Setting the Record Straight on British Navy Rum

History presents a special challenge to those writing it or
seeking knowledge from its pages: It constantly changes underneath your feet.
Facts we once believed to be true may be contradicted later by later-arriving sources.
Reasonable assumptions made about one era may not apply to another. New sources
come to light which recast conclusions made by prior sources.

I’ve seen this firsthand when it comes to British Navy rum,
a topic I’ve dug deeply into over the past year. Its stories are popular with rum
enthusiasts and even make it into the mainstream press on occasion. Unfortunately,
these stories mutate over time and become factually incorrect, much like the children’s
game of “telephone.” And once a less-than-accurate narrative is released into the
wild, it’s particularly difficult to stamp it out.

In my research at the British National Archives and The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I worked with original source material. I soon realized there are many misconceptions about British Navy rum history circulating. I address some of the most pernicious below.

The daily issuance of rum to British sailors did not start
in 1655.

Navy ships of the era were typically stocked with fresh
water, beer or wine in wooden casks. After weeks at sea, they went bad. Distilled
spirits, with their higher ABV, lasted much longer.

A fantastic document on British rum history, written by the navy itself in 1965 spells out a much more nuanced story of now the daily navy rum tot came about. An entry for 1655 says:

“…squadrons based in the West Indies after the capture of Jamaica — although not officially authorized by the victualing board in London — Introduced a daily issue of rum to seamen in place of beer.”

Yes, some British sailors presumably drank rum in 1655. However, it was issued only when beer was not available. Presumably, navy ships consumed their beer first while it was still relatively fresh. Equally important, the issuance of rum was effectively limited to ships in the Caribbean that could acquire rum.

In short, British sailors around the globe were not receiving rum every day, come rain or shine from 1655 onward.

This point is further driven home by the next paragraph of the document, addressing changes in 1731:

The value of rum and wine as long-keeping commodities
available for issue to seamen on foreign stations (where it as impossible to
keep beer fresh and difficult to conserve fresh water) was gradually recognized
by the Navy Board, and it became an official issue to seamen, when beer was not
available, in 1731.
The daily ration per man was laid down one pint of
wine or half a pint of rum, which was to be issued neat in two equal amounts
daily.

Again, rum was an option in “foreign stations”, and “when beer was not available.”  Wine and beer were also a valid ration, so there was no guaranteed daily rum issuance to British sailors worldwide.

When did a daily spirit ration become fleet-wide?
That’s harder to pin down. Evidence points to the mid-1700s. However, as late
as 1832, the navy was still brewing beer to send aboard ships.

If you take away the “daily” part of the story, and simply say “Rum was issued
as early as 1655”, you’d have a more accurate statement. It may seem pedantic,
but when it comes to history, these “little details” matter.

While the admiralty eventually settled on rum as a fleet-wide provision, it was not always rum. A 1790 admiralty manual states:

…in ships employed on foreign voyages, it is to be observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer;

In that era, brandy (presumably French) was much closer at hand to the British navy. France was just across the English Channel, whereas the Caribbean (where rum was made) was thousands of nautical miles away. Transporting casks is expensive, especially over long distances.

A 1687 letter to the Navy highlights that brandy was the
norm at the time:

… A petition to this Board, touching a proposition made
to him by Mr. Waterhouse of supplying the King’s Shipps in the West Indies with
Rumm instead of Brandy, as cheaper to his Majesty…

The presence of brandy on British navy ships appears to have
been commonplace up till the early 1800s. The Napoleonic wars between Britain
and France presumably had something to do with this.

In 1804, the Admiralty victualling board requested bids to supply spirits to the navy, and specifically mentions foreign brandy as an option:

they will be ready to receive Tenders in writing, sealed up, and treat for ONE HUNDRED GALLONS of WEST INDIA RUM or of FOREIGN BRANDY

Fun fact: In 1805, the British navy purchased 625,000 gallons of brandy, and only 250,000 gallons of rum:

Rum didn’t take its place as the quasi-official British Navy
spirit until 1806 or thereabouts.

Navy Strength rum is not 57 percent ABV. The aforementioned British navy document from 1965 makes this quite clear:

 The Issuing
Strength of Rum was laid down at 4.5 under proof (unchanged today).

A spirit “at proof” is 57 percent ABV in today’s terms. So,
what is “4.5 under proof”? It means an alcoholic strength that’s 4.5 percent
less than a full proof spirit.

A full proof spirit at 57 percent ABV, reduced by 4.5
percent is 54.5 percent ABV.

Yes, this is confusing at first.  The over/under proof percentage (referred to as “degrees” in some documents) are relative to “proof”, not 100 percent ABV, as you might assume.

To reiterate:

  • Navy Strength: 54.5 percent ABV
  • Proof Strength: 57 percent ABV

These days, you’ll find plenty of spirits sold at 57 percent ABV and labeled as “navy strength.” History says otherwise. On the other hand, the original release of Pusser’s Rum in 1980 was 54.5 percent ABV, and got its history right.

You might naturally ask what navy strength was before 1866. It
seems the navy itself wasn’t entirely sure itself, when it wrote in the 1965
document:

“Proof” spirit is 57% spirit and/43% water by volume. In
the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is assumed that Service rum was
issued at about this strength until 1866 when the issue strength was fixed at
95.5 Proof (or 4.5 under-Proof).

Restated, rum may have been issued at around 57 percent ABV prior to 1866. However, if there was a standard issuing strength prior to 1866, it’s possible it only started when the navy started blending rums themselves in the early 1800s. Prior to this, independent vendors supplied single-island casks of rum to ships.

While on the topic of navy strength rum, there’s an oft-told tale about testing the alcoholic strength of navy rum via the “gunpowder test” prior to the invention of the hydrometer in 1816.

There are several things wrong with this narrative. First, the Sikes hydrometer was actually invented around 1803. More importantly, there were hydrometers well before then. Clarke’s hydrometer was in use from the 1740s and wasn’t replaced as the official hydrometer of the British government by the Sikes hydrometer until 1816.

It’s also clear that the British military was using
hydrometers well before 1816. Just one example is a 1776 letter to Sir Guy
Carleton (Governor General of British North America) which states:

You have likewise herewith (No. 3) a Description of the
Hydrometer for trying the Strength of Rum, lest any accident to Mr. Drummond
should leave you in want of such Explanation.

To date, there is little evidence that the daily rum ration ceremony
included testing the rum for alcoholic strength, either via the gunpowder test
or hydrometer. Of course, it’s entirely plausible that spot checks were
performed.

There was no official navy rum recipe.

While there was almost certainly a flavor profile the navy
victualling yards targeted, it changed over many decades. From the inception of
rum blending in the victualling yards (believed to the early 1800s), the islands
and colonies supplying rum to the navy varied wildly.

Over the centuries, economic conditions and world events caused particular sources of rum to drop into or out of the navy blend. For example, during WW II, the navy was briefly forced to purchase rum from — gasp! – Martinique and Cuba. They were certainly not the preferred colonial sources!

Likewise, Caroni rum from Trinidad, part of the navy’s blend
in the mid-1900s, did not exist before the 1920s.

The point is, attempting to record or follow an “official recipe” is effectively fruitless. The rums that were available and purchased by the navy were constantly changing. At best, we can say the navy blended to a particular flavor profile.

What we can say with some degree of certainty is that by 1970
(when the navy stopped issuing rum), the navy blend was approximately 60
percent Demerara rum including Port Mourant, around 30 percent Trinidad rum,
and ten percent rums from elsewhere.

Still, there’s much more to a recipe than just buying the right percentage of rums from different sources. The specific marks of rum, and how they were aged matter a great deal. Some of those rums may no longer be made. For instance, the Caroni distillery is no longer operational.

True navy rum was relatively young rum. 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. One example is this excerpt from an 1876 newspaper story:

Simply put, navy rum wasn’t sitting in casks along the Thames for a decade or more. Nor in the Caribbean. Rather, real Navy rum was primarily aged in vats in the U.K. It was certainly not “Tropically aged.” Nor can we really say it was Continentally aged, which implies aging in casks.

In summary, making a navy rum today that’s truthful to the original component rums and aging technique is far more challenging than it may seem at first glance. It’s much more than just “A blend of rums from British colonial sources.”


The information I’ve set out above is just a brief synopsis
of certain sources I’ve collected during my research. In collaboration with
Plantation Rum, I’m wrapping up a book that covers these topics in
substantially more detail, as well as many other topics. We plan for it to be available
by mid-2020.

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