July 31st, 1970 was the final day in which a three-centuries-old tradition of allocating a daily rum ration (“the daily tot”) to sailors in the royal navy ended. Before rum, beer had been rationed, but due to the difficulty of storing beer, sailors could also opt for a half pint of rum instead. This became preferred to beer for obvious reasons. Extra tots were awarded for completing dangerous tasks like hand-splicing the main (thickest) brace.
The daily tot was subject to much scrutiny (much to my delight, there was an oversight committee named the “Admiralty’s Grog Committee”) because of sailor drunkenness. At first, the rum was mixed with water in a 4:1 ratio – then the size of the tot was halved to 1/4 of an imperial pint – then eliminated completely. Drunkenness at sea was also subject to harsh punishment: the first offense was 24 strokes of the cat’o’nine tails (a multi-tailed whip) and a final offense subject to the often-fatal “keel hauling” which the soldier was dragged underneath the vessel by rope.
The findings of the Grog Committee that rum was not conducive to navy operations led to an uproar in the House of Commons, dubbed the “Great Rum Debate”. Unfortunately for the crewmen, the 1 hour and 15 minute debate concluded with agreement that the rum rations should end. In recompense, an extra can of beer was added.
The fateful day was solemnly recognized on ships with mock funeral processions (with accompanying drummers and piper), black armbands, and tots “buried at sea”.
Since then, rum brands and rum drinkers worldwide still observe Black Tot day. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco typically offers discounts on navy grog cocktails and discounted pricing on pours from bottles of the last consignment of the Black Tot rum.
Curious to know what the British royal navy drank, we attended the Black Tot celebration and ordered a single pour ($100/oz, discounted from the usual $130/oz). This is a pretty decent steal, since the bottles (when you can find them) are around $750/bottle to $1k+. Verdict after the jump.
- Score - 7/107/10
Nose: Sea soaked wet planks (we both wrote this down independently!), caramel milky way bar (Mars bar for the Brits), demerara sugar, salt water, saffron, molasses
Palate: Big demerara hit. Slightly astringent, salty, licking a boot, molasses, cinnamon and peppercorn, bitter and spicy, and extremely tannic.
Finish: Oak floorboard
Overall: 7/10. Good. It’s a special piece of history.
TLDR: Tannic molasses spread on wood
Bought for: $100/1 oz at Smuggler’s Cove for Black Tot Day
Quick overview of our scoring system. Note that we try to give a “5” for an average whisky, which is lower than standard whisky scoring guides (typically around 80).
- Distillate: molasses. Caribbean blend.
- Pot-still rum
- Cask: None; Aged in neutral containers
- ABV: 54.3%
- Age: 40 years
- Bottled by Specialty Spirits (London-based spirits company) by the same brothers that launched the Whisky Exchange