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.