“Why is the rum gone?”
If you were to create a concept map of the ideas that the general public has about rum, you’d likely see that rum is often associated with pirates. From popular works like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” to the marketing used by ubiquitous rums like Captain Morgan, the references to pirates are endless.
In truth, as explained by Ian Williams in his book “Rum: a Social and Sociable History,” pirates of the past would have consumed the liquor they were able to steal or salvage, and Cognac was their favorite (brandy, not rum, was more popular among British ships prior to the 1800s). Pirates are given too much credit when only seem to have been minor agents in rum’s history. However, there is another group of seafaring people who served a more relevant role in that same history: the British Navy.
Let’s take a brief trip to the 1600s.
During their long voyages, the water, beer, or wine that members of the British Navy would bring along with them wouldn’t last forever. Back then, drinking water was not always fully potable to begin with, and beverages for sailors’ consumption were often stored in wooden barrels. This wasn’t really the most sterile method for storage, but it’s what was available at that time. As a result, algae and other kinds of bacteria would infect the water, necessitating that sailors replenish their supplies whenever they docked, lest they die from dehydration.
As early as 1655, whenever beer was no longer available (either because it was consumed or had itself gone bad), sailors in the Caribbean turned to rum as a more sustainable and morale-boosting (albeit unofficial) alternative. In 1731, since the Navy Board had slowly recognized that practice, a “tot” – or ration of a half a pint of rum – was one of the options for high-proof spirits officially provided to sailors (presumably still those stationed around the Caribbean) twice a day when beer was not available. It is said that by the mid-1700s, this practice had been applied to all British sailors across the globe.
The rum industry significantly developed because of the need to standardize the process of getting sailors their daily tots. In his book “Rum: The Manual,” Dave Broom explains that the purchasing of rum “was centralized at the Admiralty in London via a preferred supplier, ED&F Man, which bought either direct or through brokers. The rums were transferred to linked blending vats in the Royal Victoria Yard, Deptford, which operated as a sort of solera system.” The Cocktail Wonk also writes in this article that “numerous sources suggest that the typical cask of rum destined for the navy was shipped to England soon after distillation, and vatted for around two years in an enormous vatting system… [not] sitting in casks.”
Britain had a firm foothold in the Caribbean through Barbados (which was once also Britain’s wealthiest colony due to its place in the sugar industry) and eventually other British colonies like Guyana and Jamaica, the latter of which replaced Barbados as Britain’s primary sugar colony. These are the colonies whose rums often comprised the rum blends given to sailors. However, due to various factors involving the global economic trends, the components would also vary; sometimes, blends also involved rum from places like Martinique and Cuba.
As you can imagine, having a daily ration of rum eventually led many sailors to be quite irresponsible with their drinking. Consequently, throughout the decades, this half-pint measure was halved multiple times. Vice Admiral Edward Vernon of the British Navy also responded to this issue by ordering, in 1739, that those daily tots be watered down and mixed with other ingredients like lime juice and sugar.
This pattern of limiting the causes for inebriation among sailors, along with the modernization of navy ships (nuclear weaponry could be found on ships as early as the 1950s) and the need for sailors to be more careful with the technology and machinery on those ships, led to the daily tot being abolished on July 31, 1970. This day was called “Black Tot Day,” during which the final tot was served to the lamenting Royal Navy sailors, who wore black arm bands and held mock funerals and processions as they grieved for liquor that they held in relevant regard.
July 31, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Black Tot Day. This is the day being commemorated by rum brand Black Tot through their 50th Anniversary Edition rum, which I’ll be reviewing today.
Black Tot is a brand that was created in the early 2000s by Sukhinder Singh, co-founder and owner of Elixir Distillers, after he had tracked down and bought much of the remaining flagons of rum given away by the Royal Navy. Currently, Black Tot has the flagons stashed in Scotland, and a portion of those rums was bottled and sold as Black Tot’s The Last Consignment, which they released in 2010.
According to Oliver Chilton, Black Tot’s Head Blender, the Black Tot 50th Anniversary Edition celebrates the original Navy rum through the blending of Caribbean rums from modern distilleries and those from “lost” distilleries that have closed or ceased operations. Black Tot Global Brand Ambassador Mitch Wilson explained in 2020 that, to his knowledge, Black Tot is unique in how it provides the components of their blends on their websites and on their bottles’ labels. Let’s take a look at the Caribbean rums used for this release.
As you can see, I needed to take two photos, each from a different angle of the bottle’s back label, to fully display all the information they present about their 50th Anniversary Edition rum.
This vatted rum contains rums from six different distilleries across four countries that serve as the pillars of Navy rum. Two of those distilleries are no longer operational. There is also a small percentage of the original Royal Navy blend that Sukhinder Singh was able to acquire. Being a blended traditionalist rum, all component rums were distilled using only either traditional pot or traditional column stills.
The first two listed Guyanese rums were distilled using French Savalle stills (think of one as a Coffey still with twice the number of columns), and the latter two Guyanese rums were distilled using a Port Mourant still (double wooden pot stills). The Barbadian rum was distilled in copper double retort pot stills and twin-column Coffey stills, while the Jamaican rum was distilled in only copper double retort pot stills.
Finally, the two Trinidadian rum components were distilled in column stills; I’m guessing that the first was distilled using only a single column of one of Trinidad Distiller Ltd.’s multi-column stills (the same way they make their heavy rums), but no information seems to be available on what kind of column still was used for the second. Each component has undergone a different combination of tropical aging (in its country of origin) and continental aging (in the UK).
As for presentation: this rum has been bottled without added sugar or coloring, without chill-filtration, and at a “true Navy Strength” at 54.5% ABV, the same strength at which tots of Navy rum were officially issued to sailors at least since 1866. Only 5,000 bottles have been released for this expression.
I bought my bottle for around $190. At Royal Mile Whiskies, this was sold for $130, so clearly, I paid quite a bit more. Let’s see how it holds up against that higher price.
Black Tot 50th Anniversary Edition – Review
Color: Cherry wood.
On the nose: It starts off with deep aromas of star anise, bay leaf, and maple syrup which then give way to light yet rich fruitiness: prunes, cranberry juice, a touch of orange zest, and sweet star apples. Brief jabs of latex. It has a restrained funk in the form of acetone, warm tobacco, old pineapple chunks, and almost the smell you get from having the windows down at a gasoline station. Curiously, the development is not linear; the spice at the arrival periodically circles back, sometimes leading to layers of sauteed ginger, diluted sesame oil, and turmeric. I can spend such a long time nosing this.
In the mouth: This rum is two-faced. It hits the ground running, leading with strawberry jam, figs, tamarinds, and a very subtle brine. A mix of tobacco ash and Food for the Gods (a Filipino baked desert made with dates, walnuts, and buttery dough) guide a transition into polished wood, tart pineapple, and steamed saba banana. Then, it momentarily calms down with raisins, light wax, and muscovado before a final spike of bitter cacao nibs and coarsely ground coffee shows up. The mouthfeel has a light oiliness. After a while, more of the fruits take center stage yet are steadily accented by black olives. The finish is dry and long; dark chocolate first, followed by banana peels.
“Dynamic” is the first word that comes to mind that does a good job of describing this rum’s character. It kept me chasing around for a while, which also meant keeping me engaged and interested. Despite that dynamism, it has balance that does not diminish its quiet sense of verve. I must admit, I kept topping up my glass more than I usually would whenever I would write down tasting notes. Initially, I thought it was because I needed more time to pick out this rum’s flavors; eventually, I realized that I just wanted to have more of it. Rums like this keep me from being as focused on whisky as I used to be.
I’d like to also mention again the information Black Tot shares on its back label, for which they should be commended. Yes, the details are not exhaustive. For me, it would have also been interesting to know details like raw materials, fermentation, or cask types. However, the wealth of information they do provide on the label can only benefit and educate consumers on how styles and flavors can interact in a single rum.
Even to those who are unfamiliar with the details are now faced with the opportunity of researching. In an industry where there is a growing push for transparency and integrity among brands and for greater education and critical awareness among consumers, this is an excellent precedent. I hope that other brands take notice of this and start doing the same.
Having said all that, we now arrive at the matter of price. $190 is near the upper limit of what I’m currently willing to spend for a single bottle of liquor, and a part of me wonders when I’d break the $200 mark or what singular kind of spirit would cause me to do so. Would I buy another bottle of this rum? Probably not, but only because of my desire to use that money to find other kinds of rum that are this good, if not better. Price is the only factor that keeps me from scoring this a 9 and, even then, that’s not really a knock on this rum by Black Tot.