For fifty years, the rums that the British Royal Navy blended for its sailors has fascinated enthusiasts and historians. Most stories about navy rum endlessly recycle prior conjecture that’s both vague and not particularly accurate.
Ponder this conventional wisdom about the navy’s rums: Navy rum was a blend of rums from Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Each of those colonies had multiple distilleries. Each distillery made multiple marques of rum, from almost neutral to very heavy. A “recipe” that specifies only the rum’s countries of origin is useless. You might as well give this recipe for a fruit salad: “Fruits from England, Germany and Spain.”
Simply listing where the navy’s rums came from is wildly insufficient to describe what the navy mixed up for their sailors.
To truly understand the British navy’s rum blend requires knowing which distilleries the rums came from. Scratch that… What we really need is the specific rum marques the navy used. The marque is critical. It identifies a rum from a specific distillery with a specific flavor profile.
In today’s rum world, some companies put the marques they use on their labels. For instance, PM (Port Mourant, from DDL), or DOK (Hampden Estate). Sadly, the British Navy didn’t share that level of information with their sailors or historians.
To be fair, that’s not entirely true. The navy did reveal a recipe to Charles Tobias, who then created Pusser’s Rum according to it. I recently interviewed Charles about it.
But Charles isn’t telling what he knows, other than saying the Port Mourant marque from DDL was part of the blend. Beyond that, it’s a closely guarded company secret. Thus, more details about the specific rums the navy purchased remain shrouded in mystery.
A set of recently uncovered rum purchase contracts from the British firm of ED&F Man provide far deeper insights into the navy’s rum purchases — more than we’ve ever had till now. (ED&F Man was the navy’s rum broker for many years up till the rum ration ended in 1970.)
These contracts show a particular moment in time, and aren’t a comprehensive list of the navy’s rum purchases. However, they provide an incredible peephole into a previously opaque universe.
These records show the purchase of specific marques of Demerara and Jamaican rum in 1944. Yes, I have previously written that the navy didn’t buy Jamaican rum. Hold that thought for now.
The records presented below represent only a fraction of the navy’s purchases that year, so aren’t a complete view. History often hands us scant table scraps rather than a buffet, so we must account for this ambiguity in what we conclude from it.
Demerara (British Guiana) Rum
The document below shows ED&F Man as the intermediary between Rowett, Legge & Co, and the Admiralty:
SOLD for account of Messers. Rowett, Legge & Co. Ltd. To the Purchase Department, Admiralty.
The specific marques listed are:
- /M/E (‘M’ diamond ‘E’)
The Versailles, ICB/U and P.M. (Port Mourant) marques are well-known to Demerara rum fanatics. I wrote about the stills that make those particular marques in this story. The Port Mourant marque is particularly associated with British navy rum and is easily detectable in British Navy rum.
That leaves two other marques of some mystery:
- JH/COVE – One source indicates it was a continuous still rum, possibly made at the combination of the Cove and The John estates.
- J.W.D. – May be from vat stilled rum from the Blairmont estate, as suggested by a 1905 auction listing and other records.
It’s worth noting that the 65 puncheons of Port Mourant commanded a small 2 pence per gallon premium. In today’s market, that premium would assuredly be much higher.
As for the supplier, Rowett, Legge & Co., they were a British spirits trading firm who first appear around 1927. A 1957 report lists them as a subsidiary of Seagrams.
One interesting takeaway from these purchases is that it suggests the navy bought both pot and continuously distilled rums. Some writers have suggested the navy only used pot still rums.
Some historical context is crucial to framing the Jamaican rum purchase that follows.
During the 20th century, the British navy avoided purchasing Jamaican rum as standard practice. Jamaican rum was not part of the blend, as several records make clear. The navy said the typical Jamaican rum flavor profile was not to the liking of their sailors. However, during World War II, the navy wasn’t able to purchase enough rum from its primary colonial suppliers, e.g. British Guiana, Trinidad and Barbados.
Faced with the possible inability to supply daily rum rations to their sailors, the navy was forced to buy Jamaican rum, as well as rum from countries they ordinarily wouldn’t have.
The document below shows ED&F Man as the intermediary between Lemon Hart & Sons, and the Admiralty:
BOUGHT FOR THE ACCOUNT OF THE PURCHASE DEPARTMENT, ADMIRALTY OF MESSRS. LEMON HART & SONS LTD.
Three marques are listed:
- PGR/E – Believed to be a light rum from Jamaica Sugar Estates, Duckenfield
- R.H. – Believed to be a light rum from Rose Hall
- LC (?) – According the Luca Gargano, this marque is “Lewis Cornwall” of Cornwall Estate, which was reproduced by Frome in the 1940s. I’ve not independently verified this.
The important thing regarding these Jamaican marques is that they were light, common clean rums, rather than the heavier Plummer, Wedderburn, or Continental styles. It’s likely the navy didn’t want the heavier Jamaican flavor profile to alter the blend’s identity. Or, these Jamaican rums may just have been what was available.
What’s the Key Takeaway?
In total, the 50,000 gallons of rum from the two contracts represent around 1.5 percent of the 3 million or so gallons the British navy originally sought to purchase in 1944. Reiterating what I said earlier, they’re a peephole view. We don’t know what the navy’s other rum purchases were. Nonetheless, it’s an unprecedented level of detail.
What’s unsaid in historical documents is often as telling as what is said. Consider the age of the rums purchased. Or rather, the lack of age. Both the Demerara and Jamaican rums purchased specify the “1944 Crop”. That is, rum distilled that year. Not aged for a one, two or five years.
The navy didn’t pay premium prices for aged rum. They bought unaged rum (minus some small time in the barrel during shipment) and vatted it for several years in the vats of the victualling yards at Deptford and elsewhere.
The navy made their own custom blend for at least 160 years. We also know that the source rums changed dramatically over time, including rum from the East Indies in the mid-19th century. There really was no single “Navy Rum Recipe”. The preferred component rums constantly changed over time.
Furthermore, external factors like wartime shortages forced the navy to deviate from their preferences. When circumstances returned to normal, their purchase patterns likely returned to their preferred suppliers.
With that context in mind, the above records are just a snapshot during a time when the navy couldn’t buy exactly what they wanted.
When the war ended, did the navy continue to purchase all the marques listed above? In the case of Port Mourant, we can confidently say yes. In other cases, such as the Jamaican marques, I offer a qualified “probably not”.
Ultimately, we still have an incomplete picture. But it’s an enormous improvement over what we had previously. It also gives hope that with time, luck, and persistence, we may bring even more of British Navy rum’s history into focus.