emerged, including United Spirits’ whisky Bagpiper, and McDowell’s Celebration Rum. By 2005, Celebration Rum had gone past Old Monk as India’s most popular rum. Old Monk’s sales also fell, and now the company sells only a quarter of the sales it had at its peak.
Kapil Mohan had stepped away from the business last year at the age of 87, and handed over the reins to his nephews. Old Monk might not be the best selling rum in India any more, but it has a fan following that few of its competitors can hope to match. It has fan groups on Facebook, including COMRADE — the Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics, and also evokes nostalgic memories from millions of Indian engineers who’ve drunk copious amounts during their college days. Old Monk could use its fan base to stage a revival, but it’ll have to be done by the next generation of the Mohans. Kapil will only be watching down from the heavens.