The 31st July 1970 was the day on which the Royal Navy issued the final ever daily rum ration, or daily tot. To commemorate the end of this naval tradition, observed for over three centuries, we’re offering Free Shipping* on all orders containing Pusser’s or Rumbullion! rums, or indeed the Black Tot Last Consignment, up until midnight (BST) Friday 31st July.
That includes Pusser’s ‘Gunpowder Proof’ Black Label, the new rebranded name (introduced in 2014) for their classic 54.5% British Navy rum. Previously known as Blue Label, that name is now reserved for a brand new 40% offering, the reason being that 40% abv is the maximum strength you can actually send to military bases these days, including naval bases and mess bars. Got all that? Excellent. Feel free to scoot off now and start filling your basket up with delicious rum as well as anything else you fancy free shipping on in the same order, but if you can contain that instinct for just a few moments longer then herein lies a brief history of the tot…
First issued around 1655 (following the invasion of Jamaica), the daily ration began as half a pint of neat rum! (Larger quantities of beer or even wine could also be issued instead back in those early days.) The important reason for the introduction of these rations was to improve the unpalatable drinking water available on board the navy’s ships, although naturally many sailors did partake without mixing from time to time… Fast forward almost ninety years and British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, known as ‘Old Grog’ after the grogram cloak he favoured, decided to serve the tot pre-diluted (one part rum to four parts water).
(Not to be confused with Old Gregg)
This became standard practice by 1756, along with adding lime to combat scurvy, and it’s from the Vice Admiral that we get the name ‘grog’, as this drink came to be known. Later it would of course be served from the famous grog tubs, complete with brass “The King/Queen (delete as applicable) God Bless Him/Her” lettering.
The amount of rum per sailor was later halved on two occasions, in 1823 and 1850, before the ration was finally deemed inappropriate in 1970 following a debate in the House of Commons and on the advice of The Admiralty Board. On 31st July at ‘6 bells in the forenoon watch’ (or 11am in regular parlance) the pipe of ‘Up Spirits’ was therefore heard for the last time, with many sailors wearing black armbands at the sad passing of the popular tradition. In one training camp a full mock funeral was even held, giving you some idea of how a great many sailors felt about the decision and the occasion.
Black arm bands on Black Tot Day in 1970.
In 1979 Charles Tobias then managed to buy both the rights and the blending information from the Admiralty. This allowed him to continue the production of official naval rum and release it to the general public for the first time in 1980. His rum was called Pusser’s (a sailor’s corruption of the name for a ship’s supply or logistics officer – the Purser – who would have distributed the tot) and is still made to the Admiralty’s specifications to this day with Pusser’s 15 Year Old having also been named the World’s Best Rum at the World Rum Awards 2015.
Some of the actual supplies the Royal Navy held in 1970 also survived however, stored in stone flagons and all but forgotten about until 2010. Rebottled and released for sale on the 40th anniversary of Black Tot Day, Black Tot Last Consignment is a piece of liquid naval history. Available for around £600 a bottle, it comes complete with a tot cup (similar to those the daily rum ration was served in), a ration card and even its own book written by rum (and most other things) expert Dave Broom.
Now seems as good a time as any to clear up a few things about “Navy Strength” rum too. Occasionally you’ll hear people say that high proof rum was originally carried by the navy so that if it spilled onto the gunpowder (that it could quite feasibly have been stored close by to) then the gunpowder would still ignite with enough energy to work in the cannons. That’s nonsense of course (as proved by the ever reliable Professor Cornelius Ampleforth in the video below), but if gunpowder did ignite after having been intentionally doused with rum then this ‘proved’ to the ship’s purser that the rum in question was of a certain strength. This test was still used up until 1816.
The invention of hydrometers allowed this ‘proof’ strength to be measured, and it was used to set the strength of 100° Proof on the new scale that was legally adopted in 1818. Hence “Navy Strength” as used on rums and gins today is 100° Proof = just over 57% abv. It’s not quite that simple however, as the navy repeated the tests themselves, diluting a number of rums down to proof using the gunpowder test and then measuring with a hydrometer before calculating the average… which they found to be 95.5° or 54.5% abv. It was this strength that the Royal Navy used, a tradition continued by Pusser’s ‘Admiralty Strength’ or indeed ‘Gunpowder Proof’ as the recently rebranded Black Label now refers to it as.
I’ll leave you with some words that feature on the label of the award-winning spiced rum Rumbullion! (the etymology of which, incidentally, is not just an archaic name for rum (which is a contraction of the older form), but also referred to a ‘rowdy, tumultuous good time’ – apt for the earlier 17th century days of the tot especially!):
“Splice the Mainbrace”, “Up Spirits” and enjoy!
For the legacy of the tot lives on through some of the greatest rums in the world. Rums you can currently get Free Shipping* on. Until next time Sandy Bottoms! (#drinkaware)
* Free UK Mainland shipping or £4.89 off of other services and locations.