choose your poison

This cult brand made Indians the world’s biggest rum drinkers

June 18, 2013
June 18, 2013
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Enjoy the rum, boys.(AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

There are enough intriguing factoids and anomalies in the International Wine & Spirits Research’s global league table of booze to fuel a year’s worth of barroom debates. (Russia consumes an absolutely staggering amount of vodka, and France drinks more Scotch whiskey than all of Britain.) But one country’s consumption of rum jumps right off the chart: India drinks a massive amount of rum compared to the rest of the world—more than 400 million liters a year, or twice the consumption of United States in second place. Per capita the figures are not quite as impressive. India drinks 0.3 liters per person a year, nowhere near Caribbean cohorts like Cuba or the Dominican Republic, but that still puts it on par with developed countries like  France, Britain and Germany.

Why rum and not, say, gin? That’s the favorite in the Philippines, which has a similarly muggy climate.

In turns out the secret to India’s fondness for rum can be traced to a single brand, Mohan Meakin’s Old Monk. It’s the fifth-most popular rum in the world, but few outside of India have ever heard about it. Unchanged for decades, Old Monk survives in India by word of mouth—its owners say they have never spent a dime on advertising—and the custom of Indian enthusiasts like COMRADE, the “Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics.”

Devotees claim that when drunk with soda or water, Old Monk doesn’t give you hangovers—a cuba libre-like Old Monk with cola spiked with lime and chili is also permitted. It’s very cheap at Rs 400 ($6.85) for 750 ml; along with its competitors, Old Monk can take advantage of India’s large sugarcane crop for its raw materials.

Alas for Old Monk and its fans, modern times have not been kind. Sales have plunged by about half since 2002 and it now sells only a quarter of the volume of category leader McDowell’s No.1 Celebration, owned by the Indian giant United Spirits Ltd. In April, Mohan Meakin announced that it would revamp Old Monk’s packaging for the first time and roll out a new pricing structure to position the rum as a premium product. Some advertising might also help—India bans outright alcohol ads, but companies get around this sponsoring other products and events.

A turnaround is not impossible. Old Monk is a venerated brand, and a bit of marketing could unleash the enthusiasm of longtime customers while finding a new audience among young Indian drinkers and perhaps even rum aficionados around the world. But there is also a chance that the world has moved on, and Old Monk will be doomed to insignificance, or perhaps snapped up by one of the massive spirits conglomerates that now dominate the industry. In the end it will come down to one question: Can you teach an Old Monk any new tricks?

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