It’s common knowledge In the rum world from sheer repetition: The fabled British Navy rum, served to bluejackets for three centuries, is a blend of rums from the Four Horsemen of British Colonial rum: Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad.
It’s an appealing narrative. Who doesn’t love funky Jamaican rum? (Mrs. Wonk will come around eventually — I hope.)
It sounds like it must be true. After all, the 1654 Penn-Venables expedition that annexed Jamaica to the British crown is cited as the start of British Navy’s daily rum ration for sailors. (It wasn’t.) And in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jamaica was a first-tier Empire’ rum producer. Surely generations of thirty British sailors consumed plenty of Jamrock’s finest.
Yet… sometimes legends are just myths or half-truths.
Luckily, in our modern era of Google and near infinite computing resources, history is much closer to our fingertips. We can check original sources rather than just relying on what a brand tells you. So, let’s get to the bottom of this. While we’re at it, let’s see if we can learn what the mythical “navy rum blend” was.
In the 1600s, the British navy primarily ran on beer, wine, and brandy. Since liquid provisions were stored in wooden cask, often in hot climates, spoilage was a serious issue. A bit of alcohol helped keep it unspoiled for a bit. Once the water turned undrinkable and slimy shortly into the expedition, beer was the next best thing. The alcohol, however low strength, helped keep it drinkable for longer. Wine, with its higher ABV, lasted longer but far from indefinitely.
Luckily, the wise navy provisioners also sent ships out to sea with distilled spirits, e.g. brandy. At around fifty percent alcohol or more, spirits lasted almost indefinitely.
By the 1700s, the British fleet was swarming the Caribbean, and rum was readily available during Caribbean expeditions. 1731 brought a declaration of a daily ration of wine or rum while on foreign stations. It took a few more decades for the admiralty to declare that all sailors, no matter where based, would receive a daily ration of something alcoholic. Brandy was a common alcoholic ration in the 1700s.
During this era, the navy contracted with companies like Mure, Son, Atkinson to provision the fleet across its globe-stretching empire with required necessities – food, supplies, clothing, and booze! In those days, its likely that such merchants imported (or purchased) single source puncheons of brandy or rum to fulfill their contracts. There’s little to suggest these supply merchants blended rums, and certainly not to any navy specification.
At the start of the 1800s, records suggest the navy’s victualling board took over all rum purchases, specifying delivery to three victualling yards in London (Deptford), Gosport, and Plymouth. The navy periodically advertised they were accepting bids to supply rum to them. Among the merchant who won such bids were a Mr. Lemon Hart and a Mr. Alfred Lamb.
Based on the price and provided rum samples, the victualling board decided what to purchase. It wasn’t just about what was cheapest. Contracts for up to 200,000 gallons were routinely signed multiple times per year. But what happened when all those rum puncheons arrived at the victualling yards? By 1840, if not earlier, large vatting systems were in place:
Although we don’t know the extent of the early vatting systems, later notes from Deptford’s victualling yard report over thirty vats in use, comprising a total capacity of over 250,000 gallons.
Questions about what went into the navy’s vats are almost as old as rum ration itself. The short answer: It depends.
Prior to the navy blending rums, believed to have been in the early 1800s, it’s difficult to ascribe any particular recipe to navy rum. However, it’s reasonable to assume that what the navy bought is what was in their blend.
With the onset of the victualling board’s contract bid announcements (see above), we have some insights. In reviewing many winning bid records, it’s clear the navy rarely specified specific countries, other than perhaps Jamaica. Most descriptions of rums purchased specified West Indies, Leeward Islands, or even East Indies, e.g. what’s now modern-day India. (Note: The Leeward islands included Antigua, Saint Kitts, Nevis, the Virgin Islands, and others.)
An 1834 newspaper report sheds light on an early purchase, indicating that Jamaican rum was purchased:[i]
However, a similar 1839 report indicates that the navy wasn’t purchasing only Jamaican rum. [ii]
Proof Leewards is presumably rum from the Leeward Islands at proof — 57% ABV. The following year the navy even purchased from non-colonial sources – including Brazil![iii]
Many other examples (too numerous to cite here) point to the navy’s rum purchases altering to suit economic and geopolitical realities of the time. The rise and fall of the Caribbean sugar and rum industry, as well as wartime shortages impacted what the navy could buy in the quantity needed – typically millions of gallons per year.
Similarly, new rum sources came online. For example, British Guiana rum (aka Demerara) didn’t become the largest colonial rum exporter until it overtook Jamaica in the mid-1800s. Naturally, the navy integrated these new suppliers where possible.
(Note: Demerara and British Guiana were often used interchangeably in colonial era document to describe rum from what is modern day Guyana. I have left these terms unmodified below.)
Its clear from many sources that the victualling commissioners purchased Jamaican rum, as well as many other sorts of rums during the 1800s. However, as the 20th century came around, the situation changed.
As the 19th century drew to a close, Britain’s colonial rum makers were in dire straits. In many ways an evolve or die situation. To that end, some Jamaican producers started making heavier, more flavorful rums commanding a higher price.
One motivation for this was that Germany starting taxing imported spirits very highly. In response, German importers sought out very heavy, high ester Jamaican rums to import in small quantities –rum concentrate, effectively:[iv]
As Jamaican producers moved towards heavier, more expensive rums, the Navy had less reasons to purchase it. The flavor profile or price weren’t what they were looking for.
The 1908 Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits is a treasure trove of details for spirit historians. Among the luminaries interviewed was Frederic Henry Dumas Man of the E.D.&F. Man, the company which, among other things, were rum brokers to the British admirality:
Quizzed about the navy blend, he provides an early hint that Jamaican rum wasn’t favored:
Note: Patent still rum is what we today call continuous, or column still rum. At the time, Jamaica had only pot stills, so none of it would be patent still rum.
Parliamentary testimony[v] from 1924 paints a picture of the navy’s blend as primarily from Demerara and Trinidad:
Furthermore, navy correspondence[vi] from 1925 paints a very clear picture that Jamaica was a small player in the navy’s blend because of its unsuitability under normal conditions:
Yet more parliamentary proceedings[vii] from 1933 adds this:
The most authoritative take on Jamaican rum use in the navy blend is the navy’s own documentation – here, the 1939 Victualling manual states:[viii]
When 20th century descriptions of the navy blend are provided, the common theme is of Demerara rum as the primary component, with Trinidad rum in a strong second place. The remaining components were bit players and changed over time.
Earlier I mentioned external circumstances altering navy rum purchases from their preferred course. World War II was certainly one such occasion. Faced with the need for 3.3 million gallons of rum in 1944, the admiralty had to scramble, eventually holding its nose and purchasing Jamaican rum:[ix]
In the end, the navy sourced rums in 1944 from Jamaica, Demerara, Barbados, and Trinidad. Interestingly, they also turned to Cuba and Martinique for rum — an interesting story for another time.
The navy’s acceptance of Jamaican rum into the blend doesn’t seem to have extended beyond the end of the war. A 1956 parliamentary transcript provides an updated blend:[x]
Note that while British Guiana, Trinidad, and Barbados are in the blend, Jamaica is not. As for Mauritius rum mentioned in the victualling manual, it was possibly just a temporary supplier in a time of need.
A final glimpse into the Royal Navy’s blend comes from a fascinating 1966 news report filmed at the Royal William victualling yard in Plymouth. Sadly, the video is restricted to UK viewers — unless you’re proficient with VPNs or other technical workarounds. In it, the navy blend is described as sixty percent Demerara, thirty percent Trinidad, and ten percent Barbados and Trinidad.
At this point in the story, another player needs to be introduced: The British army. Like the navy, the army gave its soldiers rum, especially in times of combat. There was no guaranteed daily ration, but the army was also purchasing rum for its troops.
What was the army buying? Great question. There seems to be fewer available records of the army’s purchases. However, we do believe that at certain times, army rum was blended at navy victualling yards, although kept completely separate.
There’s nothing suggesting that army and navy rum was interchangeable. Was the army buying Jamaican rum? It’s possible, but I’ve got no evidence for or against this. Also of note, army rum was often issued in gallon flagons (stoneware jars). These were similar appearance to navy rum flagons that were also issued in circumstances where a cask was too big.
Given the history above, it’s impossible to argue that Jack Tars never had Jamaican rum during navy rum’s 315-year history.
However, if a rum is claimed to be made in the style of British Navy rum, presumably the admiralty’s purchases or blending records were consulted. Barring that, on might seek to emulate navy rum’s flavor profile. Either way, we must be honest about what that means.
With the exception of a brief moment during the Second World War, Jamaica was rarely part of the navy’s blend in the 20th century. If it was present, it wasn’t the predominant flavor. The sailors didn’t like it, so said the navy.
The most detailed information on the navy’s blend comes from the first seven decades of the 20th century. These records show very little Jamaican rum was used.
If one takes the “blend to match tastes” approach, one must start with a reference point. Since there’s assuredly more 20th century real navy rum around than from prior centuries, it makes sense that a 20th century rum would be the benchmark. But again, Jamaican rum was virtually absent from 20th century blends.
Consumer navy rums stretching back to the 1930s mostly respect that reality. The big navy rum brands of the mid-20th century were Lamb’s, Lemon Hart, and Caroni. The first two labeled themselves as Demerara rums, the latter as Trinidad.[xi] This is in line with the stated 20th century blends.
Even Pusser’s, the modern incarnation of consumer navy rum, makes little or no claim to a Jamaican heritage. The navy’s rum sources were originally provided to Pusser’s by ED&F Man in 1979. By their own admission, Pusser’s rum sources have changed since 1979, but always heavily relied on a Demerara component. These days, Pusser’s is distilled and blended entirely in Guyana.
Yes, funky Jamaican rum is delicious. Sure, it pairs well with other strongly flavored rum like Port Mourant from Guyana, or Caroni from Trinidad. But a funky, Jamaican-forward “navy rum” blend doesn’t seem to have existed in the 20th century, or possibly ever.
It’s absolutely fine to be inspired by both Jamaican rum and the legacy of the British Navy rum ration. Blend to your heart’s content! But if you look to history for support, it’s an uphill climb.
[i] Waterford Mail, 25 January 1834
[ii] Kerry Evening Post, 03 August 1839
[iii] Parliamentary papers v.8 (East India Produce) 1840
[iv] Report of the West India Royal Commission; 1897
[v] Hansard, Navy Rum and Allowances; Feb. 28, 1924
[vi] British National Archives CO 137/779; 1925
[vii] Hansard; HC Deb 15 February 1933 vol 274 cc983-4
[viii] British National Archives ADM 234.19; 1939
[ix] British National Archives ADM 1.15472; 1944
[x] Hansard, Rum (Countries Of Origin); June 14, 1956
[xi] There was a Rope & Anchor Jamaican “Navy Rum”, alongside a Demerara version.