Old Monk’s old man is no more

Spot the bottle.
Spot the bottle.
Image: Reuters/Kamal Kishore
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Kapil Mohan, the soldier-turned-businessman who popularised India’s most iconic brand of rum, has passed away at the age of 88.

The former managing director of Ghaziabad-based brewery Mohan Meakin, which makes Old Monk rum, reportedly suffered a cardiac arrest on Jan. 06. Mohan had been unwell for a while, and had handed over control of the company to his nephews in July 2016 (pdf), though he remained chairman.

The story of Mohan Meakin goes back to 1855, when an Englishman named Edward Dyer set up a brewery in Kasauli, from where he launched the Lion brand of beer. Over the following decades, the company would go on to set up breweries and distilleries in Simla, Solan, Lucknow, and even Mandalay, in what is now Myanmar. It later merged with another British-run brewery, Meakin & Co, and focused its brewing operations in Solan, Himachal Pradesh.

In 1949, two years after India gained independence from the British, the company was acquired by NN Mohan, and renamed Mohan Meakin Breweries. Mohan presided over a period of transformation and growth, moving the business to a newly-created industrial hub called Mohan Nagar in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad, and diversifying into breakfast foods, fruit juices, and even cold storage. But its most iconic product was a distinctive brand of dark rum, launched in December 1954: Old Monk.

Under the leadership of Mohan’s son Kapil, a retired brigadier who took over the helm of the company in the 1970s, the brand became synonymous with dark rum in India and also the country’s largest-selling liquor brand. Popular across all segments of the society, thanks to its affordable pricing and smooth, rich vanilla flavour, Old Monk gathered a cult following without any advertising or marketing, and dominated the alcohol market in the country.

But with increasing competition from foreign and local liquor brands, and due to changing tastes, its hold over the Indian tippler began slipping by 2005. Even as a Facebook community page called “COMRADE: Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics” celebrated India’s love for the beverage, its glory days were clearly coming to an end, with its share of the country’s rum market dipping to just 5% by 2014.

Today, it’s whisky that is booming in India, growing at over 30% between 2011 and 2016, according to consumer research firm GlobalData. Meanwhile, the market for rum shrunk by 9% in the same period.

With the news of Kapil Mohan’s passing, though, many in India will raise a toast to Old Monk’s old man.