On July 31 boaties and rum lovers around the UK raised a glass to mark Black Tot day, the moment when, 48 years ago, the Royal Navy finally brought an end to the tradition of serving its crews a daily “tot” of rum.
It’s extraordinary to think that for nearly 300 years the Royal Navy carried out its duties under the influence of hard liquor – even more so when you think that tots in the early days were nigh on half a pint. And it was powerful, treacly stuff, this Navy rum. I once had the pleasure of sharing a tot of the last naval stocks with my late grandfather-in-law, a former captain in the Royal Navy. “Get it down your neck!” he commanded, as I primly nosed my glass.
Fiery Navy rum might not be for studied sipping. But a growing number of rums now are. Foursquare Distillery in Barbados has done great things to raise the bar for rum production with its Exceptional Cask Selection, a series of small-batch, vintage and cask strength rums that speak the language of Scotch whisky.
Its latest offering, which launched in May, features three very different rums: the hotly anticipated successor to the trophy-winning Foursquare 2004, the Foursquare 2005, is a silky, almost smoky cask-strength rum with the sweetness of a bruised black banana; Premise is a blend of rums aged, like many single malts, in a mixture of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks; and the vibrant Dominus is a 10-year-old blend with a decidedly Caribbean pop of ginger cake and anise-spiked pineapple.
Like a number of Scotch whisky distilleries, Foursquare has experimented with ageing in wine casks too. Last year’s Zinfandel cask-finished rum was a bit red-fruity for me, but Criterion, a 56 per cent rum aged partly in nutty Madeira casks, was a triumph. The 2,000 bottles they made of that are now sold out, but there are more like this, I’m told, in the pipeline.
Unlike a lot of golden rums, which are coloured or sweetened to some degree, the Exceptional Cask series rums are bottled unadulterated – which means, at least in a purist’s eyes, they’re about as authentic as rum can get. And at £40-£50 a bottle, they’re good value too.
“Ten years ago people were still very easily seduced by things with added colour and sugar and a nice package and, for a while, rum was its own worst enemy,” acknowledges Foursquare’s master distiller Richard Seale. “But more recently, rum drinkers’ palates have really grown up – we’re seeing a lot more connoisseurs now.”
With one eye on the Scotch whisky industry, Seale is now campaigning to get rum’s notoriously messy classification system tightened up. It will be a miracle if he succeeds. But in the meantime, he’s amassing a first-class fleet.