World Rum Day: Old Monk And Indian Independence, A Shared Legacy

Show me a fan of Old Monk and I’ll show you someone who’s been to college in India. The stout, squared-off bottle and its mosaiced glass pattern were a welcome sight for anyone looking for a good drink that didn’t break the bank. And over the years, this dark rum has become a point of nostalgia for many generations. With notes of vanilla and caramel, the drink lends itself well to cola but some might remember it best with water, the more frugal mixer. Though Old Monk is still well-loved today, many aren’t familiar with its long, and storied past that’s sometimes as dark as the drink itself. This World Rum Day, take a moment to look back over Old Monk's long and fascinating legacy and how it intertwined with India's story of independence.

It all can be traced back to a Scottish businessman called Edward Abraham Dyer, the son of John Dyer a British officer in the East India Company’s Naval Service. Edward Dyer was born in Calcutta in 1830 and educated in England as an engineer, returning to India around 1850. Along with a brother John he used his family’s money to open up a brewery in Kasol – previously Kasauli – and began manufacturing India’s first local beer, Lion. Initially, the brewery specialised in beer, but Dyer soon expanded operations to include ale and whisky as well. 

As the water supply in Kasauli began to run dry, the brewery upped and move bricks to Solan, ten kilometres to the east where there was better access to water and the railway line, but the distillery and all the equipment that had been imported for it stayed put. As Punjab was annexed in 1849, the Kasauli Brewery became the Dyer Breweries Limited in 1855 manufacturing Lion Beer and the effortlessly popular single malt whisky Solan No.1 which remained the best-selling Indian whisky until the 1980s.

The brewery and distillery both were thriving, and expanding to new locations but meanwhile, another enterprise was underway. By 1872, Mr H.G Meakin had made his way to India to make his fortune. He came from a long line of successful brewers in England and by 1877 he had seen enough success to buy the original Kasauli and Solan breweries from Dyer, who was seeking to expand elsewhere.

Left: A Lion Beer label post-1920
Right: Erstwhile Colonel Reginald Dyer

The two parted ways post this transaction but in 1919 the Dyer name came under scrutiny when Edward’s son, Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer led the brutal attack that became known as the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre. This dark deed earned him the title, ‘The Butcher of Amritsar’. Dyer Jr. faced inquiry, was forced to resign and was denounced for his acts, fleeing to England in 1920 to live out his days as a commoner. But the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre marked the turning point in India's freedom struggle and Dyer's actions set in motion events that would directly lead to independence.

The family name seemed blithely unaffected by the tragedy and in the same year, the company brought Meakin on as a partner to make it the Dyer Meakin & Co. Ltd. The company continued to profit, expanding their operations in Solan and other hubs until after WWII when the British were ousted from the country and British owned businesses came under harsh scrutiny in the public opinion. The families of Meakin and Dyer retreated to England and when a Brahmin ex-employee Narendra Nath Mohan made them an offer to take over the company in 1948 they agreed and Mohan became the sole proprietor in 1949. The products up till then had been the iconic Lion, and Eagle beers and Solan No.1 on the whisky front, but Mohan had plans to diversify.

One of his sons – VR Mohan – wanted to channel the ingenuity and legacy of Benedictine monks in Europe, while also taking on the largest rum contender of the time, Hercules Rum which had cornered the armed forces market. This was to be the stepping stone to Old Monk Rum, a seven-year-aged rum with a secret spice blend that was released in limited quantities to the army in 1954. 

As they say, the rest is history, Old Monk came in and made rum a drink for all by selling it at five-star hotels and to soldiers alike. Positioned as an upper-class drink, something unheard of for rum at the time gave it room to expand and for fifty years it held onto its position as the favourite rum in India.

In 1960, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to visit the original brewery as it still bore the Dyer name and by 1966, it was rechristened Moham Meakin Breweries and in 1980 became the conglomerate Mohan Meakin Ltd. the name that still stands today.

Though they faced a lull in the mid-2000s the Mohan company has staunchly refused any strategic partnership, let alone a sale, even though they had offers from international brands. They lost breweries, took massive financial hits and kept on chugging. Even today, the Old Monk brand is innovating new ways to stay ahead of the curve with a new Ready To Drink range and an attitude of resilience. 

It’s hard to imagine a world without Old Monk and hopefully, we’ll never have to. It may have lost its premium status to foreign-made liquor that now lines the shelves, but not one of those top-tier brands has the history and deep ties to India and its journey to independence like the good ‘ol Monk.