May 272019
 

When you really get down to it, Pusser’s claim to fame rests on two main planks. The first is that it is they are the true inheritors of the actual British Navy rum recipe after Black Tot Day in 1970.  The second is that they follow it.

Unfortunately, neither is completely true, depending on how you look at the background.

With respect to the first point, any research done on Navy rums shows that Lyman Hart, Lamb’s and ED&F Man, among others, sold rums to the Royal Navy back in the 1800s (Man became the major supplier in the 1900s, though I don’t think they were the sole source even then), and it is highly unlikely they were consistent in what they provided.  Moreover, the rum (from whatever source) was always a blend, and the components did not stay rock solid stable for centuries. In fact, according to the booklet about the Black Tot accompanying the bottle and written by Dave Broom, the Navy rum of the 1940s had been a complex blend – kind of solera – and over the centuries the Jamaican component had continually been reduced because of its funky taste which sailors did not like.  Moreover there’s that modern tested-for adulteration of Pusser’s — 29 g/L additives by some estimates — which surely was not part of the original recipe no matter who made it.

Secondly, the very fact that the recipe was tweaked more than once — as recently as 2008 it was supposedly a blend of five West Indian rums — shows up the fallacy of completely buying into the idea this is a true heritage rum: it’s hardly an inheritor of a tradition that once included Guyanese, Jamaican, Trini and maybe even Bajan rums, which progressively got reduced down to Guyana and Trini components, and now is Guyana only. Even by 2018, one could taste that the blend was favouring Guyanese distillate and that might taste good, but wasn’t exactly the Royal Navy recipe now, was it?  

So, strictly speaking, neither statement holds water.  The Gunpowder Proof Black Label is probably closer to the way navy rums used to be made, but yet somehow, in spite of all that, it’s the 15 YO which people remember, which they refer to as one of the touchstones of their early drinking experiences.  The thing is utterly unkillable and regularly turns up on the various Facebook fora with delighted chirps and snazzy photographs and the pride of some person who has either bought one for the first time, or tried it for the first time. It is also one of the most reviewed of the entire Pusser’s line, with just about every writer sooner or later passing by to talk about it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some examples, almost universally positive)

And why shouldn’t they?  It’s a fifteen year old rum issued at a relatively affordable price, and is widely available, has been around for decades and has decent flavour chops for those who don’t have the interest or the coin for the limited edition independents.

So what was it like?  The tasting notes below reflect the blend as it was in April 2018, and this is different to both the initial rum I tried back in 2011 and again in 2019 when the “new and improved” Guyana-only blend crossed my path.

The nose, for example, certainly has lots of stationery: ruber, pencil erasers, pencil shavings.  Also sawdust, citrus, lumber – reminds me a lot of the Port Mourant or Versailles distillate, if a little dumbed down. After some time, molasses crept timidly out the back end with caramel, toffee, ginger and vanilla hiding in its skirts, but their overall reticence was something of a surprise given my tasting memories — I seem to recall them as much more forward.  Blame it on increasing age, I guess – mine, not the rum’s.

By the time it got around to tasting, the Guyanese component of the blend was much more evident, definitely favouring the wooden pot stills’ aggressive taste profiles. Glue, rubber, nail polish, varnish were the tastes most clearly discernible at the inception, followed by bitter chocolate and damp sawdust from freshly sawn lumber.  It’s beneath that that it shines even at the paltry strength – creme brulee, warm caramel dribbled over vanilla ice cream, coffee and molasses, with just a hint of dark fruits (raisins, plums) and indistinct floral notes tidying things up. The finish, as is normal for standard proof spirits, is fairly short but nicely rounded, summarizing the aforementioned tastes and smells – caramel, vanilla, flowers, ginger, anise, raisins, dark fruits and pineapple for the most part.  The added whatever-it-is makes it sweet and nicely rounded and a decent sip – non-rum-junkies would likely find favour with that, while deep-diving rum chums would equally sniff and say it’s over-sweetened and dampened down, with the good notes being obscured.

Well, each to his own, I guess.  My notes here aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. At the end of it all, it is a tasty all-round rum for most, which survives in people’s tasting memories in spite of its adulteration, and constantly gains new (young) acolytes because of it. My own opinion is that while Pusser’s sells well, its glory days are behind it.  It has not maintained the core blend, being forced by market pressures to simplify the components rather than keep them in play. They have extended their line over the years to add to the stable with the gunpowder proof, various strengths and other iterations, spiced versions and this to some extent dilutes the brand, good as they may all be.

So why do I call this a key rum?  Because it is a good rum which should be remembered and appreciated; because it hewed and hews as close to the line of the old navy rums as we’re ever likely to get; because it’s 15 years old and still affordable; and because for all its blended nature and therefore indeterminate origins, it’s just a well-made, well-aged product with a whiff of true historical pedigree and naval heritage behind it. Even now, so many rums down the road,  I remember why I liked it in the first place.

And aside from all that, even if you don’t buy into my premise, and dislike the brand dilution (or expansion), and even with all the competition, Pussers still has a lustre and brand awareness that can’t be shrugged off.  Almost all bloggers sooner or later pass by and check it out, some more than once. It is a milestone marker on anyone’s journey down the myriad highways of rum. It remains relevant because no matter how many pretenders to the throne there are, this one company supposedly does actually have the (or an) original recipe for the navy rum, and if they chose to change it over time, well, okay.  But the 15 year old remains one of the core rums of the lineup, one of the best they made and make, and nobody who tries it as part of their education, is ever likely to completely put it out of their minds, no matter how far past it they end up walking to other milestones down the road.

(#627)(83/100)

Mar 262013
 

A solidly impressive aged product from Pusser’s. You might compare it to a barbarian using a fork, or male ballet dancer – you’ll snicker, but appreciate the strength and the quality all the same.

First posted 16 August 2011 on Liquorature

(#082)(Unscored)

West Indians probably snigger into their shot glasses in every beer garden, corner store or rumshop whenever the name of this Navy-style rum comes up.  In fact, I’m pretty sure of it, and if you don’t get that, find a guy fresh off the boat or the plane and get him to explain it to you.  Like many Caribbean bon mots, it’s about as subtle as a charging rhino.  Yet, there’s no denying either the pedigree or the impact of the rum itself. It’s a powerful strong concoction not overly mucked about with. Rums like this have names like Maxwell, Clarence…or Brutus.

That ambivalent phrasing pretty much sums up my attitude towards Pussers, towards which I have an on-again, off-again relationship (much like I do with Clemente’s).  At one moment I appreciate its marketing, its unapologetically and brutally minimalist presentation and its take-no-prisoners if-you-can’t-hack-it-you’re-a-wuss flavor.  At others I simply blow it away as something not subtle enough, not refined enough.  I’m inconsistent that way sometimes. My friend Keenan, who hails from the Maritimes, quite liked it, by the way, and so do a few others I know.

Pusser is a corruption of the word Purser, a name given to that worthy gent on each ship in the Royal Navy whose job it was to hand out the rum ration in the days before Black Friday in July 1970, when rum was officially banished from aboard all vessels of war. The company that makes it, Pusser’s, bought the recipe and stills from the Royal Navy and launched themselves into business, and may reasonably be said to make the rum closest to what navy rums really were back in the old days. Characteristics include overproofing, not very sweet, dark and heavy body and minimal – if any – additives.  In that way, it’s very much like the Cadenhead Green Label or Demerara rums I’ve tried.  Lamb’s Old Navy, Sailor Jerry, London Dock and Wood’s all have claims (some say pretensions) to the title of Navy Rums, but my feeling is that Pusser’s got it.

The rum is aged for 15 years in ex-bourbon barrels, and various sources have suggested that the blend that is aged comprises four rums: portions of Jamaican, Bajan, a bit of Trini, and a hefty dose of a Guyanese rum, which immediately implies (to me), DDL – because they are the only ones left making rum from wooden stills which is a Pusser rum claim to fame as well. Some have said five rums, but I’ve been unable to confirm this: Pusser’s doesn’t give out too much in the way of details.

All this history is fine, you say, but do you mind? Get to the rum itself, willya.

Well, there’s the bottle above.  Squat, unadorned, in your face (a bit like the much more refined English Harbour 10 year old).  The label is somewhat at odds with its proletarian cachet, what with all those bright red and blue colours, and again you think of that dancer (just sayin’…).

The liquid within was dark, as befits a Navy rum, and poured out like a young El Dorado on steroids. The thing had medium legs, and a pungent nose that almost invited further exploration.  You’d think that something so aimed at the drinking classes would have a straightforward bouquet that didn’t frig around and advertised its forthcoming palate simply and directly, with a minimum of fuss and bother.  But that wasn’t so at all.  I took a sniff, wasn’t too impressed, and was about to make snotty notes and grumbling remarks, when the flavours started coming through the air and I realized that this fifteen year old Jolly Jack Tar had quite a lot under its leotards. A full, rich and earthy scent – quite spicy, let me note right off – redolent of cocoa and a hint of vanilla, and dark brown sugar marinated just enough in oak to get that slight bite.  Maybe some cinnanmon played around in the background there, but whatever it was, it made for a more complex nose than I had started off with.

The arrival on the palate is neither smooth nor harsh: powerful, though, quite impressive for a 40% rum.  You get the sense of strength barely held in check from being rotgut moonshine by the blender’s art. I was tasting dark caramel and chocolate, cinnamon (there it was) and baked apples.  Some citrus and maybe sherry. And, alas, the woodiness and spiciness of ageing not entirely mitigated by skilful blending.  This was not enough for me to seriously mark it down, but it was noticeable, and if your preferences are for more flavourings rather than minimalism, more sweet rather than less, then this may not be the rum for you.  I’m no expert on the obscure Scottish drink (okay Maltmonster you can stop your laughing there, fella), but I thought that here was a rum that actually had more characteristics of an aged whisky or a cognac, though it probably is too sweet for the purists and cognoscenti.

The finish was perhaps the least impressive thing about it – however, given how high a position it started from that’s not to be read as an indictment of what is really quite a unique drink – it was medium long and a little too harsh for me, especially after what I had considered a very good beginning, but of greater than usual richness and warmth. The viscosity of the rum was enough to make the finish last – I just didn’t care too much for what it was that lasted.  But at end, this is a matter of the spiciness rather than any intrinsic quality, and by most standards, I’d say Pusser’s 15 year old rum is a solidly top-of-the-middle-shelf product, to be had either neat or in a cocktail, and enjoyed either way. It’s rich, it’s complex, and only my personal preferences make it slightly less than a winner.  Most reviews I’ve read drool over the product.

Over the years I must concede to being somewhat won over by rums stronger than the standard and near-ubiquitous 40% (this is not one of them, being bottled at the standard forty).  The flavours are stronger, more powerful: even a small shot attacks your palate like a tiny hammer of Thor, and as cocktail mixers they are beyond compare for the same reasons.  Pusser’s great virtue is its complexity of flavour and strength of taste you get for a standard strength rum – you’ll go far to find something quite like this, overproof or not, and again, I can only mention the Cadenheads or the Renegades as comparators. Any time I feel like being smacked around by a spicy, muscled beefcake of a rum which proudly struts its stuff, Pusser’s isn’t far from my mind.

So if pressed – yes, I like it.  Yeah, wrap it up for me – I’ll take it.  And I think I’ll call mine Brutus.

 

Mar 232013
 

Photo (c) up-spirits.com

First posted 25 February 2010 on Liquorature.

(#012)(Unscored)

***

There’s surprisingly little hard information about Pusser’s “Nelson’s Blood” Navy Rum aside from the bare bones history and some folklore about the rum itself. For example, the bottle I bought said nothing about the age, nor did any catalogue or webpage discuss it at length except to refer to its origins.  And when, as noted before, there is a scarcity of expert salespeople to discuss your selection with, well, I guess I had to take a flier and buy it based on rarity – I had never seen it before – and how much it cost.  This is one of those odd times when I bought a smaller bottle simply because I didn’t know enough to make a determination of quality. The 1L bottle went at $95 and I decided to go for the 200mL at one fifth the price.

Pusser’s – the company hails from the British Virgin Islands – stakes its claim to fame on the fact that they are the inheritors of the Royal Navy tradition (this tradition is an essay all by itself and would include snippets on wets, sips, gulps and tots, grog, the scuttle butt, how rum was served to sailors and why, and how the traditon changed and was then abandoned…fascinating stuff). According to them, they use the same methods and ingredients and distil to the same strength, as the Royal Navy did for some three centuries (until the practice was abandoned in 1970). Pusser’s bought the original recipes and wooden pot-stills from the Navy in 1979 and have an extremely limited range; they seek to distinguish themselves by sticking with the old Navy method of not adding anything to the final distillation (like caramel, sugar, or other flavouring agents). This enhances the intense flavours imparted by the wooden pot-stills, which are hundreds of years old…but has the downside of making the rum less sweet, which makes mixing it a must for some.

The rum I bought, the Blue Label “Nelson’s Blood” is a slightly overproof rum at 47.5% and as I said, I have absolutely no idea how old it is, though their slightly stronger (54%) and more expensive relative is fifteen years old, so I hazard a guess based on tasting and what little experience I have,  that this one may be around eight.  Now further research says that the rum I had is a blend of various aged rums, matured in used whiskey or bourbon barrels, but this would fly in the face of what Pusser’s themselves claim: all concede, however, that this about as close to standard Royal Navy rum – the way it used to be – as you are likely to get in this day and age.

Is it any good for the price?  Well, yes.  The nose is fairly pungent of the molasses used in its making (and all the sugar hints underneath that), but the practice of adding just about nothing to the mix makes it a stronger, more spirit-laden nose than one might expect. It’s smooth over ice – a bit too harsh neat, I think – with a shade of bite on the way down: though at 47% ABV that isn’t surprising. It lacks the richness of flavour and texture on the tongue of a better Mount Gay or Appleton 12, and this may come from the claimed lack of additives: but the thing is, there are flavours of vanilla and nutmeg to be found, and if the blenders  add nothing and use the same centuries-old pot stills the Navy used, then it must be coming from generations of stills themselves.  An interesting notion. The finish is medium long and of middling bite.  Nothing special there, unfortunately

In summary, it’s a good sipping rum for sure, but not really sweet enough for my taste – I have a feeling whiskey lovers are going to appreciate it more than I would.  I absolutely concede that for smoothness and intriguing, original taste (with or without an additive of one’s own), it deserves a place on anyone’s shelf, but if the price of a standard bottle is a bit steep, the 200ml peewee pictured above should do you just fine until you make up your own mind.

NB: “Pusser” is a bastardization of the word “Purser”, a position on ships akin to a quartermaster in the army. It was the Purser in the Royal Navy who was responsible for acquisition and distribution of the good stuff.