“My suggestion is that you try to contact Michael Fogg… he is definitely the most knowledgeable living person regarding the early derivation of navy rum.”
Historians live for the moment when the heavy curtains of the past briefly part to reveal a glimpse into something unexpected. I didn’t know it at the time, but such was the case when I received an email, telling me of a British gentleman named Michael “Mike” Fogg, the last employee of ED&F Man’s rum department.
In the annals of rum history, the British firm ED&F Man casts an extremely long shadow. As they tell the story, the company was the sole supplier of rum to the British Royal Navy from 1784 until the rum ration ended in 1970. (There’s substantial evidence suggesting the timeframe isn’t entirely accurate, but that’s a story for another time.)
One of my personal grails is bringing the real, unvarnished history of British navy rum to light; access to any of Man’s records regarding this would be invaluable. However, my communications with the company yielded only the response that all relevant early records had long since vanished, along with a few old photos of a rum ration issue.
The prospect to talking to someone on the inside of ED&F Man rum department seemed too good to be true. Man’s rum department had closed nearly fifty years prior. How old was this gentleman if he worked there fifty years ago? And if was still alive, would he remember anything?
Nonetheless, in my quest to chase down every lead, I emailed the address provided, preparing myself for the possibility of no reply.
To my surprise, a reply from Michael arrived twelve hours later.
At first, he was courteous but seemed to have his guard up. How did he know I was serious and not just some kook? His early replies pointed me to excerpts from the book Nelson’s Blood by James Pack, but having previously devoured Pack’s text, my questions ran much deeper.
Our back and forth continued haltingly, often separated by weeks. But over time I gained his trust, in part by sharing my own finds on the topic that Michael himself wasn’t aware of. Our emails became lengthier and more involved. In time, he started to share his own role in rum’s history.
Michael Edward Fogg joined the British navy around 1952 at the age of eighteen, fulfilling his compulsory two years of national service requirements. Since the navy only issued a rum tot to those at least twenty years of age, he only received a tot during his final three weeks as a sailor.
After leaving the navy, he joined London’s sugar trade, which he described for me:
Sugar was still shipped in sacks and discharged onto the quay side, for removal by trucks to warehouses, outside the docks. The warehouses were multi-storied and sacks were hoisted up several levels. The system was not cost effective and bulk shipments and terminals were developing, leading to the closure of the outdated docks.
By 1976, he ended up at ED&F Man, one of the largest sugar trade firms. (The company is still in business today, and among other things, supplies molasses to various Caribbean distilleries.) Man’s rum department had closed around the time of the last rum issuance on Black Tot Day – July 31,1970. Initially, Michael worked in Man’s whisky department.
At this point, Charles Tobias, the founder of Pusser’s Rum enters the story. Tobias, a Vietnam war pilot, sailor, and corporate CEO became fascinated by the story of British navy rum in the late 1970s (well after Black Tot day) and set out to recreate it as a consumer brand. Having approached the British admiralty and getting turned down, he persisted and eventually received their approval with the promise to donate a portion of the profits of every case of Pusser’s Rum to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity.
With the navy’s blessing, Tobias’ next step was to secure the rum. Inquiring how he might purchase it from them, he was told that the Navy didn’t have stock on hand and wasn’t making it anymore. The best the navy could do was point him to ED&F Man, who had supplied the rum for them to blend in their victualling yards in prior decades.
Initially, Tobias got nowhere with Man’s switchboard–there was no rum department to speak with! He continued to press, and an operator eventually connected him to the best option they could think of: a certain Michael Fogg in the whisky department.
October in London means one thing for rum-fanatics: the UK Rumfest. Although a full day’s journey from my New Orleans home, I’d be utterly mad to miss the annual congregation of rummies from all over the world. The 2019 rumfest trip held a special calling for me. Having visited London earlier in the year to comb through the British National Archives and the West India Committee Reading Room, I was eager to return with a refreshed list of research documents to track down. Equally important, I had a personal appointment to keep.
Situated in Marylebone, London’s Landmark Hotel is one of those impossibly posh, old guard five-star European hotels. Palm trees occupy the fine dining restaurant that sprawls through the enormous, glass-roofed atrium. It turned out to be a perfect meeting location to greet Michael, after we’d considered and discarded my spartan, business hotel and a local brewpub. “I will carry a copy of Nelson’s Blood, as backup!” wrote Michael to help ensure I’d find him. I brought a bottle of rum as a gift.
He was waiting for me when I arrived, at a small table for two at the atrium’s edge. Our rapport was immediate and unrushed; tea and biscuits were soon ordered. Over several hours, and with no place else for either of us to be, Michael began to unwind his personal involvement with four decades of rum history.
Upon reaching Michael via phone at ED&F Man, Charles asked if Man could sell him the rum he needed to launch Pusser’s. As Michael recalled, he told Charles that the company no longer traded in rum, but Michael could find the purchase records of the last rums ordered for the navy. Indeed, Michael Fogg is the linchpin connecting the British Navy’s rum recipe to the original consumer recreation: Pusser’s Rum.
ED&F Man subsequently started a division, ED&F Man (Victuals) Ltd., which became an investor in the Pusser’s brand. On September 12, 1980, Pusser’s held a UK launch event on the HMS Belfast, conveniently located directly across the Thames from Man’s offices at the time. A press release issued that day by ED&F Man (Victuals) lists Fogg as a director.
In 1984, Fogg left ED&F Man for International Distillers and Vintners (IDV), where he served as the marketing manager for Pusser’s, then the brand’s UK importer. A few years later, he became a director of Pusser’s (UK) Limited. His association with Pusser’s continued for more than three decades, including a role as Pusser’s brand historian. Much of my visit with Michael was filled with him recounting many escapades in the service of promoting Pusser’s rum, mostly to ex-sailors.
Say what you will about the Pusser’s brand and its rum, but it’s hard to argue that any entity did more to promote the heritage of British navy rum in the decades following Black Tot Day. Michael Fogg was at ground zero for that effort and was a veritable storehouse of navy rum information.
But Michael’s contributions to rum history into a new era do not end with Pusser’s and navy rum.
The noon hour came and went. Michael suggested that perhaps we should eat, an invitation I wasted no time accepting. Lunch ordered, he reached into the suitcase he brought, pulling out a hardcover folio, which he handed to me to examine.
In our efforts to uncover rum’s past, we often forget to document rum’s more recent history until it’s too late. Within the folio were hundreds of records from the 1940s. Approached methodically, they paint a picture of the rum world at the time in far higher fidelity than ever seen before.
I could barely contain my excitement as I flipped through the page after page, ignoring my food, then pausing occasionally to catch up. Revered companies from rum’s past—some still operating—leaped from the pages, alongside other intriguing items such as rum marks. I recognized many marks still in use today.
Moments like this are the undeniable high points of a researcher’s endeavors, making up for many countless hours of panning for gold with nothing to show for it. I asked if I might photograph some of them, to which he graciously agreed.
Michael also had a gift for me— a copper, half-gill (2.5 oz) navy rum measurement, stamped on its rim with “1956” and “EIIR (Elizabeth II Regina).” A sailor had given it to him during one of Michael’s many promotional events for Pusser’s.
Toward the end our hours together Michael said, “I have to tell you something. One reason I agreed to meet you is that Charles Tobias asked me to check you out, to see if you were legitimate. I’ll be telling Charles he absolutely should contact you.”
At last the time cane when we had no choice but to part ways, Michael needing to catch the last train home. Otherwise, we’d have continued our conversation well into the evening.
In the months after our meeting in London, and until very recently, Michael and I kept up our frequent correspondence. We shared personal stories of our day to day life, including how our local communities were coping with COVID-19. Of course, I naturally took advantage of the opportunity for further dives into his memories regarding navy rum. I sensed he was happy to have somebody care about what he did in his long career.
On May 6, 2020, I received an email from Michael that seemed a bit different from his usual tone. Pleasant enough, but something was missing. The next day, I received another email:
The email you received yesterday was actually written by me, Jayne, on Michael’s instructions.
Michael was going to let you know the following piece of news next week, but unfortunately…
Michael’s health had taken a very dramatic turn for the worse, and he had very little time left. I quickly replied to Jayne and included a note for Michael, hoping it would reach him in time.
This morning, Jayne emailed me again, informing me that my note reached Michael just before he passed away.
Michael spoke fondly of naval rum traditions and took great delight in describing them to me in exacting detail. We signed off all our correspondence with “Up Spirits” the call piped throughout navy ships to call sailors to their rum ration. My last note to Michael ended with that salutation:
Thank you again from the bottom of my heart for putting your trust in me and allowing me to tell part of your story. Somewhere over the horizon of time and space, we will share a rum tot together.
Until then – Up Spirits!
Matt Pietrek – May 7, 2020