Beginning in the mid-1700s, sailors in the British Navy were given a daily ration of rum, a “tot” as it was called. The practice continued for more than two centuries, during which time, coincidence or not, the Royal Navy became the most powerful armada in the world. When the last daily tots were released on July 31, 1970, there was widespread mourning among those in uniform, and plenty of naval rum remained, collecting dust in government warehouses. Today, authentic samples of the original Royal Navy rum are prized not only because of their historical significance, but also because they are delicious and made in a style that is virtually impossible to replicate today.
The Royal Navy had started issuing its sailor’s rum on an ad hoc basis, along with other spirits such as brandy and arack, as early as 1655. It started out of necessity, according to rum historian Matt Pietrek, author of Cocktail Wonk Blog. “When the British Navy began to command the oceans in the late 1500s, if you think of the containers they had at the time, they were just wooden barrels, where any liquid would be stored,” he said. said Pietrek. âWater alone, in wooden barrels in a hot tropical climate, would deteriorate quite quickly. Even the beer was bad because the alcohol content was not high enough. It was really just a distilled spirit, which alcohol essentially kept it from going bad. The other reason for the tot was to keep the morale of the sailors under brutal conditions. “How to prevent sailors from deserting?” Pietrek asked rhetorically. “By getting them drunk every night. They will come back.
In the 18th century, each sailor was given an Imperial half pint of rum per day, which works out to about ten ounces. Bearing in mind that this was a barrel-resistant rum (around 150 proofs, according to Pietrek), it’s hard to imagine how the Royal Navy ever left the docks, let alone the dominance of the high seas. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and the ration was reduced in 1850 to its final “tot” of 1/8 of an Imperial quart (about 2.5 ounces). By 1866, the ABV had also been lowered to “4.5 degrees below proof,” which today translates to 54.5% ABV, also known as Navy strength. Still not too bad, but it definitely made the actual work of navigating a ship a bit easier.
Millions of gallons of rum were needed to supply the entire navy, so it came from several places. Little evidence remains on the provenance of rum before the 20th century, but by the 1930s the lion’s share came from British Guiana and Trinidad, two British colonies at the time, with smaller amounts coming from Barbados and Australia. When supplies ran out and necessity demanded it, they even got hold of rums from Cuba and Martinique. Surprisingly, rum from Jamaica, which was part of the British Empire until 1962, was generally not used, due to its powerful and funky flavor.
The official Royal Navy blend dates back to the early 1800s and this was the very first time that rums from different countries were blended. Mixing took place in several bunkering (pronounced “vittling”) yards in England, where naval supplies and provisions were prepared and stored before being transported to ships. The rum was poured into large open vats, each holding several thousand gallons. âThey would throw the rum into these vats, whatever recipe they preferred, and that changed over time,â says Pietrek. “All the vats were apparently connected, so you can take some of the rum from that vat and send it to this vat.” Rum circulated for up to two years. Water was added during the process and a stirrer mixed the rum and water so that the strength of the final product was even. The vats were never completely emptied – they were always covered with new rum – so by 1970 a sort of solera had been created, with rum from decades old in the mix. Caramel was added for color, as well as a touch of flavor, before the contents were shipped out to sea. Large ships received their rations in drums, while small ships and submarines received vials of. stone wrapped in wicker.
There had been debate within the Royal Navy over the end of the daily total for about a century when the decision was finally made to end it at the end of 1969, with a firm end date of July 31, 1970. . âEssentially,â said Pietrek, âthe naval officers and the admiralty itself weren’t big fans of drunken sailors. And as the navy modernized and got more complex, you couldn’t. not having a drunken sailor in control of radar or critical vital systems. “The day the final totals were issued became known as Black Tot Day.” The name comes from this idea of, it was a funeral for rum, “says Black Tot brand ambassador, Mitch Wilson.” It was like losing your favorite mate on the ship. Sailors wore black armbands, [and] some naval schools organized mock funerals for rum.
Leftover rum was put into flasks and stored in naval warehouses, occasionally to be taken out for royal or state functions. Eventually, much of it was sold to private collectors to make room in the warehouses. That’s where Sukhinder Singh, founder of spirits retailer The Whiskey Exchange, comes in. After being offered several unopened vials from a retired sailor in the late 2000s, he managed to find enough to warrant bottling and release. But first he had to make sure it was more than just a historical curiosity. Mitch Wilson recalls, âWe put the bottles together, we decided to taste them, and the concern was whether they would taste good? We poured them in and the first taste was like, âWow. They’re not just good, they’re amazing. It is a rum that simply does not exist in the world today.
First released in 2010, Black Tot Last Consignment, as it’s known, is still available through The Whiskey Exchange and a handful of other select retailers. While not as elegant as high-end sipping rums, it is powerful and complex, exhibiting rich notes of dark chocolate, caramel, and molasses along with the meaty Guyanese rums, which were the thorny. back of the blend, and hints of herbal funk that may or may not have come from Jamaican rums stills, which were hardly used, if at all. It wasn’t intended for connoisseurs, but whether you drink it under the bridge or sip it from a Glencairn glass, it’s a delicious rum.
If you are looking for a more affordable approximation of Royal Navy rum, you have several options. Charles Tobias, a former American sailor, convinced the British Admiralty to give him their blend recipe, which he recreated as Pusser’s Rum. It’s not a faithful recreation – as Matt Pietrek puts it, “Pusser’s blends have the flavor profile of the marine blend, if not the actual recipe” – but it does give a good idea of ââhow the real thing tastes, at a price that is several orders of magnitude cheaper. Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof is bottled at the same 54.5% BAC as naval rum, while flagship Pusser’s Blue Label comes in at a milder rate of 42%.
Black Tot has also released its own bespoke blend, the Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum. He deliberately avoids adapting to the recipe or flavor profile of Last Consignment. Brand Ambassador Mitch Wilson says, âWe couldn’t recreate this blend if we tried. So rather than trying to do an imitation, we instead worked onâ¦ let’s create something a little different, a little new, and create something that everyone is going to enjoy. The blend of Guyanese and Barbadian rums, with a hint of Jamaican still, bottled at 46.2 percent alcohol content, is indeed a most pleasant blend, lighter than the Royal Navy blend but still tasty and complex. .
Deep down, however, there is no wrong way to toast the legacy of the everyday toddler and the countless sailors, officers and admirals who have participated over the centuries. The rum of your choice and a hearty “God Save The Queen” will suffice.