The Cachet of Port Hope Whisky – Part I


Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer chronicled in 1846 the industrial, commercial, and agricultural development of what is now called Ontario at mid-19th century. The territory was then known as Canada West.

In posts to come I will discuss the special reputation of Port Hope whisky, a fame that reached far and wide despite the town’s bantam size.

Port Hope, about 70 miles east of Toronto on Lake Ontario, was then an active port, as its name suggests. The Ganarska river flows through the town to the lake and provided both water and power for the many distilleries, breweries, and tanneries in town.

An index of Port Hope’s whisky fame was the annual exports of whisky in this period. As the Canadian Gazetteer reported, a burg of just 1,200 people sent out 429 casks of whiskey in 1844, see p. 150. That number sounds minimal today but was impressive for the small population. So was the number of distilleries in town, at least five in that year per the source cited.

Port Hope’s whisky reputation reached across the British colonies in North America and extended even to the old country, as we shall see soon.

What was special about this whisky from a locality that never rivalled, say, a Toronto or even Kingston in commercial importance?  We address these questions in our next posts. Part II and Part III will continue the discussion.

Innis & Gunn VP01 (Imperial Stout)

This is an 11% ABV Imperial Stout, aged in first-fill bourbon barrels.* It is the first in the new Vanishing Point series of Edinburgh-based I&G, a range of small batch limited editions.

First, what is Imperial Stout? It is the apex of the stout style, which means, a strong porter – that’s what stout is – made extra-rich in alcohol and flavour, and typically aged and/or shipped to acquire traits of maturity.

Traditionally too, in the heyday of stout and porter they were not flavoured with coffee, chocolate, or anything except hops.

I prefer the beer unflavoured, as the style originally was.

VP01 meets this bill, it has no coffee or chocolate added as I read the ingredients list. It uses a blend of malts (see I&G’s website for details), roasted barley or wheat, and Pilgrim hops for good bittering without excess aroma, another traditional touch. (Typically porter was not aromatic from hops, that was more a characteristic of ales).

Aging in barrel was in excess of 200 days, which replicates the vatting of original London porter.

And it tastes great: malty, rounded, no scorched raw cereal notes as too many stouts have. This beer offers the true stout profile, based on many years’ tasting classics in the genre such as Carnegie Porter and Sinebrychoff Porter, also the recreations of Harvey’s A. Le Coq Extra Double Stout and Wells Courage Imperial Russian Stout.

The hops support the malt without sitting on top. While I enjoy some very hoppy Impy stouts, the rounded, elegant profile is one expression and you see it to perfection here.

Some old learning states despite the enormous quantities of hops used in the style, once out of the vat it had a soft palate as the hop character broke down over time, having done its primary work of preservation.**

This beer expresses that, over half a year in wood surely rounded out the spikes on racking. In any case, the taste is rich yet equable, like a fine Burgundy – or well-blended Demerara rum.

The bourbon barrel was used very well here in that there is no strong vanilla taste, no slightly degraded (oxidative) note as some barrel-aged stout has.

Here the oak seems rather neutral yet undeniably present, lending a pleasing dryness and one that complements the style, IMO.

If there was one change I’d make, I’d give it a more estery profile. Yeast selection and fermentation temperature can affect that, I like the beers with a slight dark fruit note. Perhaps if cellared for a year or more it will achieve that.

Kudos to I&G – they keep trying different things, with results often quite different to their original model, and I like that but especially when the results are in the zone, as here.


*Sample was provided by I&G.

**See the statement here for example that by vatting porter the “hop bitter” was “in a great degree decomposed”, in other words, reduced and softened by the effects of time.


Land of Whiskey, Land of Pumpkin Pie

In a 1824 Gazeteer of the State of New-York, Horatio G. Spafford gives a sharp portrait of the state’s “sections”. In delineating its agriculture and industries, inevitably in this period distilleries arise.

Spafford was an early promoter of temperance, which meant for him, beer and cider: good, whiskey: bad. So, not total temperance – t-total – but partial.

Still, his enthusiasm for apple orchards that could turn juice to wine was met by an equal resistance to the charms of strong liquor. You can hear him gritting his teeth when enumerating the number of distilleries in localities.

Sometimes he gives an entertaining aside, as above (via HathiTrust) where he can’t restrain himself from commenting how whiskey is ruining people in Penn Yann. Penn Yann today is a bucolic village, known for nothing very remarkable apart from tourism connected to the beauty of the area and the adjacent wineries.

He notes that the strange-sounding name, Penn Yan, is a contraction for Pennsylvania Yankee, meaning (he writes) that the town was founded by approximately equal numbers of Pennsylvania incomers and Yankees (from New England states that is).

Hence his melodious phrase, “land of whiskey, land of pumpkin pie”, a sardonic-jocular reference to the Yankees’ proverbial favourite dessert and the Pennsylvanians’ famous hard tipple, rye whiskey. He extends it to Penn Yan by dint of its ancestry.

Elsewhere in the book he states that whiskey in New York is made from “rye and other grains” and could be easily had “fresh from the distillery”. Hence there is no doubt he is speaking of white or young rye whiskey, before the era it was long-aged or of course transmuted in Kentucky to bourbon.

Many Loyalists came to Ontario from New York and Pennsylvania and made and drank the exact same whiskey, a subject I explored in-depth earlier this year. I will return to this soon, in fact.

But here we see the U.S. side of the equation, in the 1820s when whiskey was still a normal pioneer commodity but starting to be looked at askance by the moralists.

Spafford was the father of a noted son of the same name, a lawyer and well-known hymnist. We find the son of interest due to his career, the family tragedies that afflicted him, and how he dealt with them.

Spafford fils was deeply religious, no surprise when you read his Gazetteer father. He ended by leaving formal Protestantism, establishing a faith-based colony in Jerusalem, and adopting a Jewish son!  More here.

Note: Pictured is Penn Yann, NY early in the 1900s. The image was sourced from the town website, here. All intellectual property belongs to the lawful owner or authorized user. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Scotland’s Second Spirit: rum

This post will chronicle my encounters with rum on trips to Britain from the mid-1980s until about 2000. I also discuss below some early rum history in Scotland, as rum was appreciated there before whisky became the Scots spirit.

In Edinburgh in the early 1990s rum was prominent on the backbar of pubs in the New Town or on the hill. The names were often different than in Canada, so not just Lamb’s or Captain Morgan, but say O.V.D., or Watson’s Demerera.

Examining the labels and larger selections in wine shops, I realized there was a tradition of dark rum in Scotland, less heralded than its famous whisky but no less real for that. The appreciation extended to Britain as a whole – the Royal Navy was always associated with rum – but seemed strongest in Scotland. The rum bottles were fewer than for the whisky staples such as Famous Grouse, Bell’s, Dewar’s, Black Bottle, etc. – but there were always a couple of blackish rums in Scotland’s bars, often bearing seagoing or naval motifs.

I tried O.V.D. and Watson’s and was wowed by the deep, molasses taste. The lurid label above has since been updated but the rum is the same: aged Demerara pot still (from Guyana, a classic production country), blended to offer a distinctive, reddish hue.

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

Each bottle of Watson’s was slightly different, reflecting subtle variations imparted by successive batches. Some was creamy and sweet, some a little drier, but all had a basso profondo note with a moderate or no alcohol bite.

I found a similar rum at the historic Grapes pub in Narrow Street, Limehouse, memorialized in Dickens’s writing. The Thames-side locale was perfect for a dark rum drink, especially in colder weather. This applies even more for the enveloping damp of Edinburgh, or Aberdeen, the original home of Watson’s Rum.

Rums of such Royal Navy-style are rich, potent, even opulent. One doesn’t associate an epicurean quality with the coal-and-oil RN, much less with H.M.’s old sail fleet, yet true it was a rare luxury was offered hard-worked sailors. As I’ve shown earlier, the Deptford naval yard outside London, where the RN’s supply was vatted and blended, was a storied drink for palate no less than fortification, and there we have it.

(This indulgence apart, routine on H.M.’s ships was strict discipline, rough food, and being “filled in” if you rubbed a rating 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 rituals associated with the (now discontinued) rum ration).

Scotland had a tradition of blending Caribbean rum to a pitch of palate excellence and liked to age the spirit locally. The chilly, damp stone warehouses of Edinburgh or Leith proved perfect to round and mature the drink.

In the early 1800s rum had a large sale in Scotland as did French brandy and Hollands gin. Only later did Highlands and Lowlands whiskies assert their dominance. My research suggests two reasons for rum’s decline: first, the duties on rum, always an imported drink, were higher than for whisky as discussed in this early-1800s Parliamentary hearing.

Second, for some reason the quality of Caribbean rum fell off as the century wore on, as a later governmental hearing implied. Maybe West Indies distillers made so much money selling raw spirit to the Navy (for aging at Deptford, London) that they didn’t need to fuss with careful blending and aging for Scottish palates.

Another, more plausible reason is that after 1830 “patent” molasses spirits – spirits more efficiently produced but blander in taste than heavy pot still rum – altered the taste profile. This discussion in Difford’s Guide gives background on the differing types.

In any case, by 1850 whisky was established as Scotland’s main spirit. The fashion later spread to all corners of Britain’s far-flung Empire. To this day whisky is the premier spirit in India, for example. North America is a similar case although oddly, whisky vanquished rum there earlier than occurred in Scotland, the natural home of whisky. England is a somewhat different case due to gin’s ascendancy there, but whisky has long been appreciated there too, served in “optics” from upturned bottles in the pubs.

Nonetheless, rum lingered at the margins of Scottish drinking culture, and long remained strong in certain areas. In 1865 a book by Peter Mackenzie, a newspaper editor, held that rum was “the ruling element” in Glasgow and west Scotland. He said the rum came from Jamaica and Trinidad, and was used in a punch with lemon or lime, or drunk neat with a chaser of “stewed tamarinds”. The exotic accompaniment was a type of conserve, imported from Curacao as this mid-1800s agricultural study shows.

The Scots never completely abandoned rum, a few blenders always kept it going for stray devotees including ex-salts who recalled with fondness the RN’s rum ration (stopped in 1970).

Yet, a kind of revival is in place. Scotland’s first rum distillery, Dark Matter, opened a couple of years ago. In this case, not without some irony as the reader will infer, the founders took inspiration from observing rum on foreign travels. A second rum distillery in Scotland will soon be operational, Beach Craft in Moray.

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

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

So, one way or another, a long tradition is renewed. But is the revival completely unconnected to the past? I think the folk memory encodes certain cultural preferences, is a kind of a psychic DNA that manifests irregularly over time.

I have’t tried the new local rums but can testify to the quality of the old standards. Watson’s rum and O.V.D., made in last distillery still standing in Guyana from plethora of antique stills, are heady, characterful rum. They recall not just the heaving seas of a seaman’s life but staid Scotian salons of the 19th century, where the social elite disported itself and literati disputed the issues of the day.

The O.V.D. website gives the lowdown on this storied brand:

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 the rum seems as good as ever. This review of Watson’s Demerara, from the Lone Caner website, offers good details.

Rum of course stands no chance to evict whisky from its spiritual homeland of Scotland, but today these drinks are joined at the hip, no longer competing in a joust fuelled by differential tariffs. Watson’s brand is also owned by a whisky business, Ian Macleod Brands. 

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.




Navy Rum, Part III: the Deptford Blend, the Afterlife

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 travel article 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 social 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, i) neat or with water (“not too much”) for cold weather, ii) 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 in 1946 on a ship surveying waters off Malaysia. 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 at 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 nonetheless! 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.





Navy Rum, Part II: the Deptford Rum Stores and its Epicurean Rum

Looking more deeply into Navy rum it surprises me how rich is the mining. A sub-vein I’ll explore is touring the Deptford Dockyard (pictured below) including the rum stores, a stop on the industrial tour circuit of the 19th century.

Deptford Victualling Yard was the complex of yards, works, and storehouses in south London where supplies were manufactured, marshalled, and shipped around the world for the British Navy. The main dockyard closed in 1869 but the victualling portion continued in use for almost 100 years, finally shutting in 1961.

A preliminary note on sources:

For in-depth resources on navy rum history, a book-length study of the subject appeared 22 years ago, Nelson’s Blood: The Story of Naval Rum by James Pack. I will read it in toto one day but for now have been content with short extracts. Still, it is helpful, especially on blending and proofs.

There is also a useful, two-part blog article by U.K.-based, New Zealand-born Ben Leggett, barman, drinks writer, and consultant. It provides accurate, clearly-written information on a variety of aspects pertaining to navy rum in an attractive design format, and lists references. In a comment to one of his posts, Charles Tobias, American creator of Pusser’s Navy Rum, compliments Leggett on his research. This is high praise since Tobias had access to Admiralty records when recreating the rum commercially in 1979.

Numerous online miscellaneous resources from the major Commonwealth countries also exist. Some have inaccuracies or simplifications though, for example regarding the original proof at which the uncut liquor was issued, so caution is necessary.

This short piece by Jacqui Good on Canadian naval rum is helpful on numerous points including that Canadian sailors sometimes palmed their tots. They used Coca-Cola to feign drinking it and secreted the drinks until enough was available for a clandestine shipboard party.

(The global image of the “polite”, law-abiding Canadian, or at least that Canadians like to project, has always been exaggerated. But in truth, we didn’t populate a continent’s width and help win major world conflicts by being a Goody Two-shoes).

I have relied on the above for what follows, but also on my own, original researches.

Some of the last U.K. rum stocks are still available, at a price of course. Four decades after the ration ceased in 1970 the U.K. government sold off most of the surplus, stored for years in wickered stone flagons, to a firm that mingled and bottled them in luxury format.

The rum is called Black Tot. Numerous online reviews of the drink are available, such as here. It is stated the rum was about 20 years old in 1970, mostly distilled that is in the 40s. The taste notes remind me of older, rich Demerara rum, like El Dorado’s line. This means dark caramel, smoke, earth, rubber, coffee, fruit, quite a cocktail of taste that makes for a rich, impactful drink.

It may sound unlikely that Navy rum was an epicurean item, whether at the end of its life or earlier but it is so: from the mid-19th century at least it had that reputation. Only under pressure of wartime when rum shipments from regular sources were interrupted was resort had to alternate, lesser supplies.

Natal was called in for example, in South Africa. Leggett reports that the Deptford vats were “swollen” in the 1940s and despite the great pressures of a world war the Navy continued to dispense rum to a grateful fleet.

As to why a workaday navy would evolve a connoisseur’s drink – remember it was meant for the ratings, not the officers – in part the rum needed to have a big flavour as it was diluted with water except for the petty officers, who could take it neat. But also, probably, the blenders’ palate had something to do with it.

Perhaps too in peacetime stocks built up in Deptford and the rum just got better with time, so that became the accepted palate finally.

So, strange as it sounds, the spartan life of the sailor, whose food was typically stolid and monotonous, could have a sybaritic note. The twists of history.

Even the Black Tot story has odd corners. One or two people thought the rum may not be Navy rum at all but rather ex-Army rum, long stored at a British base in Germany. This seems unlikely, but is yet another example of dips and turns in a road seemingly straight and narrow.

As to the rum’s strength: Nelson’s Blood states clearly that the “issuing proof” was 4.5 underproof. This means 95.5 proof in Sykes, of course, the old U.K. system not the American one.

That is 54.5% abv, or 54.8% abv if a rounded 96 proof is used. As seen in the extract above, the engineering group who toured the Deptford stores where the rum was gathered and vatted were told the proof was 96, four under 100 proof.

Issuing proof was arrived at by diluting the rum to that level from an importation strength of 140 proof, or 79.9% abv; probably this was distillation proof, at least for some of the rum (the heavy rum to use a blender’s term).

Just as for bourbon or Canadian whisky, distillation proof was knocked down to a lower proof for maturation purposes. The rum came in white as snow and received its aging and blending at Deptford according to a second account of a visit to Deptford, mentioned below.

Nelson’s Blood states that two vats were reserved for dispensing; in these the exact proof was assured: 95.5 proof (as different vats would result in slightly differing proofs just as occurs in any whiskey warehouse).

Pusser’s offers a version of its rum, Gunpowder, which is precisely 54.5% abv. – the true and original issuing proof. Thus, web sources that suggest this number is shy of a true issuing proof of 57.1% abv (100 proof Sykes) are not correct.

Of course with dilution that would drop and in effect a tall drink was given the regular ratings as numerous photos attest. In some navies the proof varied, I mentioned earlier that New Zealand diluted such that an effective 43% abv resulted.

Now on the Deptford touring aspect: the 19th century was a time of confidence in industry and free enterprise, quite different from today or at least the tone of public chatter today. It was the thing to tour large commercial and industrial facilities and the smokier and dustier, the better.

A sub-genre of 19th century consumer beer and whisky literature is the inspection of large breweries and distilleries. I have described a number of these, which also occurred in North America.

Guinness, Barclay Perkins, and Whitbread in the U.K. were some of the better-known names on the brewery tour circuit. Gooderham & Worts’ and Hiram Walker’s distilleries in Ontario also regularly received admiring tours, some of which were written up in technical and general media.

Brewery and distillery tours are hardly new, you see.

And indeed it was also a thing to tour Deptford’s works including the rum stores, to gape at the huge vats, climb to the top, and taste of course the nectar from a ladle. A New Zealand newspaper account of 1877 attested that English royals were afforded such a tour earlier. The King tasted, nay approved, the Navy’s rum. This is very similar to Royal Visits to large breweries in about the same era.

The visit of the British engineering society a year earlier, per the extract of Scientific American reproduced above, suggests Deptford was on the itinerary of the technically or industrially curious in the later-1800s. It was good PR for the Navy and British public administration. It was good PR for the brewers and distillers, and still is.

On to Pusser’s rum, the recreation: does it resemble the last stocks issued by the Royal Navy? It does clearly in its composition, a blend of rums from Guyana, Trinidad and other Caribbean Islands (the full recipe is secret). Company representatives insist the Admiralty formula was followed, and I have no reason to doubt it.

However, the rum in the period just before the ration ended was clearly older than Pusser’s. Pusser sells a 15-year version of its rum but the website does not state this rum is the navy recipe, whereas the regular-proof version and Gunpowder are.

A commenter on Ben Leggett’s site states he knew the rum in the late 1960s as a seaman. He states the original tasted more like Wood’s Navy rum 100 proof than Pusser’s. I think the answer is, Wood’s Navy is old or made to taste old – I used to drink it when available in Ontario. Probably the age of the rum ration in the late 1960s made it closer to that type of rum than Pusser’s.

Pusser’s is still a first-rate product with a lot of the classic Demerara (Guyana) taste. It reflects the use of old wooden stills at a low proof. Pusser’s came off very well in a recent tasting I did of four rums, the other three were Cocksure from Barbados (tasty but lighter, elegant), Captain Morgan Dark (rich, treacly), and my own blend which was, great!

It is evident why Britain was, in 1970, laden with rum distilled in the 1940s. The Navy had greatly expanded during the war and rum production had to ramp up to meet the demand. The war happened to end in 1945 but logistics planners in the first six years had no exact idea when the war would finally stop.

Hence Britain had a surplus of rum for years, marrying and aging in the venerable Deptford vats, getting better every year.

You can buy Black Tot for $80.00 a shot in New York, I’m told. I’ll be on the lookout as I’ll be there soon.

Part III to this series follows.









Navy Rum, Part I: Up Spirits

As many who study the history of distilled spirits know, certain navies used to dispense a “rum ration”. It is one of the more curious corners of the mass of absorbing social and cultural detail offered by such history. (Well, here, it was the subjects of the history who did the absorbing!).

The Royal Navy ceased the practice in 1970. The Canadian navy, in 1972. New Zealand’s went all the way to 1990. The U.S. stopped it during the Civil War. Australia, it seems, never had a similar practice.

The practice derived from the time workmen were allowed drink for their work, it was assumed necessary both for strength and morale, probably optimistically in terms of the former. Yet, treated responsibly it probably did more good than harm.

This practice was of a piece with farm workers expecting alcohol in early New England or Upper Canada which simply followed a practice imported from Britain. The idea of brewery or distillery workers being permitted a drink was similar, although more understandable in their case.

There is a surprising amount of information available on how the rum ration was stored, dispensed, consumed. I’ll use just a couple of references here to illustrate. The website of the New Zealand naval museum gives good detail, except that the statement the rum was 98% alcohol when undiluted can’t be right.

The Imperial proof figure given,148, translates to 84.4% abv, in effect overproof rum.

As this was cut 50-50 with water, a 42.2% dram amounted essentially to 43%, a standard retail strength for spirits in British commerce or circles connected to it. The N.Z. museum account offers good detail as well on who was served the dram. Officers did not receive it, they had access to their own bar.

Ratings did, junior ones had to consume on the spot, senior ratings including petty officers could take the dram (undiluted) to drink in their quarters.

The minimum age was 20. Sailors had the option to receive a cash payment instead of the tuck.

Interested readers can peruse this link from the Torpedo Bay Museum in New Zealand for the full history. The lore about Admiral “Grog” is repeated and it’s always enjoyable to revisit this history. The rum ration actually started with beer, always the first drink in Albion’s affections.

Fleet assignments on the Eastern Station and other hot climates caused a switching to rum as it kept much better.

Canada’s navy followed a practice similar to the Royal Navy’s and New Zealand’s. It began in 1910 with the establishment of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, and ended in 1972.

This link, from U.K. Parliamentary deliberations in the 1930s, will interest those curious about the composition of the ration. A blend of Empire rums was generally used including some Jamaican:

Navy rum as issued to the Fleet is a blend of rums bought on the London market, all Empire products, including Jamaica when price permits. The blend is in such proportions as long experience has shown to produce the flavour preferred by the men. The blending process is carried out at the Deptford Victualling Yard, where the rum is stored in vats before issue to ships. This procedure is the most economical and the most practical.

In Canada, Seagram, then in Waterloo, ON, supplied rum to our navy, but whether this was imported or domestic I can’t say. It was likely a blend of both, as much bottled rum sold in Canada still is.

This 1972 CBC clip shows in fine colour the last service of rum in our navy. The officer conducting the ceremony, Commander Jim Creech, drank rum with the men, on the mess from what I can tell.

Consumption by officers with the men was not traditional but the event was ceremonial, as shown by the consigning of the last dram to the sea. The Commander spoke well and the clip in general is affecting, it speaks to a different time, one we can learn from in more ways than one.

For more information on Canada’s history with the rum ration, I refer to this excellent article of some years ago in The Minute Book, a blog dealing with Canadian military history.

See also this informative piece by Captain Norman Jolin, RCN (Ret’d.) on the website of the CFB Esquimault Museum in Victoria, B.C.

Part II to this series follows.





Alcohol and the Academy

The Graduate Journal of Food Studies Examines Booze in College

The Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS) is published digitally by the Graduate Association for Food Studies. The website states:

The Graduate Association for Food Studies (GAFS) is the official graduate student caucus of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS). GAFS is an interdisciplinary academic community founded in the spring of 2014 with the goals of connecting graduate students interested in food and promoting their exceptional work. The Association publishes the digital Graduate Journal of Food Studies and hosts the Future of Food Studies conference for graduate students to present, discuss, and network. Our first Conference took place in 2015 at Harvard University.

A recent issue of the Journal includes an article by Gretchen Sneegas, a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia. See here“Dry Campus, My Ass: An Autoethnography of U.S. Academic Drinking Culture”.

Sneegas’ article is very useful, combining an academic approach with her personal testimony of American grad school’s pervasive alcohol culture. Her telegraphic yet impactful style reminded me of Mass Observation, the social research project that studied phases of British life for 30 years from 1936.

Sneegas explains how social events at conferences or other professional gatherings, sometimes off-campus, often involve drinking. Whether at a meet-and-greet, the after-party for a conference dinner, or post-field trip klatch, alcohol makes an appearance.

The implied pressure to participate is omnipresent. She states that women, often smaller than the average male, can handle alcohol differently, with different implications for them, potentially.

She queries why this exists, which can even affect campuses advertising a “dry” culture. She explains that stratagems are sometimes necessary to avoid alcohol such as brandishing a faux hard drink, or declining to attend some functions. She states:

We are all pressured in ways both subtle and flagrant into accepting, and reproducing, an occupational culture of alcohol use (and abuse) that is indirect, elusive, nearly invisible. Invisible, that is, to those who partake. We drinkers are the ruling class, imposing our values and expectations and worldviews so that they become the cultural norm. Our careers and campuses are steeped within an ideology of alcohol.

To non-drinkers, those for whom the spaces of departmental happy hours and conference after parties are not designed, these unwritten rules and guidelines are far from invisible. They spring sharply into focus. They are explicit. They say, incredulously: You’re not getting a drink?

In a footnote she writes wryly of a culture studies semester in Freiburg, Germany:

I am hard pressed to describe precisely what kind of culture one experiences as an American student dancing to the sound of a Mexican mariachi band while pounding Irish Car Bombs at an English-style pub in a 900-year-old German city.

Sneegas writes that alcohol customs seem to descend generationally: students see professors and administrators drinking at mixers and other events; they adopt similar practices for their own socializing; and continue them when joining the faculty. So on it goes.

Her point is not so much that alcohol causes dysfunction and social problems, although sometimes it does, as with drug abuse, but to query why alcohol pervades the university at all.

It’s true, taken from first principles, why is drinking a factor at all in college life?

The Auld Alliance: Alcohol and Academy

Alcohol is a known stress alleviator of course, and Sneegas refers to this aspect. Surely most reading will remember the nervous tension brought on by tests or exams. But in any case, booze has old academic associations, going back not just to intricate German student drinking customs of the 1800s (see our notes on this) but to English colleges and their special ales or wine dinners.

See this article on the history of the Oxbridge audit ale by John A.R. Compton-Davey, in issue #128 of the U.K.-based journal Brewery History.

Ancient symposia in Greece underlined a perceived link between wine and wisdom. This ties into the larger role of alcohol in literature and among writers, a subject much studied in the last 30 years.

An early and one of the best consumer books on alcohol is George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar-book (1920). Saintsbury was a noted critic and literary scholar who taught at Edinburgh. He made (albeit late in his career) an in-depth study of wine and other alcohol, the lore and palate. He is perhaps better remembered for that book than his conventional work.

So the history of drink in and around campus has a lineage stretching continuously back to ancient times.

Of course, too, colleges are just part of larger society. What Sneegas describes about university life can easily be said of business and corporate life. And of much socializing at conferences and other events sponsored by governmental, sports, and political organizations.

It’s an old factor in society, of which the academy is an example without a special mark of Cain, in my view. At the same time, Sneegas is right to draw attention to the issue for college as impressionable youth are involved.

My own Experience With Alcohol at School

When I first attended university, in the late 1960s in Montreal, alcohol was peripheral to student life, at least from what I saw. There was no student bar at McGill with one exception, noted below. The drinking age in Quebec was 18 by 1970. Alcohol could be purchased in grocery stores or at taverns, but I don’t recall its presence at social activities.

There was a bit of it at the fraternities, yes. I had friends there and recall some drinking, but nothing ostentatious. There was also beer or liquor flasks at football games, but a student obsession, no.

We did some investigation of local taverns, for beer certainly but also to eat. These were occasional sorties, often after exams or at term end.  I can’t recall beer advertising on campus; quite frankly beer was known anyway as a student interest for some. I don’t think it needed the push of the local brewers!

By the time I got to law school in the early 1970s I saw sherry offered at some student-faculty gatherings. But not everyone took it, and Cokes or juice was also offered.

On a summer studies program at the University of Manitoba in 1974 I recall a bar at the Student Union. This caused some surprise, initially. I used it too (why not!) but the swimming pool, more. The rest of the time was in the library, or maybe sampling strawberry pie at that diner on Pembina Highway. (Oh to taste it again).

I remember re-visiting the lower part of the McGill campus in the later 1970s. It was then I first noticed a bar in the Student Union. I recall some surprise but remembered that bar in Winnipeg, and realized McGill adopted the idea finally.

The Post-Graduate Student Society

In the early 1970s the Post-Graduate Students Society of McGill had a bar in its McTavish Street headquarters. The building is pictured above (source: the McGill Archives). It’s a handsome but compact 1930s limestone on a slope of Mount Royal.

We sometimes went there since ex-officio membership was offered to law or med students. It was a once in a while thing, although I know I went more often during my last school year. One could invite guests as well, which I often did.

The PGSS bar seemed to reflect the old academic association with wine, with a quiet and “refined” atmosphere, as I recall it. We would meet other students there, from across Canada in fact, with Ontario well-represented. The snooker table in the basement was an attraction as well, reputedly sent for safety from England during the Second World War but never returned.

A Recent Canadian Study on Booze and the University

The Canadian Anne Dowsett Johnston, in her excellent 2013 memoir Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, shows how the footprint of alcohol at university widened in the decades after my years at McGill.

Certainly the party atmosphere she paints as characteristic of undergrad life today seems fairly intense. Sneegas’ depiction of alcohol today in the “department” is a useful counterpart.

Johnston views the college alcohol issue quite properly as a facet of the larger preoccupation with alcohol in society. She focuses, too, on how booze advertising became more ubiquitous and sophisticated in recent decades, including viz. the academy.

Both studies are salutary. They help us recognize the siren dangers of drinking and the need to take counter-steps where necessary. It’s not just a question of avoiding undue dependence, but of not being co-opted into a culture peripheral to what the university really stands for.





Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Years Old

A big step Forward for Hiram Walker

With the release of Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Years Old, Canada has a rye whisky that stands with the very best whiskeys of any style anywhere. Previous to this, I’d include Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye in that pantheon as well as J.P. Wiser’s 15 years old (subject of a later review).

Obviously we have made many good whiskeys in recent years, but only those three in my view stand at the peak especially when viewed internationally. I include in this Masterson’s and that other group from the U.S. that originate from Alberta Distillers – good products but not in the same league as these other three.

I am not of the group that was delirious with the original Lot 40 release some 20 years ago. A bold and innovative move it was for Canada, and it was good to have something so different, so out there. But from a taste standpoint – all that counts in the end – the product was IMO rather harsh-tasting.

It was aged in reused whiskey barrels and not for a super-long time either for a whisky of that character, around seven years if memory serves.

I always felt it could achieve greater potential by being aged longer and in new charred oak. This is the genius of a spirit distilled in a traditional manner: when young it can be difficult to drink but with good age it acquires in the same measure fine qualities down the road.

For North American straight whiskeys the new charred barrel is virtually essential unless one will age the product 15-20 years, a practical impossibility especially in today’s market.

(Reused barrels will work similar changes but you have to wait longer. Think of the typical age range for quality Scots malts and Irish single pot still).

This is precisely what happened to Lot 40. For many years after the first release it appeared off and on, in unchanged form. A few years ago a version came out aged in virgin oak as the term goes today – new charred oak barrels. This improved the spirit, although the changes from the original were not greatly marked, a function in this respect of decent but not prolonged aging.

Lot 40 now too is made from 100% unmalted rye as I learned on my tour of Hiram Walker last year. The conversion in the mash is effected by commercially-available amylase enzyme. The first Lot 40s included some malted rye, a minimal amount yet that probably contributed some flavour elements and body.

So little malt was used though that moving to a 100% raw rye grist probably didn’t make much palate difference especially with advanced age.

And so behold the cask strength Lot 40 released this autumn: aged in new charred oak from such a grist for a full 12 years. It shows a powerhouse yet stylish palate that retains the innovation of the original release – the distillery character effaced from a grain whisky mash at almost 95% abv off the still – but further modified by the virgin barrel and extra years in the wood.

There is a spicy smoky fruity thing going on, a complexity that reminded me of 1950s Old Overholts tabled at private Kentucky tastings years ago. The smell off the frame of the emptied glass is a treat in itself.

The result is what Lot 40 always could have been, it’s just taken 20 years to get there, understandable given where the distillery came from, a specialist in blended not straight whiskeys.

The truth is, the flavouring Canadian whiskies, distilled that is at a proof traditional for straight U.S. whiskey or Scots or Irish pot still, need the charred barrel where sold on their own. At least this is so where made from corn or rye as most are. Where made from barley, malted or raw, the reused barrel makes sense but you need long time to get a good result, think again of the typical age range for fine Scots or Irish pot still.

Where used for blending though it is a different story: you are using whiskies to ramp up a much greater quantity of fairly neutral but aged grain whisky. When used that way, the acetone or other youthful features are a plus as they perk up a bulk of whisky that might otherwise seem too bland. The addition of a touch of sherry or brandy or caramel can wrap the whole thing in a pleasant package.

This is another odd truism of whisky blending: things that seem lesser tasted on their own acquire a synergy, a new quality, in blended form. The sum is greater than the parts.

But for unblended rye or corn straight whiskies you want good age and the new charred barrel. It’s true that excellent bourbon and straight U.S. rye can emerge at four to eight years old but I’m convinced the extremes of the Kentucky and Tennessee climates contribute to that.

Canada’s climate is less extreme notably on the hot side of the equation. It means to get similar results we need usually to age longer. The cask strength Lot 40 shows the benefits. At 12 years it offers a similar richness of palate to many American whiskeys I know years younger.

At the same time the new charred barrel contributes desirable “red layer” notes, the toasted wood gums and charred notes that make bourbon and U.S. rye in large measure what they are. Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye also is aged 100% in new charred oak.

(Somehow it achieves a maturity comparable to good U.S. straight whiskey at about eight years old. Perhaps the Alberta summers explain this, or some other factor).

If you dilute the C.S. Lot 40 to about 40% abv – the best way to drink it IMO – those charcoal notes emerge especially in the finish. They are also evident on the side of the glass when emptied. There is no obligation, or very much history by the way, of drinking cask strength whiskey neat.

Adopting the new charred barrel for Lot 40 was an inspired move by Hiram Walker. What I foresee as regular-issue Lot 40 in the years to come is a 40% abv version perhaps not aged 12 years, but 10 years would be good, perhaps even eight years but with enough 12-year blended in to enrich the whole.

Finally, would a 15-year-old C.S. Lot 40 trump the almost perfect 12-year expression just released? There is only one way to find out…


Southern Comfort Veers North

Southern Comfort, the sweet, brightly-flavoured drink famously favoured by Janis Joplin in the 1960s, has been re-invented. I just bought the one sold in Canada for a try-out.

SoCo belongs to the arcana of drinks in that its original composition and current formulations are rather misty. As best I can tell, it was originally a compound of young whiskey (maybe bourbon), fruit, sugar, spices. At some point neutral spirits substituted for the whiskey.

When the bourbon renaissance gathered pace in the early 2000s the domestic (U.S., Canada) product was neutral spirits and the fruit, sugar, spice. Yet a version that included bourbon, stated on the label as such, was sold in some export markets.

I bought it a few times in the Caribbean. It was somewhat deeper in flavour than regular Southern Comfort but not that different.

Finally, the brand was sold to Sazerac Brands, of Buffalo Trace bourbon fame and more.

Its version seems to use whiskey since the term is all over the website. I think SoCo is probably not 100% whiskey, at least for the 35% ABV product, since whiskey must be bottled at 40% ABV. The labels too don’t call it whiskey as such.

Some SoCo is 100 proof or 80 proof, but I’d think all are made broadly the same way. The 80 proof is badged “Black” for a “bolder” taste, perhaps it uses more whiskey. In Ontario we only get the 35% ABV version. It is termed on the label in small print “liqueur” but the back label states it has the “flavor of whiskey”.

So it’s a whiskey-flavoured liqueur, presumably in the U.S. too. The fruity element is probably from a concentrate with sugar added, peach- and apricot-based judging by the taste and some published reports.

The reason for the current insistence on whiskey is that some dissed the brand in the past for not being a whiskey while still conveying the image. So that’s changed now, the website and labels makes clear the formulation involves whiskey of some kind.

The whiskey might be distilled at a higher proof and therefore fairly neutral, unlike bourbon that is, but I’d think some bourbon probably enters the composition. Could the spirit used be grain neutral spirits given some barrel aging?

This is possible but I’d incline against as the website uses the term “whiskey” repeatedly and this term means in U.S. law something distilled under 190 proof (95% ABV), so not quite neutral that is.

The Manitoba liquor authority describes the drink this way:

Southern Comfort is a New Orleans Liqueur made from neutral spirits with fruit, spice and whisky flavorings. It is a full bodied, full proof spirit with light citrus and stone fruit notes, touch of warm spice, cinnamon and herbal notes, with hints of caramel.

The taste of the current product, as sold in Canada, isn’t radically different from the circa-2000 one but it isn’t quite the same either. It seems less sweet and has a faint tannic/woody finish, showing the whiskey element.

I wonder if the whiskey, at least in Canada, is actually a non-spirit food flavouring, given too the term above “whisky flavorings”. The wording of the U.S. website seems to suggest real whiskey though; unless the product differs in Canada it should be the same here.

Still, it’s interesting that the Canadian rear label states SoCo is “blended and bottled in Canada”, maybe that means the formulation differs here.

It’s all delphic but this matters little except to a tiny coterie. The market will just want to drink it, or not, and I hope they do because it’s good stuff, a classic old taste.

I’d advise to blend it with bourbon, something not too old and woody. A standard Canadian whisky would work well too, or vodka for a yet lighter taste.

The brand was clearly in for a new look as sales were declining from the halcyon 60s. It’s been 50 years since Janis Joplin brandished that bottle in publicity shots. Sazerac Brands is good at what they do and I have a feeling SoCo may be in for a revival.

It’s a famous old drink, dating from the time a frankly sweet drink was admired. It retains its place in the world drinks pantheon. Grander days may yet await.