Scotland’s Second Spirit: Rum

This post will chronicle my recollections of rum on U.K. trips in the 1980s and to about 2000. I also discuss some interesting, early rum history in Scotland. It shows that high quality rum was appreciated there even before whisky became the Scots spirit.

In Edinburgh c.1995 I recall seeing rum on the backbar of pubs in New Town or on the hill. The names were often different than I knew in Canada,  so not just Lamb’s or Captain Morgan, but O.V.D., or Watson’s Demerera, and other exotic brands.

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

I tried the last two rums mentioned and was wowed by the taste, especially Watson’s of the lurid yellow label. The label shown above has since 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 was creamy and sweet, some a little drier, but all had a deep molasses note and moderate or no alcohol bite. It was the perfect specific against the penetrating damp of Edinburgh. The style did similar service for other parts of the U.K., too – and our 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 was apt for the drink, as too the enveloping damp, and ne’er-distant sea, of Edinburgh, and even more so Aberdeen, original home of Watson Rum, it appears.

These rums were more or less the RN-type – rich, potent, and yes, opulent. One doesn’t associate the Lucullan with the coal-and-oil navy much less H.M.’s old sail fleets. But as I’ve explained earlier, blended Deptford navy rum, source of the RN’s supply, was a rich, well-vatted, aged drink.

A connoisseur’s drink on the mess decks? An odd bird, perhaps, but served it was, to ratings 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 at 153. He details too the intricate bargaining rituals of the rum ration in the navy.

Scotland had a tradition not just of blending Caribbean rum to specific bottlers’ liking but sometimes maturing it as well. What better finishing or marrying could the spirit get than a long slumber in the chilly stone warehouses of Edinburgh, or its Leithy environs?

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

Surprisingly, in the early 1800s rum had a major sale in Scotland together with brandy and Hollands gin. Only later did whisky assert its dominance. My research 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 seems to show.

Maybe the West Indies distillers made so much money selling new spirit to the Navy that they didn’t need to fuss with careful blending and 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, and still does, the quality end of spirits production, this may well account for the long-term fade of rum as an upmarket drink in Britain.

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 wrote that 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.

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 has just ended a successful run in Edinburgh, and is set to visit London.

So, one way or another, a long tradition is renewed, nay extended (spiced rum, need you ask?). But is it really accidental though? I think the folk memory encodes certain cultural preferences, 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 one that 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 reviewers agrees the rum is as good as ever. This review of Watson’s Demerara at the Lone Caner website is a good example.

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

Rum is being distilled in Scotland as well now 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 that was formerly renowned for building ships and sending its sons for Empire’s work across the seven seas. Whisky never quite put the boot in, one might say. Today the drinks are mates, and the bad-blood days of the 1800s, fueled by differential tariffs, are 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.




Leave a Comment