Aug 092020
 

Black Tot day came and went at the end of July with all the usual articles and reviews and happy pictures of people drinking their Navy Rum wannabes. Although it’s become more popular of late (a practice I’m sure rum-selling emporia are happy to encourage), I tend not to pay too much attention to it, since several other countries’ navies discontinued the practice on other days and in other years, so to me it’s just another date. And anyway, seriously, do I really need an excuse to try another rum? Hardly.

However, with the recent release of yet another ‘Tot variant (the 50th Anniversary Rum from the Whisky Exchange) to add to the ever-growing stable of Navy Rums purporting to be the Real Thing (or said Real Thing’s legit inheritors) and all the excited discussions and “Look what I got!” posts usually attendant upon the date, let’s look at Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof which is an update of the older Blue Label rum, jacked up to a higher strength.

Sorry to repeat what most probably already know by now, but the antecedents of the rum must be noted: the name derives from the (probably apocryphal but really interesting) story of how the navy tested for proof alcohol by checking it against whether it supported the combustion of a sample of gunpowder: the weakest strength that would do that was deemed 100 proof, and more accurate tests later showed this to be 57.15% ABV. However, as Matt Pietrek has informed us, real navy rums were always issued at a few degrees less than that and the true Navy Strength is 54.5%. Which this rum is, hence the subtitle ofOriginal Admiralty Strength”. Beyond that, there’s not much to go on (see below).

That provided, let’s get right into it then, nose forward. It’s warm but indistinct, which is to say, it’s a blended melange of several thingsmolasses, coffee (like Dictador, in a way), flambeed bananas, creme brulee, caramel, cereals. Some brown sugar, and nice spices like cinnamon, vanilla and ginger cookies. Also a bit of muskiness and brine, vegetables and fruits starting to go bad, dark and not entirely unpleasant.

The blended nature of the flavours I smelled do not translate well onto the palate, unfortunately, and taste muffled, even muddled. It’s warm to try and has is pointsmolasses, brown sugar, truffles, caramel, toffeebut secondary components (with water, say) are another story. It’s more caramel and brown sugar, vanilla and nutsand seems somehow overthick, tamped down in some fashion, nearly cloyingeven messed with. Even the subtle notes of citrus, bitter chocolate, black tea, dates, and a bite of oakiness and tannins at the medium-long back end don’t entirely rescue this, though I’ll admit it’s decent enough, and some additional final faint hints of ginger and cumin aren’t half bad.

The problem is, I really don’t know what this thing really is. I’ve said it’s just the older Blue Label 42% made stronger, and these days the majority of the blend is supposedly Guyanese, with the label describing it as a “product of Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados”. But I dunnodo these tasting notes describe a bit of any Versailles, Port Mourant or Enmore profile you’ve had of late? In fact, it reminds me more of a stronger DDL 12 or 15 year old, minus the licorice and pencil shavings, or some anonymous WIRD / Angostura combination . Because the blend changed over time and there’s no identifying date on the bottle, it’s hard to know what the assembly is, and for me to parrot “Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados” is hardly Pulitzer-prize winning research. And, annoyingly, there is also no age statement on the black label, and no distillation information at alleven Pusser’s own website doesn’t tell you anything about that. Seriously? We have to be satisfied with just this?

Hydrometer test result courtesy of TheFatRumPirate.com

Anyway, let’s wrap up with the opinion on how it presents: short version, it’s a good ‘nuff rum and you’ll like it in either a mix or by itself. I was more or less okay with its discombobulated panoply of tastes, and the strength worked well. Still, I found it oddly dry, even thin at times (for all the sweet and thick background), and given that Wes rated it at 7g/L of something-or-other, I have a suspicion that the rum itself was merely blah, and has then been added to, probably because it was just young distillate from wherever that needed correction. The brand seems to have become quite different since its introduction and early halcyon days, before Tobias passed it onand paradoxically, the marketing push around all these new variations makes me less eager to go forward, and much more curious to try some of the older ones.

(#751)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • There are several other dates for cessation of the rum ration: the New Zealand navy eliminated the practice in 1990, the Royal Canadian Navy in 1972, Australia way back in 1921, and the USA in 1862.
  • Some other reviews of the Gunpowder Proof are from Rumtastic, Drinkhacker, Ruminations, GotRum magazine, Rum Howler, Reddit and Reddit again). None of the other well-known reviewers seem to have written about it.
  • Matt Pietrek’s series of articles on Navy rums are required reading for anyone really interested in all the peculiarities, anecdotes, debunks and details surrounding this popular but sometimes misunderstood class of rums.
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 blendkind of soleraand 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 estimateswhich surely was not part of the original recipe no matter who made it.

Secondly, the very fact that the recipe was tweaked more than onceas recently as 2008 it was supposedly a blend of five West Indian rumsshows 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, lumberreminds 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 memoriesI seem to recall them as much more forward. Blame it on increasing age, I guessmine, 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 strengthcreme 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 smellscaramel, 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 sipnon-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)