Drilling Down on the Black Stuff
This part will conclude our three-part survey of the navy rum tradition. We foresee a Part IV only in the event we are able to taste some original, pre-July 31, 1970 navy rum (date the ration ended in the Royal Navy) or if we succeed one day in blending our own.
A further important reference is the website, Up Spirits, established in 2014 by an ex-Royal Navy serviceman (name not stated from what I can see). He displays and collects memorabilia such as pitchers and other copper-plate measures, wood tubs, bakelite cups, glasses, hydrometers and other recondite equipment associated with storage and service of the rum on ship.
The image above was sourced from his site with the idea to encourage all interested to peruse it as a superb resource. Copyright belongs to the sole owner, and is included here for educational purposes only.
The Up Spirits site includes much fascinating information on numerous aspects of navy rum. It is more a collection of notes under various heads than one consistent narrative, but very useful for that. Numerous period and current photos are included that add considerably to the narrative.
For example, the New Zealand museum website I cited in Part I states that the 1939 edition of Victualling Manual BR 93, Chapter 7, “Rum”, provides that rum blended at Deptford comprises Demerara, Trinidad, Natal, and Mauritius rums.
The author of Up Spirits adds this:
In certain quarters, the blend is advised as being ‘secret’, however, anyone who attended PO’s Leadership Course in the 60’s will know differently. ‘Trainees’ were advised that the blend of Royal Navy rum is:
60% Demerara 30% Trinidad 10% Australia & Natal
If there is indeed a secret, I think it likely that it has more to do with how the rum obtained it’s distinctive colour, which clearly adds to the flavour also. The Admiralty Victualling Manual – BR93, advises that caramel was added, some even believe that light treacle was also an addition.
This is a very interesting statement, as “navy rum” to those conversant with spirits does connote a rich treacly drink. The spirit caramel bottle has been used forever in the drinks industry to standardize colour and perhaps impact taste (there are differing views on this), but in any case it seems treacle was sometimes added.
Clearly therefore the use of Natal and/or Mauritian rum by the RN predates WW II. Perhaps sourcing rum from South Africa and finally Australia began in WW I when German U-boats interfered with normal Empire trade.
Clearly too the composition of navy rum changed over time, and if additives were used this was probably intermittent. (It would be good to read Chapter 7 of the victualling regulations in full but I cannot locate the text online).
The Up Spirits site also describes the considerable afterlife of British navy rum, one that extends far beyond the Pusser’s and Black Tot brands. Our old friend Bass Charrington, from beer knowledge that is, acquired a good chunk of the rum in the early 70s, presumably for its pub estate.
(It’s satisfying to know in a perverse kind of way that 20-year-old rum of a quality to distinguish a gentleman’s table or tony culinary society went down the peoples’ gullets in suburban estate pubs or dim city boozers. Apologies for the British lingo but it’s apt here).
Surplus rum was also purchased by various private parties in the U.K. including some ex-servicemen, years before Black Tot emerged (2010). So a fair amount of it was in circulation one way or another but of course today there is little left.
Still, the author states he has friends, ex-navy, who regularly drink it. Lucky chaps.
The site seems to clarify as well the army rum/navy rum issue and comes down firmly on the side that Black Tot is the authentic navy article. He explains that once made surplus, rum was transferred by the two remaining victualling yards – Deptford’s closed in 1961 – into stone flagons covered by wicker. These were sent to army bases in Germany.
So when the Black Tot venture gathered last stocks for its luxury release in 2010, some probably came from those bases but was navy in origin. The confusion arises from the fact that army rum was an item too, sourced on open tender by the government vs. the system for navy rum where only one supplier had been used, ED & F Man & Co. – still going strong in London as commodities brokers.
The army rum was also stored in vats at the navy victualling yards but separately from the navy supply. Up Spirits states the army rum was different in character to navy rum and Black Tot is the real thing.
The website explains well the complicated procedure to store, access, tap, blend with water, and serve the grog on ships. Every ounce of the rum had to be accounted for.
Each ship had a spirits room that had to be separately ventilated to reduce the risk of fire from evaporating cask fumes. A special flooding system was also provided to snuff out any fire that did spark in the spirits room.
Any extra grog in the tub after service of the required portions was “scuppers”, sent to the briny deep – at least officially.
Cask sizes varied depending on the type of ship. The “barricoe” pictured, a small, torpedo-shape cask, reminds me of the early cask used to store whiskey on the American frontier as I flagged a while back. This small cask might be at the origin of bourbon, in fact.
It is not fanciful to suppose a barricoe (clearly, from barrique) used for rum or other alcohol in the early RN was offloaded in Savannah, say, and made its way upcountry to the Georgia hills and beyond, to be filled with whiskey finally.
And so the vessels used to hold navy rum varied from the massive, 32,000 gal. vat at Deptford, mentioned in 19th century literature with awe in the same breath as the biggest porter vats or the vast Heidelberg beer vat, to a little barricoe you would carry with one hand. See this 1840 instance of travel literature as an example.
“Fannies”, or metal jerry-cans for water, were emptied with the spirit into polished wooden tubs for service to the ordinary ratings.
The various fittings and containers, extending to Sykes hydrometers, make quite a show when polished up and the Up Spirits site has a great selection on view.
What the site shows is that knowledge obtained from men who actually drank and served the rum is vital human history that supplements the official public accounts and records. All of it together provides a fuller and richer story than any part on its own.
I’ll add this 1896 article from the magazine The Navy and Army Illustrated, as it offers its own history of the rum ration in a pointed and engaging way. The author’s description of the reviving properties of rum goes some way to explaining the special attraction of this drink as an official restorative.
The writer suggests two ways to take it, neat or with water (“not too much”) for cold weather, and in a Stone Fence in hot weather: this is cold ginger beer and rum. Today rum and ginger ale provides a good alternative, the Canada Dry brand has a good zesty flavour, we like Vernor’s as well from Detroit (or originally it was).
The 1896 article incidentally does not minimize the tendency of the rum ration to cause undue drunkenness. Indeed abuse of the ration explained the reduction of serving quantity over time and Admiral Vernon’s infamous order to cut the drink with water.
By 1896 the drink was 2.5 oz. rum at the Navy strength mentioned earlier diluted with twice as much water. Essentially this was a couple of drinks, not likely to cause benders when served once a day but the abuse problem resulted from men trading their tot or hoarding them somehow.
Berney Baughen had been a supply officer on a 1946 survey ship in Malaysian waters. Many years later he wrote this graphic account of a young northern English sailor becoming violent under the effects of extra rum given him by shipmates for his birthday. The account is posted on a website maintained by the late author’s son.
Clearly the writer must have been troubled by the incident despite all the years that passed, to warrant setting it down for posterity that is. It shows that rules and reality were sometimes two different things. Because the ship was small and on long assignment – three months without re-supply – water conservation was important.
The rum ration therefore was served neat even to ordinary sailors, which may have worsened the incident in question.
On recovery the sailor was given a slap on the wrist – two weeks without leave but the ship was on the sea anyway for this period so it had no practical effect. He was banned from liquor for the same period but his colleagues allowed him his daily tot anyway! This shows how rules were sometimes bent with (presumably) no blowback for the ship or captain.
If I can get some Australian, South African, or Mauritian rum, I will make my own navy blend. We can get aged Demerara and good Trinidad in Ontario but not the other items. I will be in New York soon and look for them.
Light treacle is no problem, you can still buy it in Toronto even in the large supermarkets.
I’m half-way there mate.