My Pilgrimage to the Old Monk Factory

Pop Culture

My Pilgrimage to the Old Monk Factory

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Much before “Make in India” was made into a circus, they were actually making stuff in India. A small factory in Kasauli was making the antidote to depression and loneliness. They were making the accompaniment to heartbreaks and misery. They were making a cure to get over “the one” and they were doing it with sugarcane. Old Monk was sugarcane’s shot at immortality.

See Old Monk is the Mithun of alcohol. After a certain age and improved tastes, you can’t really admit you love it, but secretly, you do. The sugarcane hits a spot that even the best malt cannot reach.  But loyalists have argued that it’s not just sugarcane molasses that give Old Monk its sweet taste. It’s the water. The breweries have sourced water from the same natural spring in Solan for 150 years, since the facilities were set up, they say. In an age when there was no WhatsApp, it was difficult to tell truth from lies. But could that possibly be true?

Now I can tell you I’m a diehard Old Monk-er, and you’ll probably say, “Yeah, join the queue.” But here’s the difference between you and I. I actually visited Solan to find out how the magic potion is brewed. You can judge me later and maybe set up an AA meeting too, but first listen.

A few years ago, on one chilly evening I reached Solan by bus from Shimla. There is nothing in Solan, really. Nobody except the locals and the snoots from Sanawar visit Solan. I asked around (maps don’t work there) and reached my temple: The Old Monk factory.

Tired and overwhelmed, I dropped to my knees. As I bowed down and kissed the ground, a bewildered guard asked me if I needed to see someone. (He probably meant a doctor, to seek help). I took it literally and asked for the manager. But the factory had shut for the day; the manager had left. Besides, the guard said, “Nobody is really allowed in. It isn’t exactly a tourist spot.” But I had no intentions of going back on an empty liver.

I told the guard I would wait. I sat down beside to him, next to a bonfire, and smiled. He smiled back at me and offered me his chair. Soon, we were both snoring in the cold. The next morning, the manager saw me, and with the same bewildered expression asked me, “Why?” I shrugged and smiled. He did not have the heart to say no to me, turn a blind eye to my passion, and agreed to give me a tour of the Old Monk factory. And what a tour it was!

I witnessed the seven stages of the nectar being brewed and it did not take me more than an hour. But I didn’t just see it; I tasted it. The molasses have a funny smell and texture. When soaked in water, that liquid tastes a tad like fish with a lot of bones – the molasses gets stuck, but the sweetness is stuff that fulfils a soul. After fermentation, the nectar of life gets its fragrance and I thought that was an avoidable step, really. Three more stages later, you have it. One minute all you see is molasses, and the next, dark gold.

I wanted those bottles more than I’ve wanted a magic carpet when I was five.

I never got around to asking about the secret of the taste of Old Monk (apparently its not just the water, but also some of the original copper equipment imported more than 150 years ago) because I had just set my sights on the most amazing little things ever – tiny, adorable, miniature Old Monk bottles of 60 ml. The perfect-sized double shot of dark rum that every man needs. They apparently made these just for the staff. Not for retail, not for the army – just for them, the good people at the Old Monk factory.

I wanted those bottles more than I’ve wanted a magic carpet when I was five. My request was turned down. But a man who has the passion to visit Solan for the sake of his firewater wasn’t going to be stumped this easily. So just as the testy manager was speaking to his men about some scheduling issue, I slipped a few bottles in my pocket. As he walked me out, a worker came up to him. He was informed that there were fewer miniatures than they could account for. Before the manager turned around to question me, I was gone.

The disappearing act turned out to be a novice move. I ran into the surrounding forest where I couldn’t tell a deodar from a pine, and scrambled about cluelessly for a way out. Thankfully, the sun was out in its full glory, so I could wait it out until they gave up because really, how invested could they be in those missing miniatures?

But I missed the obvious. If an Old Monk fan drinker could make the pilgrimage to the holy site, the priest of the temple would obviously defend his God. As I made my way down the hill, I could sense them closing in. I realised the only way to escape was to let go of the bottles. It would break my heart, but there was the dark rum inside them to make me feel better instantly.

So right there, in the middle of a goddamn forest, I had my personal Hansel-and-Gretel moment – I left a trail of the Old Monk Bottles. I downed them in a gulp and ran like the wind. I figured they wanted the bottles, not me.

I was right. The sun started to go down and nobody chases thieves of miniature bottles in the dark. So I slipped out of the vast compound and made my way back, more than tipsy with all that speed drinking. I have very little recollection of how I found my way to Shimla, and from there, back to Delhi, but I made it.

Some months later, I got into another yelling match with a friend on the taste of Old Monk, and briefly thought of going back to my temple (this time to get information not perform grand larceny), but I didn’t. Some Gods are better worshipped in retail shops.