Mainstay reigned supreme among the Indian community for several decades, says the writer. Picture: Supplied
Mainstay reigned supreme among the Indian community for several decades, says the writer. Picture: Supplied

Cheers to a mainstay of community spirit

By Yogin Devan Time of article published Jan 25, 2020

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Without much fuss and fanfare, a mainstay in the community, possessing boundless energy, liveliness and an indomitable spirit, quietly slipped away recently.

More than six decades ago, Mainstay cane spirit was born in KwaZulu-Natal. Over the years, it became unique and special to South Africa just as tequila is to Mexico, vodka to Russia and rum to Jamaica.

Now the once top-selling liquor brand is no more - it was taken off the shelves as sales had dropped in favour of more expensive brands of liquor for bulging wallets and sophisticated palates.

While there was no race classification for Mainstay cane spirit at birth, it was not long before the liquor that was distilled from fermented sugarcane juice became a firm favourite among Indians.

It was a combination of several factors that endeared Indians to Mainstay cane spirit.

Chief among these would be the link to the cane fields, which Indians, with their sweat and toil, had turned into a veritable economic engine room for then Natal.

Compared to other alcoholic drinks such as whisky and brandy, cane spirit was relatively cheap and affordable for the lower economic group that was more prone to imbibing hard liquor in large quantities regularly. Also, cane spirit has a flavour that is neutral - not sweet - and this paired well with traditional Indian dishes such as pungent curries.

In the 1960s, a 750ml bottle of Mainstay cane sold for less than R3 and in the 70s, it could be bought for about R5.

This may be regarded as a small amount of money when considered today but the mirth or mayhem a bottle of cane caused could be significant.

After a week of hard work, many men would head home on a Friday afternoon with oily brown paper bags of sev and nuts, chilli bites and an assortment of cakes that filled children with glee.

As his own reward for his loyal labouring, the head of the household will also have tucked under his arm a bottle of “blue top”, a nickname Mainstay cane spirit earned because of the blue cap on the bottle.

Like a magic potion, a couple of tots of cane dashed with Coke soon calmed frayed nerves and relaxed stiff and sore muscles.

“Cane for the pain” became the mantra that many factory workers recited as they drank their troubles away.

There would be those who became jolly after a few drinks and got their families laughing hysterically with their tall stories.

Some would sing rather well because with the intoxication, inhibition was lowered and all tension was gone.

And then there would be a small group whose members were usually never violent but after a good few drinks, became aggressive - using foul language and threatening all and sundry with a bush knife.

One personality who put Mainstay to good use was the late sports activist RK Naidoo who was a sales representative for liquor company Henry Tayler & Ries.

The company was keen to promote its Mainstay cane spirit brand and Naidoo managed to secure a small sponsorship to promote non-racial soccer.

By getting some money in the name of Mainstay for the South African Soccer Federation Professional League, which he headed, and coupled with his success as a liquor sales representative, it was not too long before Naidoo came to be regarded as Mr Mainstay.

Fifty years ago, it was easy to know that Mainstay was the most popular drink of the time. The majority of bottles used when buying cooking oil that would be decanted at the local grocery store with a hand-operated siphon from a battered 44-gallon drum had formerly held Mainstay cane spirit.

Mainstay reigned supreme among the Indian community for several decades. However, for some reason that I cannot easily fathom, cane spirit fans in Pietermaritzburg preferred the Sundowner brand over Mainstay. Could it have had something to do with KwaZulu-Natal’s capital city being referred to as Sleepy Hollow?

Soon enough, whites learnt that for a reasonable price, you could get a mule’s kick from cane spirit, never mind that it gave you a hangover of note.

Cane and Coke came to be known as “spook and diesel” while cane and cream soda were referred to as a “green mamba”.

Within a few years after its launch in 1954, the Mainstay brand had built an enviable national footprint. By the late 60s, volumes had exceeded 4.5million litres, with initial production being handled by Henry Tayler & Ries, followed by Sedgwick Tayler and then by Distell’s predecessor, Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW), before the merger of SFW and Distillers Corporation which became Distell in 2000.

Volumes peaked in the early 80s, making Mainstay the number-one-selling spirit in South Africa.

Mainstay, often regarded as a sugarcane-based vodka, was voted as best vodka ahead of its Russian, Polish and Finnish competitors at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2007.

Until its recent demise, the label on the Mainstay bottle featured a sailing vessel while the neck of the bottle had a seagull.

In nautical lingo, a mainstay is a stay, or line, extending forward from the mainmast, supporting it and holding it in position.

I was recently reminded of Mainstay’s long association with religious fervour among some Hindus.

My daughter was battling a toothache. A teetotaller cousin surprised me when she suggested she would make available some Mainstay to be swished around the mouth to ease the pain.

When I asked why she had stashed away Mainstay when it had been discontinued, she said she offered it to Lord Madurai Veeran, who is worshipped for his valour and courage, during the annual Amman or “porridge” prayer.

I guess for the mythical warrior of Madurai, who is reputed to have protected the people of the south Indian city against thieves and bandits, a tot of Jameson Select Reserve Irish whiskey will just not match up to old, legendary Mainstay.

An old friend of the community may be gone - but will not be easily forgotten. The jingle I heard on the radio since boyhood still rings in my head: “You can stay as you are for the rest of your life, or you can change to Mainstay!”

* Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Share your comments with him on: [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Online (IOL).

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