Scotland’s Second Spirit: Rum

I’ve been writing of navy rum, see my last three posts.

This post will chronicle my recollections of rum as such on U.K. trips between the mid-1980s and about 2000. I travelled there after too, but can’t recall looking for rum. There were pubs but that was beer-related.

But in Edinburgh about 1995 I recall seeing rum on the backbar of pubs in the New Town or on the hill. The names were often different than I knew here,  so not just Lamb’s, Wood’s Navy 100, or Captain Morgan but O.V.D., or Watson’s Demerera, and other pre-craft exotica.

Looking at labels in Oddbins and other stores I realized there was a tradition of dark rum in Scotland, less heralded than for the famous whiskies but no less real for that.

I tried the last two mentioned and was wowed by the taste, especially Watson’s of the lurid yellow label. The label above has now been updated but the brand is the same, aged Demerara pot still, blended to carry a distinctive reddish hue.

You could get it at Harrod’s and I brought a bottle home when I could. Sometimes I had to satisfied with a couple of miniatures, but any port in a storm – the context will excuse the cliché!

Each bottle of Watson’s, as with any spirit, was slightly different. Some were creamy and sweet, some a little drier, but all had a deep molasses note and little alcohol bite. It was the perfect specific against the penetrating damp of Edinburgh (we were never there in summer). It did similar service for other parts of the U.K. too – and the Ontario winter.

I found a similar type of rum, but can’t recall the brand now, at the Grapes pub in Narrow Street, Limehouse. The waterfront locale seemed apt for the drink as the enveloping damp and ne’er-distant sea were for Edinburgh, or even more Aberdeen, the original home of Watson Rum, it appears.

I see now that these rums were more or less the navy-type – rich, potent, even opulent. One doesn’t associate anything Lucullan with the coal-and-oil RN much less H.M.’s sail fleets of yore, but as I’ve explained earlier Deptford navy rum was a rich, carefully-blended, aged drink.

A connoisseur’s drink was an odd bird on the mess decks, but served it was, to those who wished it of course.

This indulgence apart the routine on H.M.’s ships was strict discipline, rough food, foul language and being “filled in” if you rubbed a seaman the wrong way. Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945 by Christopher McKee makes these points, see especially p.153. He also details the intricate bargaining rituals associated with the rum ration in the navy.

Scotland had a tradition not just of blending Caribbean rums to specific bottlers’ liking but sometimes maturing them as well. What better finishing or marrying could the brew get than a further slumber in chilly stone warehouses of Edinburgh, say, or its Leithy waters.

Now that I know much more about rum than I did 20 years ago, I see there is in fact an old history of appreciating it in Scotland, England too but perhaps more Scotland as England’s warmest welcome was for gin.

In the early 1800s rum had a major sale in Scotland together with brandy and Hollands gin. Only later in the century did whisky assert dominance. My reading suggests two reasons: first, the duties on rum (always imported) were higher than on whisky, see e.g., this early 1800s Parliamentary hearing.

Second, for some reason the quality of the rum fell off as the century wore on, as another, later governmental hearing on liquor duties suggests.

Maybe the West Indies distillers made so much money selling new spirit to the navy they didn’t need to fuss with long aging for Scottish palates. Another, probably better reason is that after 1830 patent molasses spirits (using the Coffey still) caused a decline in pot still production, see this discussion in Difford’s Guide.

Since the pot still represented, as it still does, the quality end of spirits production, this may well account for the long-term fade of rum as a high-end drink in Scotland.

In any case, by 1850 whisky was Scotland’s bibulous calling card, first at home, then in most English-speaking areas anywhere.

Nonetheless even in 1865 a book on Glasgow and west Scotland by Peter Mackenzie, a newspaper editor, lauded fine rum as “the ruling element” of the region. Mackenzie said the rum came from Jamaica and Trinidad.

He explains that it was used in punch with lemon or lime and also drunk neat with a chaser of “stewed tamarinds”. Are you reading, chic rum bars of the world? Get with the parade, the 1800s one.

The Scots never forgot rum and the taste was carried into the 20th century, a half-forgotten heritage a few blenders kept going, and old salts and some others still drank in the bars.

Ironically, when Scotland’s first rum distillery, Dark Matter, set up a couple of years ago the founders took inspiration, not from native tradition, but from foreign travels. A second rum distillery will soon be operational, Beach Craft in Moray, and a rum festival jmhas just finished a successful run in Edinburgh, soon to visit London.

So, one way or another, to the old reliables the newbies stretch their hands, and a long tradition is renewed, nay extended (spiced rum, did you need to ask?!). But is it really accidental though …? I think the folk memory encodes cultural practices, a psychic DNA that can endure for generations.

Watson’s rum, and O.V.D. too, are good, aged pot still Demerara. They are by the single distillery surviving in Guyana but which benefits from a plethora of stills, some, hundreds of years old.

O.V.D. states on its website:

First imported into Scotland in 1838  O.V.D.  (Old. Vatted. Demerara.) is blended from the world’s finest Demerara rums made from sugar cane that grows alongside the Demerara river in Guyana.

A full strength (40% abv) rum, every bottle of O.V.D. is matured in oak casks for up to 7 years giving it great smoothness, flavour and character.

Owned by William Grant & Sons (the Scottish family spirits company) and distributed by William Grant & Sons UK, O.V.D. is the best selling dark rum in Scotland.

Today all aging is done in Guyana but most comment agrees the rum is as good as ever. This review of Watson’s Demerara at the Lone Caner website is emblematic.

Rum of course stands no chance to evict whisky from its spiritual home. In fact the two are joined at the hip: just as for O.V.D., the Robert Watson label is owned by a whisky business, in this case Ian Macleod Brands.

Rum is being distilled as well in Scotland by a new whisky distillery in Perthshire, Strathearn. The house sells its own brands under the Dunedin name and makes rum under contract for a least one non-distilling merchant.

Rum’s survival suits a nation formerly renowned for building and designing ships and sending its sons to do Empire’s work over the seven seas. Whisky never quite put the boot in. Today the drinks are mates, and the bad-blood days of the 1800s, fueled by differential tariffs, forgotten.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced at Catawiki here and the remainder from the producers’ sites linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




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