For students of spirits history who pour over countless dry pages to glean precious tiny nuggets of information, coming face-to-face with living, breathing history that can be queried is as close to professional nirvana as one gets.
Such was the case when my phone rang one morning, displaying a mysterious 284 area code. Not immediately recognizing it, I let it go to voicemail. When I listen to it later, a sailor’s weathered voice sprang forth – “Hey Matt! This is Charles Tobias from Pusser’s.”
In the annals of rum, the Pusser’s story is well-trod ground: A decade after Great Britain’s Royal Navy issued its last tot, an American sailor named Charles Tobias convinces the British admiralty to give him the blending formula and permission to bottle and sell their rum commercially. Voluntarily, he paid a royalty on every case sold, the proceeds going to the Royal Navy Sailor’s Fund, a naval charity for serving active duty sailors. Pusser’s rum first launched in 1979.
It’s a nicely packaged story, and one I’ve recounted a few times myself to friends. However, with 1979 now forty-one years distant in history’s rear-view mirror, it never occurred to me that Tobias might still be alive.
My first realization that Tobias was still around came early in my email conversations with Michael Fogg, the ED&F Man employee who dug up the records of Man’s purchase records for the admiralty. Fogg later became a Pusser’s brand manager and de facto historian for decades.
While the Pusser’s story as told above is true, it’s but one fragment of a far more interesting story: The storybook life of Charles Tobias.
A Canadian by birth in 1934, Tobias emigrated to the U.S on an athletic scholarship and attended the University of Southern California, earning two degrees in Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering. After graduating he wished to remain in the US. The draft was in effect at the time, so he chose to enlist in the Marine Corps, and ended his career flying in Vietnam and Laos where he was shot down and escaped.
Returning to the U.S., Tobias founded a successful tech company in Santa Monica. Growing up as he did in a low-income situation, he passed through a period of ostentatiousness with a 37-room house, 4 Ferraris, 2 Rolls Royce’s, a 57-foot yacht and so forth. Tom Smothers was a good friend that used to chide him on all of his toys, constantly badgering him about getting rid of all “the junk”. And one day, on very short notice, he did – selling everything, and setting sail on his yacht.
Over the next five years he sailed the oceans. Occupying some of that time was filming The Way of the Wind, a movie documenting his voyage from California to Greece. His co-stars included Tommy and Fifi — a chimpanzee and a cheetah.
A failed piece of boat equipment near Gibraltar led to this life-altering encounter with the British Royal Navy. After visiting a navy ship, the captain gifted him an original flagon filled with the navy’s rum. Returning to his boat with a Flagon of rum, Tobias was inspired to attempt to create and sell a faithful replica of the British Navy’s rum. He was well aware of the tradition from WWII, during which some of his family had served in the Royal Canadian Navy, which enjoyed the same rum tradition as Great Britain’s Royal Navy.
As part of launching the Pusser’s in 1979, he created a lifestyle brand. One you could wear, eat, and drink. He first focused on the sailing and yachting segment of the market, quickly expanding beyond rum into bars and stores selling Pusser’s branded apparel and other items.
Over the following 41 years, Tobias has remained at the center of the Pusser’s brand, although his involvement with the rum side of the business (“Pusser’s Rum”) has waxed and waned several times.
In June of 2020, still full of vigor at 86 years of age, Charles agreed to a long form phone interview over two days. My primary goal was getting his first-person account of the early days of Pusser’s brand, including previously untold details of his interactions with the British admiralty and ED&F Man’s involvement.
Interview – Part One
Matt Pietrek: How did you first learn the story of British Navy rum and become interested in making your own version?
Charles Tobias: I’m a Canadian by birth and my family were all involved in the second world war. My father had been a prisoner of war and came back after the war. Another uncle who was an exec officer on a Corvette, stole a jug of the rum. He came to us with a flagon with the woven wicker casing.
We had one of those when the train came in from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was down there. We had jam jars because everything was rationed in those days. They didn’t make drinking glasses, so we used jam jars as glasses. We had a bunch of jam jars and some Coca Cola and a jug of the rum. My nickname in those days was Sunny, for bright boy, they used to kid me.
At that time, this was in 1945. I would have been about 10 or 11. [Tobias was born in 1934.]. My other uncle poured about two thirds of it in a small jam jar, and a little bit of Coke, which I drank. I was drunk my first time on the Royal Navy’s rum. The Royal Canadian Navy, actually. It was the same rum — they got it from the same source.
I never forgot that. Later I got into the electronics business very early on the cutting-edge electronic stuff. [Tobias was the CEO of Varadyne in the 1970s.]
I was in the Marine Corps, got out, started a company, built the company, sold it, went sailing. I was sailing for five and a half years. [It was during this time that Tobias filmed The Way of the Wind on his boat, MAR.]
I came through Gibraltar on my way across the Atlantic to Barbados. I needed a nipple for a pump, and all these warships have a huge supply of spare parts. [Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, with a substantial naval presence.]
I went onboard ship, met the captain, and returned alongside, my little boat bobbing way down underneath him. He gave me a flagon of the rum as a going-away gift to drink while Crossing the Atlantic – our next leg of the voyage. This is in 1977… 1976? I’d have to check my log for the exact day.
They still carried it [navy rum] on board, although they stopped the daily issue on July 31st, 1970. But they still carried some onboard for special occasions like a fleet review, a royal birth, a wedding, or something like that. They always had some on board so they could have it to “splice the mainbrace”. We drank the gallon of rum as we were sailing across the Atlantic — it was about a 15-day trip.
Then I decided — You know what? I’d never been into any commercial products or anything that was like that. Always high-tech stuff. My background was engineering and physics.
So, I went and got the British Royal Navy to let me use their rum blend, as well as permission to use the White Ensign on a bottle of spirits. Because of Title 27 [Title 27 CFR § 4.64 (f)], US corporate law prohibits the US flag or any country’s flag on a bottle of spirits because it might mislead the consumer to believe the product has been endorsed, made, or used by, or produced for the government with whom such flag is associated.
Matt Pietrek: Did anyone assist you with getting the navy’s permission?
General Arthur B. Hanson helped me with that. He was a Major General US Marine Corps. He was in a law firm Hanson, O’Brien, Birney & Butler. We took on the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms]; they said, if I got permission, we could do it. We went to England, met with the Second Sea Lord, and I got permission to do it.
It was never a matter of buying it [the rum recipe], or anything like that. I just went there and wanted to do this thing. I met with the Second Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Gordon Tait. He was the only Kiwi [New Zealander] that made the rank of full Admiral in the Royal Navy. His wife’s family owned Lion brewery, down in New Zealand.
I wanted to call it Royal Navy Pusser’s Rum, but they couldn’t legally do that. The general [Arthur Hanson] was there with me. He was upset with my persistence regarding the name – “No, no. Take British Navy.” So, we agreed to “British Navy”.
I believe it took some kind of special Act of Parliament to give me legal permission to use the White Ensign commercially. Because the Royal Navy is not authorized to give that permission. I don’t know what the ramification was, but I know there was some interaction between the navy and parliament on this.
Then I got a letter from Dr. Michael Warner affirming that I could use the White Ensign on the label and giving me very detailed blending information on what was in the navy’s rum and had been for so many years.
In his letter, he said, “I had been instructed to give to you the formulation for the rum issued by the Royal Navy each year, since…” It’s all in the letter.
Matt Pietrek: What was the admiralty’s initial response when you approached them?
Charles Tobias: When I went there, I took an audited financial statement from Price Waterhouse showing that I wasn’t just a huckster. That I had, while not significant, nonetheless a credible amount of money, and didn’t need the rum as a promotional vehicle.
Hanson went with me and told them of my service in the Marine Corps and some of the things I’d been involved in that he considered worthy. They said, “Well, we can’t let you call it Royal Navy, and we don’t know how to do this and that and that.”
Matt Pietrek: How did the Pusser’s Rum donation to the Sailor’s Fund come about?
I got the rights, and then I voluntarily said to them, “Look, I don’t want something for nothing. I’d love to make a general donation to the Royal Navy Sailors fund for every case that’ sold worldwide.” They accepted, and we still do it.
I told them I’d be up and running in one year, and thought I’d have a minimum of £10,000 for them. Well, we weren’t up and running by then, but I still presented a £10,000 check to Admiral Tait. There’s a picture of us in the Nelson’s Blood book.
[The image at the top of this story is Charles with Admiral Tait.]
At this point in the interview, Tobias and I spoke in general details where the rums were sourced from. He requested that I not publish them, beyond what appears below. However, they are very much in line with other sources, including the Hansard Parliamentary record.
Matt Pietrek: Is it fair to say there’s some Port Mourant and Caroni in the blend recipe the provided?
Charles Tobias: Certainly, Port Mourant is part of it.
Matt Pietrek: Other than the specific rums, did the navy provide any other instructions, such as how the blending was done?
Charles Tobias: They sent me over to the war museum and the National Maritime Museum. They were very helpful in getting me photographs of the Grog tubs and artifacts. I have on my wall at home, a copy of the original orders to captains in 1740 by Admiral Vernon, who was Old Grog. I have all his history and those handwritten notes, that his secretary made ordering what became grog, documenting that whole story. It’s a lovely story.
Matt Pietrek: In terms of the rum blending, you mentioned what the navy gave you was specific to the rums and ratios. Were their other details though? Like “Put them in open vats for two years. Filter them like this. Add this much caramel.” Or were there no other specific instructions?
Charles Tobias: No.
Matt Pietrek: Just the rums?
Charles Tobias: Just the rums. They gave me some details on the casks and things like that, they used old bourbon and port casks. Well, some were bourbon.
Matt Pietrek: At least from the 1840s on, it appears they emptied casks into the vats at Deptford. They had a 250,000-gallon vatting system and it would flow open air between the vats for around two years and then they would cask it or put in flagons as needed.
Charles Tobias: Those vats were covered. They were not open. Because all your proof would be lost.
Matt Pietrek: I wonder if the closed vats came later, because in the early references I’ve found, they talk about them being open. There’s a great old story about how a dog that fell into one of the vats, and when they finally emptied it, instead of a dog, they found many bottles with a string tied to the neck.
There’s this conventional wisdom that navy rum had to be strong enough that the gunpowder would ignite. However, I have a very long document from the navy written in 1966. It says in 1866, they reduced the issuing strength down to 4.5 degrees under proof, aka 95.5 degrees of proof [54/5% ABV].
If proof strength is what’s required for gunpowder to ignite, issuing rum at below proof seems to run counter to the idea that it needed to be strong enough for gunpowder to still ignite if mixed with the rum.
Charles Tobias: What happened was, as I understood, from Jimmy Pack who was a big historian on all this stuff, is that before they distributed the rum to the breaker, they would check the proof and add water to bring it down using the gunpowder thing. That’s how they apparently did it because they were at sea sometimes for years on end. They carried enough rum to last for at least a couple of years. It would be over proof because they knew that the alcohol went off and changed proof. That’s what I was told.
[Note: Appendix I of Pack’s book contains victualling instructions from 1888, and clearly discusses bringing rum down to issuing strength – 95.5 degrees of proof. However, it’s possible that earlier in history, the rum strength was adjusted in the field.]
This concludes the first portion of my interview of Charles Tobias. In Part Two, we’ll wrap up on Charles’ interaction with the British Royal Navy and ED&F Man before moving onto to the Pusser’s brand, including building an audience, the creation of the Painkiller recipe, and Charles’s stepping back from the rum side of the busines.