What follows is part two of my interview with Charles Tobias, the U.S. marine aviator, technology CEO, and globe-crossing sailor who created the Pusser’s Rum brand in 1979, based on the British Royal Navy’s rum recipe.
Part One of the interview delves into Charles’ background and his approach to the British navy to get the approval for his venture. I suggest reading that first for essential context in what follows.
Matt Pietrek: How did ED&F Man, the exclusive rum broker for the Royal Navy, come into the Pusser’s narrative?
Charles Tobias: When I first spoke to the navy, I asked a lot of questions about the blend. They said, “Well, ED&F Man purchased the rum for us.” Alan Clatworthy was the ED&F Man Chairman at that time. When I met Alan, I went in there as a total novice and just said “I understand you did this and that. Could someone help me try to uncover the records of what you did?”
We really didn’t get much information from ED&F Man. They were not doing the blending. They were just buying it. I don’t think the navy bought the rum in the same ratios all the time the blend was specified. They didn’t buy in that ratio.
It was Alan who introduced me to Michael Fogg. Michael was, I believe, a sugar trader at that time. He did do something with the rum, I think on purchases. He was a purchasing agent.
Michael and I became friends and he just loved the rum tradition. He’d been in the Royal Navy as an enlisted man. He was a hell of a guy.
Matt Pietrek: Did you subsequently order the rum for Pusser’s through ED&F Man?
Charles Tobias: No. We didn’t ever order through them. Michael did come up with the same origins of the rum, but he did not have the formula.
Matt Pietrek: Thinking back to my meeting with Michael, I think he told me he was in the whiskey department at the time, and that the rum department had closed a few years earlier. However, he was able to find the most recent purchasing records for rum.
Charles Tobias: That’s right. He was in the whiskey department. He may have known where the rum came from, but he did not know the blend.
The blend came from Michael Warner in the letter that he wrote.
Man was never buying for the navy according to the blend. They were buying according to what they needed for their overall inventory.
If Man bought so many barrels of this and that and that, that doesn’t tell you what the blend is.
Matt Pietrek: I’ve some of the purchase records that Michael saved from being discarded. They show in 1944, if I recall correctly, purchases of specific marks for the Admiralty.
Charles Tobias: You get the marks, but you don’t get ratios – the blend.
That’s why I went to the Second Sea Lord then, Gordon Tait. I said, “Admiral, I need to know exactly what the percentages were of each of those at proof, or whatever it was.” And that would have to come from one of the victualling yards. That’s when Dr. Michael Warner got involved. He was instructed by the Second Sea Lord. Michael Warner was in charge of the Naval Law and Conditions Division. He was the chief of that.
Matt Pietrek: I remember seeing a press release of, from ED&F Man in 1980. It was for the British launch of Pusser’s. I got the impression that ED&F Man was somehow more involved.
Charles Tobias: They came in for a very small amount of money. They wanted to have it as part of their history. That’s what happened.
When we kicked it off in Tortola, the British sent a warship out. And a guy named George Lacey, a director at ED&F Man came over from the UK for the kickoff. Then later on they [ED&F Man] got out of it all.
Matt Pietrek: So, ED&F Man made a small investment in Pusser’s. By that point was Michael already working for Pusser’s, or was he still at ED&F Man?
Charles Tobias: He came over to Pusser’s. Not at that time, but fairly close to that time.
Matt Pietrek: I had the impression that he was with IDV [International Distillers & Vintners] up until 1984.
Charles Tobias: That’s true. From ED&F Man he came to Pusser’s and then they wanted him to represent the brand in UK. So, he then went over to work for IDV. He spent a short time with us and then came back several years later for the remaining decades.
Matt Pietrek: When you bought your first batch of rum for Pusser’s, did you source them directly from each individual distillery?
Charles Tobias: Every order we placed was direct. I flew around to all the distilleries and got to know the people and got involved in the chemistry a little bit. I was using gas chromatography to analyze things.
Matt Pietrek: What was it like, making those early batches of Pusser’s?
Charles Tobias: I have photographs of all those early times. The first rum coming into Tortola, we’d bring it in and drop it off in nets from a cargo ship. Not even in a container. It was just loose cargo in the hold. We took it back to the bottling plant I set up. It had four 5,000-gallon blending tanks.
We put in a reverse osmosis water system. We learned a lot believe me. Really buggered it up because the first shipment — I finally got somebody in the US to take the brand — was Schenley. Schenley gave us an order for a 40-foot container; a big, big deal for us. I also got one other order for a 20-footer from Albert Paiewonsky out of St. Thomas. That was also a big deal.
And I started a little bar with five seats that became the first Pusser’s bar. It’s still there that bar.
Anyhow, we took that rum, blended it, and shipped it up to the States. It was in the winter and went into a cold warehouse. What happened was flocculation. Awful!
I had to take everything back down to Tortola. Because it looked like spit in the bottom of the bottles, no chillers, no filtration, and all that. I learned fast. I had to buy all that equipment, put that in, empty every bottle, put it back through the whole system and then ship it back up.
[Note: Today, Pusser’s rum is distilled, aged, blended and bottled at Demerara Distillers Ltd. In Guyana.]
Matt Pietrek: Besides the flocculation, are there any other memorable stories from earliest batches of Pusser’s?
Charles Tobias: There was a fire that burned down the bloody plant. Because we were still bottling for Jim Beam after they bought the brand; we continued to do the bottling in the BVI. Some kid had a welding torch in the back for welding things. We had all the rum stored back there, stacked higher than hell. The sparks flew everywhere, and he set the place on fire. He was Dominican and fled the Island the same day.
It burned for two days and two nights. That was the end of our rum bottling business there. That’s what happened.
Matt Pietrek: I heard the recent Mount Gay fire was from a similar cause.
Charles Tobias: Oh, I didn’t know that.
I knew Darnley Ward. He was a hell of a wonderful man. I loved the guy. He helped me so much. I went there and he taught me about flocculation, what to do. He let me go wild in his plant. Left me in there, everything was open to me. I always try to be kind to workers, and two or three of them wanted to come to work with me, but I would never do it. Wouldn’t even consider it, because he’d been so good to me, he was a giant of a man.
There were three people that helped me greatly with Pusser’s. One in marketing was Mike Fogg and the other in the process of ideas was Tom Jago. And then in the actual production of rum was Darnley Ward.
[Tom Jago created and launched brands like Baileys Irish Cream, Malibu Rum, Bombay Sapphire, and the Johnnie Walker Blue brands.]
Matt Pietrek: What audience were you promoting Pusser’s to in the early days?
Charles Tobias: Sailors and boaters, always. I started a little bar in Road Town [Tortola] full of nautical paraphernalia that catered to sailors and boaters.
Then there was a lady over on Jost Van Dyke, Daphne Henderson, that had a drink called the Painkiller. It was made with Pusser’s Rum. She would never give me the secret formula. There was no dock at her bar, the Soggy Dollar Bar. You had to swim in and swim out.
I used to have a speedboat name Painkiller. One Sunday I went over there, visited her bar, and then took one of her painkillers over to my boat, swimming on my back the whole way. I went straight home, went to my galley, and started to mix up the ingredients. I figured it’s got pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut, and Pusser’s rum.
So, I came up with that 4-1-1 ratio – 4 parts pineapple, 1 part orange juice, 1 part cream of coconut. She never gave the recipe to me. I told her “I’m going to trademark this thing.” She says, “Well, it’s okay with me. Just give me the credit”. I trademarked it and then started to promote the drink. But I always gave her credit for it.
I didn’t want her to get mad at me. I said, “Well, will you be mad at me if I…?” and she said “No, no, just give me credit.” I always gave Daphne credit for inventing that drink. But I really promoted the hell out of it. Last year it was number 22 in Drinks International’s list of the World’s 100 Most Famous Cocktails.
Matt Pietrek: So, the Painkiller and the boating crowd were a big part of the early days it sounds like.
Charles Tobias: I went into Annapolis with a Pusser’s Landing (bar, restaurant & Pusser’s Co. store) because it had all the boaters and boat shows and all the traditional stuff was there. I was able to get people there to back the brand.
We did this whole thing on less than a million bucks.
For promotion, I did another thing too. I hired ex US Navy guys, chief bosun’s mates and stuff like that. The Marine Corps sergeants, Gunnies We had about fifteen of them. Every promotion they did on a weekend, I gave them fifty bucks plus all the stuff to do it. I had a lot of promotion going in the yacht clubs and things like that.
Then I went into boat shows. We’d give people tickets for Painkillers and Rum and Coke. I’d go to the guy running the bar that had the concession and make a deal with him. In the boat shows we had a whole booth showing the history of Pusser’s rum. No other liquor brands could get booths, but because we had all the nautical history in our booth, we were allowed in. I’d get people really interested, the boaters and sailors, then give them a ticket to go have some at the concession stand. That’s how we did it.
You know what? Everybody wanted to help. The Second Sea Lord, then the navy did a lot of things. When we kicked it off in the States, the British aircraft carrier Hermes came in. They had 1,000-person party for us. Isn’t that something?
Matt Pietrek: You sold Pusser’s to Jim Beam for a while, and then brought it back. Tell me the history of that.
Charles Tobias: Well, what happened… It was the tied house rule. [In a nutshell, U.S. regulations preventing alcoholic beverage companies from simultaneously owning bars, thus stifling competition in theory.]
We still had the bars in the US and I also had Pusser’s rum. So, I had to make a choice. I was going to keep the bars up in the US; that was the business plan. I couldn’t do that and own the rum.
I knew Jim Beam really well because they were our importers at one time. We had to sell one or the other, and I saw a far better opportunity in the merchandise, food, and beverage business than I did in the spirits business. I think that’s still true. If you have a single brand today, it’s pretty tough to make it. Spreading the administrative expenses over a lot of spirit brands makes a lot more sense. I don’t regret selling the rum, but I wish the law had been different. So, we sold it to Beam. [The sale to Beam was in November 1990.]
Somebody at Beam that had no experience was put in charge of the brand. Small brands need to be coddled and nurtured and cared for like nothing else, or they die. So, this person took the whole P&A budget — $300,000, increasing the next year to $600,000 – and put the whole damn thing in three magazines. Two ads ran in Time, Playboy, and Business Week. That was it. It’s gone. We didn’t even have distribution across the whole US at that time. The person was fired, and Beam lost interest in Pusser’s. It went down to 1,400 cases worldwide.
So, Jim Jackson and I bought it back. [In May 2002] At the end of two years, we had it back up to about 20,000 9-liter cases.
Matt Pietrek: When you bought it back, was with Jim Jackson and Gary Rogalski? [Gary is the current CEO of Pusser’s Rum.]
Charles Tobias: Jim and I bought it back. No, Gary wasn’t in on that purchase. Gary came in later.
Matt Pietrek: So, now, since you don’t own the rum business, is your involvement with Pusser’s just the restaurants and stores on Tortola?
Charles Tobias: Well, we own the brand for everything around the world except the rum. For instance, the Pusser’s rum cakes are us.
Note: A separate 2014 interview with Charles is available on YouTube.
Here’s another recent video from Pusser’s to celebrate the 50th anniversary:
I’d like to express my enormous thanks to both Charles Tobias and Pusser’s rum for all of their help during my quest to uncover the deeper story of British Navy rum and the Pusser’s brand the succeeded it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content. Charles Tobias was provided with a copy prior to publishing, and he provided numerous small corrections, as well as requesting that I omit certain business-sensitive parts of our discussion. I have honored these requests.