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.