Rum, blood & tiki: The history of British Navy rum

Eleanor Dallaway

Eleanor Dallaway

05 March 2020

Since the 17th century, rum has had firm roots in Britain’s maritime heritage. ELEANOR DALLAWAY reports on the links between rum, tiki and the British Navy’s booze-drenched history


So, first things first, what actually defines a British Navy rum? The Navy rum blend has changed many times over the years. In the early days, the Navy would be supplied with ‘a mixed bag’ of casks from around the world. Rum experts typically agree that Navy rum is a blend of aged rums from two or more of the following former colonies: Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad. Some take it further and insist that it should also include rum from the Port Mourant double-wooden pot still in Guyana, known for its earthy flavour profile.

Abv is also important. You may see Navy-style rums with inconsistent strength, but a true Navy rum is 54.5% abv.

It took nine years – and 1,642 pints of rum per sailor – for the navy to realise it may be a good idea to dilute rations

Steven Gilbert, general manager of Trader Vic’s London – a tiki haven at London’s Hilton Hotel on Park Lane – says that customers often request a 'true British navy rum' and they always ensure they stock Pusser’s gunpowder and Admiralty blue rum behind the bar, because 'you can’t make a painkiller without it!'. The most requested cocktail at Trader Vic’s London is the Mai Tai. "The original 1944 recipe as created by our founding father Trader Vic himself is a necessity when visiting us in the basement of 22 Park Lane!” says Gilbert

British beginnings

The British Navy’s reputation as ‘original rum blenders’ dates back to 1731 when the Navy Board, recognising the value of rum as a long-keeping commodity, rationed the sailors to half a pint (crikey) of rum a day. The rum ration was known as ‘Pusser’s Rum’, derived from Purser, the person who was responsible for issuing the rum each day.

Navy ships travelled from port to port, restocking their holds with locally-made rums from British colonies.

It took nine years – and 1,642 pints of rum per sailor – for the navy to realise it may be a good idea to dilute it. And so was born the basic beginnings of the Daiquiri, in 1740, which saw Admiral Vernon order rum’s dilution with lime and sugar to 'inhibit drunkeness’.

DRINK: THE NAVY GROG

Glass: Old fashioned/rock glass
Method: Shake ingredients with crushed ice and pour into old fashioned/rock glass.

30ml light rum
30ml demerara rum
30ml dark rum
10ml dram liqueur (or Trader Vic’s own grog mix)
20ml lime juice
20ml grapefruit juice
7.5ml rock candy syrup
7.5ml honey syrup optional (for added sweetness)


Recipe supplied by Trader Vic's London 


 

In 1784 the British Navy contracted James Man (his company is now known as ED&F Man) to supply the rum for the Navy. Rum from Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana arrived at the London Docks where it was aged and blended by Man and his team to create a consistent product known as British Navy rum.

By law, all of the rum arriving into London had to come into the West Indian Docks. They were made in one warehouse, perhaps the biggest rum warehouse the world had ever seen, with over four million gallons of overproof rum. During the Second World War, the West India Docks were almost completely destroyed. What’s left today represents about 10% of the original Docks.

At the time, the British public were drinking London Dock Rums, which tiki bar legend Trader Vic holds in high acclaim in his book. However, the public fell in love with the concept of British Navy rum and during the 1940s and 50s, marketing took over and London Dock rums became British Navy, despite not being made in the traditional way.

A sea change

The tide turned for rum in the 1970s when the navy discontinued its daily rum ration. ED&F Man stopped making their liquid, which some have argued was the end of true British Navy rum. The impact was felt in the Tiki trade, with many recalling a bleak time for both rum and Tiki.

Now, here we are in the wake of another sea change, but this one signals a much brighter forecast for rum. A renewed interest in the category is giving way to a whole new load of rum releases from independents.

How to get freaky with tiki, according to Matt Pietrek

• Tiki is a cultural snowball – recipes, imagery and cocktails pick up on pop culture of the time
• The 1941 cocktail the Navy Grog is the ultimate connection between rum and the British Navy. First created by Donn Beach (Don the Beachcomber), the cocktail comprises different rums with lime juice, grapefruit juice, honey, soda and an orange slice and cherry to garnish. Trader Vic’s shares its Navy Grog recipe with Imbibe in the box-out.
• Pietrek prefers to recipes to be "more forward-thinking in terms of how rums are specified." His Navy Grog recipe in Minimalist Tiki specifies lightly aged/filtered rum and aged Jamaican rum.
• Tiki is about rum blending and 'bringing together multiple rums to create a unique flavour profile’
• 'There’s nothing more tiki than lighting things on fire’
• Lemon extract is the secret to good fire in tiki drinks
• A tiki cocktail is an upgraded Daiquiri; 'A Daiquiri with fancy spices and flavours.'

 

Rum is really starting to gain momentum as a category, says Trader Vic’s Gilbert, “helped immensely by the resurgence of tiki/ tropical style cocktails. It’s an approachable category and people are beginning to understand just how much depth there is over other popular drinks categories.

“When you consider that the top 10 cocktails worldwide by popularity according to the latest industry stats include the likes of the Mojito, Daiquiri and the Pina Colada, although all white rum based, it’s clear to see that there’s already a great appetite for rum as well as a foundation from which consumers can start to explore the category further, working their way up to the more obscure varieties and if brave enough the overproofs!”

If you want to get your hands on a true British Navy rum, it’ll cost you. Black Tot Rum has its original blend – Last Consignment – which came about before Black Tot 40 Year Old and is the actual rum that was left over when the navy served their last rations on 31st July 1970.

Launched in 2010, on the 40th anniversary of Black Tot Day, it is a blend of the rum that had been stored by the navy in ceramic flagons ever since they issued the final tot of navy rationed rum. Black Tot Rum says of Last Consignment: “Previously only served on State occasions and royal weddings, this is the first (and last) time real navy rum has been made available to the public – a true piece of history in a bottle. Great news is, there’s still a few bottles left at £650.”

Black Tot 40 year old rum, made purely from one component of Navy Rum, the unique and, these days, rather rare 100% Demerara rum from Guyana, will set you back £1,500. You can pick up a bottle of the less exclusive Black Tot rum for a way more affordable £39.95.

Pusser’s Rum, at £65 a bottle, recently switched to an entirely Guyana rum but the company claims it has the taste of Navy rum.

So let’s grab a Navy Grog and say a traditional Navy toast to rum and tiki making it out of the drinks dustbin of history: "A bloody war or a sickly season"!

A BLOODY COCKTAIL

Have you heard the story of Nelson’s Blood? Ok, it might be a case of Chinese whispers colliding with poetic licence as the legend gets passed from generation to generation. But here’s the crux: After the great Admiral Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, his body was preserved in a cask of rum and holes were drilled into the sides. Why? So that thirsty sailors could drink the cocktail of blood-drenched rum on the long journey.

Today, the Nelson’s Blood cocktail recipe varies from bar to bar but often comprises dark rum with blood orange, lemon juice and ginger beer. Trader Vic’s London shares a recognised liberation with Imbibe.

DRINK: NELSON'S BLOOD
Glass: Coupe
Method: Shake ingredients with cubed ice and strain into coupe glass.

50ml Martell VSOP
50ml Ruby port (we use Graham’s)        

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