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Checking the ‘spirit’uality of monks

Zubin D’Souza

Alcohol consumption in a major part of Indian society is still taboo.

Parents love to live in denial that their children have let stuff stronger than grape juice cross their lips.

The children in question may be pushing forty but they still go through elaborate rituals to mask the alcoholic fumes that have by now permeated their clothes and skin.

The overriding fear amongst the traditional families was that alcohol was brought over to India to convert children into Christianity.

The culprit is not the sacramental wine drunk during the celebration of the mass nor was it the fact that alcohol production was taught to Indians by missionaries!

The malefactor happens to be the widest selling rum in India and the world; the rather innocuously named ‘Old Monk’.

The name was thrust without malice onto this sweet, dark rum that has characteristic vanilla undertones.

Although it is neither manufactured nor marketed by monasteries, the name has stuck and so has the image of a rather portly friar that serves as the brand logo.

Although this particular brand may have been vilified for all the wrong reasons by angry and distraught parents; there are several that are produced in authentic monasteries that have been celebrated by connoisseurs and dipsomaniacs around the world for centuries.

Beer was accidentally discovered by the ancient Babylonians around 10,000 years ago who then tried to refine the process only to give up in lieu of further military conquests.

Wine was invented around 8,000 years ago which makes it roughly 6,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Neither the invention nor the discovery lent itself to further interest or refinement over the succeeding years until monasteries began to take a keen interest.

To the monks who toiled in the secluded environs of their cloistered existence, the manufacturing of wine and alcohol was almost a spiritual experience.

Wine was used during the celebration of the mass and thus gave the monks a deeper sense of connect with God.

The water available for drinking in most human settlements were polluted at best and drinking alcohol was considered safer and a sure-fire remedy against the deadly cholera scourges of that time.

Grapes, wheat and barley soon became the lifeblood of many monasteries,

The grapes were turned into wine and a variety of alcohols and the wheat and barley would get their turn to be reborn as beer, whiskey or bread.

As countries turned to newer and newer lands for conquest, the missionaries travelled along in the hope of converting heathen souls. Where the monks went, their art was soon to follow and vineyards started sprouting up all along the New World, California, Argentina, Chile and Australia where Jesuits are credited with creating what is the modern wine industry.

The Jesuits are even credited with the crafting of two iconic national brandies which are the ‘pisco’ brandy in South America and the Italian ‘grappa’.

Quality was never in doubt since the monks have had a long history with their craft.

The monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland is home to the oldest drawings of a modern brewery. Just to ensure that there was a clear demarcation, there were three breweries created. One catered to the guests of the monastery, the second to the pilgrims and the poor and a third to the monks themselves.

Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk who is credited with creating the ‘methode champenoise’ that gives the world its present day champagne and bubblies.

Saint Arnold of Soissons, a Trappist monk invented a filtration process for the production of alcohol that is still in use to this day. I am guessing that he did not achieve his saintly status only for this one act but arguably it does put him high on the canonical list.

In fact the Trappist monks are known for their quality beers with many varieties being extremely sought out by aficionados.

Not to be left out of the race, several nuns got into the fray as well. The Carmelite sisters produced the now inexistent ‘Carmelite water’ that used to draw visitors from all corners of the globe.

They gave that up in favour of Rompope which is definitely the most famous Mexican festival liqueur.

Apparently the nuns were left with a lot of egg yolks after they used the egg whites to cover the sacred art of their chapel in a protective coating. Not wanting to let a good thing rot, they blended in vanilla, sugar and cream and created a name for their Clarist convent.

Chartreuse is a blend of 130 herbs and is known to be the only alcohol that improves even after being bottled. It was invented by the Carthusian monks who

keep their closely guarded secret away from prying eyes by only entrusting two monks at a time with the secret.

Dom Bernardo Vincelli is known to have created the liqueur known simply and famously as Benedictine DOM in a bid to rejuvenate weary monks.

With such a rich and wonderful history behind authentic monastic alcohols, parents in India should have been a little more open and welcoming to Old Monk !

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