Black Tot Day – ‘the day the rum died’
This year marked the 50th Anniversary of ‘Black Tot Day’ – the final day that sailors were granted a daily rum ration (the daily tot), the ending of a 200-year-old tradition and prompting seamen to don black armbands and hold funerals on board to mark ‘the day the rum died’.
The remaining rum was put into flagons and saved for special occasions like the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, or for the rarely uttered decree to ‘Splice the Main Brace’. Eventually, some flagons made their way into the hands of former officers who either drank them or else sold them on. Over the course of several years, Elixir Distillers co-founder Sukhinder Singh tracked down and purchased these last remaining flagons, blending them together to create Black Tot Last Consignment – a true bit of liquid history – as well as formulating a more affordable ode to this naval tradition in the form of Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum.
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, the team at Elixir Distillers created a limited edition Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum, which pays tribute to the original Navy blend, bringing together some of the great lost rums of the past with the amazing modern distillates of today. We were lucky enough to join Global Brand Ambassador Mitch Wilson, Founder Sukhinder Singh, Head Blender Oliver Chilton, and around 90 other rum industry folks for the virtual launch of Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum. During the online shindig, we heard about how Sukhinder came to possess the navy flagons, what he and Oliver wanted to achieve with Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum and the idea behind the latest limited edition, 50th Anniversary rum. Whilst our ears were pricked to this enticing information, our glass was thankfully also graced with some fine rum from the Black Tot Rum Tasting Kit.
Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum Launch
The rum community is a fun one. Global, boisterous, passionate and connected, the first 15 minutes of the Zoom group call were a merry cacophony of hollers and warm wishes. Impressively, Black Tot Rum’s Global Rum Ambassador Mitch managed to get the jovial attendees to hush up enough to welcome one and all to the launch, reintroducing those who need no introduction, the event’s co-host Sly Augustin (owner of Trailer Happiness) tuning in with Ian Burrell (Global Rum Ambassador) from Trailer Happiness. Mitch, Sly and Ian chatted about rum as a category and how both the brands on offer and the consumer had evolved and blossomed over the past decade or so, before handing over to Sukhinder, the man behind the rum we were here to drink.
How did Black Tot Rum come to be?
Sukhinder retold the story of how the original navy rum flagons “found [him]”:
“I got a call around 12 years ago from an ex-naval chap saying ‘I used to be in the navy. Have you heard of the rum ration, I’ve got a few of the original flagons.’ Bought them, put them aside, and completely forgot about them until about six months later. Then he passed a friend on who had some more flagons. I bought them. Then it just escalated from there. Suddenly I was inundated with 10 or 20 flagons. I thought, if I’m going to buy more, I wanted to know what it tasted like. I didn’t expect much, I opened one of the flagons I had and honestly I was mesmerised by how amazing, how rich, how complex it was! As a whisky drinker, I’d never tried anything like this. It was the best rum I’d tried. I was very unsure so I kept the flagon on my desk for a week and tried it every day to check it was as amazing as I thought it was.”
He then gave some samples to other spirits aficionados and it blew everyone’s mind. More and more flagons kept appearing (it turned out that several years earlier, the Royal Navy who’d been storing them from the 1970s wanted to reuse the warehouse so ended up selling them). Sukhinder offered a price to the new owners and they accepted. Next up, he had to figure out what to do with them. It wasn’t logical to sell them a gallon at a time to bars as that was a huge amount and the flagons were difficult to pour, so he decided to create a brand.
Black Tot Rum – the expressions to date
Black Tot Last Consignment
Black Tot Last Consignment was launched in 2010 to celebrate forty years since ‘Black Tot Day’ and blended rum made up of these last remaining stocks of Royal Navy rum that had been uncovered in naval warehouses in Dartmouth and Deptford after lying dormant for 30 years. We were lucky enough to try this little drop of history during the incredible 50th Anniversary of Black Tot Day 24-Hour Virtual Tasting and, without wishing to labour the point, holy heck! Endless layers of vanilla, black cherries, prunes, liquorice, leather, sweet oak, fruit cake, spice, funk, tobacco, smoked meats, nuts, rye bread, coffee, smoke, vegetation, red peppers, olive olive oil….*continues ad infinitum*. Needless to say, it is something truly special that only a few around the world will get the chance to savour due to its limited availability and understandably hefty price-tag.
Black Tot Finest Caribbean
In 2019, as answer to this, Elixir Distillers launched Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum – an accessible yet complex rum that pays homage to the history of naval rum, blending some of the finest spirits from Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica to create a modern, versatile and multi-layered rum.
The Black Tot Rum Tasting Kit in front of us contained the bottled components of the final blend, as well as the finished product (and of course the new 50th Anniversary expression). This gave us a chance to fully appreciate what has gone into Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum and we drank along as Mitch and his co-hosts talked us through the blend.
The Barbados component (35% of the blend) hails from Foursquare Distillery. A pot and column still blend aged for five years, it’s a classic taste of Barbados with tropical aromas of banana, pineapple, spice, dry oak, ginger nut biscuits, nutmeg, vanilla fudge, spiced cream and caramel macchiato. On the palate, this becomes banana, toffee, spice, liquorice, cardamom, Indian halwa and parfait.
The Guyana component is actually made up of two separate elements (both from Diamond Distillery): an unaged rum (with caramel colouring giving it a dark colour which Black Tot head blender Oliver tells us is just how it was sold to them), and rum aged three-to-five years. These each respectively make up 20% and 40% of the Guyana component. The unaged smells of cola and brings bitter liquorice, chocolate and toffee notes. It’s dry without much complexity but comparable to adding bitters to a cocktail, whilst the aged is a classic Guyanese rum with incredible aromas of Werther’s Originals, boiled sweets, mango, Demerara sugar, refined oak, vanilla fudge, Stroopwafel, toffee, caramel, juicy berries, pata de natas, apple, cinder toffee, malt, milk chocolate Hob Nobs and light florality. Deep, rich sweetness comes through on the palate with background woody dryness. Cola bottle sweets, tinned peaches, tropical fruit, cantaloupe melon, honeydew melon add to a complex and darn moreish character.
The final component of the blend (5%) is a three-year-old 100% pot still Jamaican from the inimitable Long Pond Distillery. The percentage may be small but the influence is not, bringing funk (although at only 100-150 esters, it’s not of the face-melting variety like some Long Pond), fruit and creaminess. On the nose, Liquorice All Sorts, boiled sweets, apple juice, pear drops and something akin to barley/hay/sweet silage. There is a slow build of funk on the palate alongside oodles of mango, papaya, melon, banana and lychee. Some smoke and almost peaty characteristics waft through hay, pears and creme brûlée.
What’s so fantastic about this Black Tot Tasting Kit is the honesty and transparency of it all – which is very much the way that the rum world is going. All the components could quite happily be bottled full-size and drunk as is, but this isn’t the point and they are instead blended to create Black Tot Finest Caribbean. Each component has been tropically aged with no chill filtering and are bottled together in Scotland. There’s no added sugar but the rum picks up trace elements from the barrel (0.64g per litre).
The wonderfully candid and generally affable head blender Oliver Chilton (who got into blending through “luck and just saying yes” to Sukhinder) stated that Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum is not a piece of history (unlike Last Consignment): “It’s a drink. You make it to be drunk, not to sit on a back bar […] You have to make it taste nice so that people want to drink it and hopefully drink a lot of it.” The current iteration of Finest Caribbean took two years, 26 official recipes and countless unofficial tweaks. Sukhinder added that “this a living, breathing product. We are still trying to evolve it and learn, always seeing if and how we can improve it a bit.”
Sukhinder explained that the concept for Black Tot Finest Caribbean was to take Last Consignment and reverse engineer it:
“That was our key, to keep the heart as Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana, deconstruct Last Consignment and make a rum for today. Still complex, layered, interesting, drinkable.”
Oliver sees the process of blending as “quite a touchy feely process” which saw him working purely on the basis of taste and an idea of wanting to ensure a development of flavours as you drink. This has certainly been achieved with the bottled Black Tot Finest Caribbean Rum blend. Chocolate, espresso and leather power through on the nose, followed by bright, tropical fruit and vanilla fudge. Golden syrup, Demerara sugar and funky sugar cane juice peek through with a touch of polished oak trailing in their wake. The taste and texture are round, rich and creamy with all components working together in vivacious harmony. Cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice season baked apples, dried mango, canned pineapple and fresh melon. Chocolate covered espresso beans and roasted banana spiked with black pepper and anise follow, resulting in the culmination of all things fruity, rich and funky. Incredibly dynamic, versatile and enjoyable, it’s an amazing rum for a mere £34.95.
The New Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum
But onto the real reason all of us were hunched over our computers – the new Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum! With only 5,000 released, this limited edition bottling was created to commemorate 50 years since Black Tot Day and has been made with rums from the four cornerstones of the original navy rum: Barbados, Jamaica, Guyanese and Trinidad, plus rum from the original Navy Rum flagons themselves. It is the first in a series of annual Navy Strength Black Tot Day releases (although Sukhinder plans to call the yearly iterations something like ‘Master Blender’s Reserve’ with each taking an element of this blend and running with it).
One of the features we found so exciting about the new release is the back label. That might sound a little odd but bear with us.
The transparency of the back label is mesmerising and deserves a huge amount of respect. It lays out: country of origin, distillery, whether it’s still operating or not, stills, type and amount of ageing and the portion of each component in the blend. This is incredible. It allows rum nerds to geek out over the marques, lost distilleries and incredibly rare components (such as the 42-year-old Guyanese and original Navy Blend) and gives the drinker all the information they need, with no hiding behind ‘secret ingredients’ or flippant marketing speak. Regarding this, Mitch said,
“I don’t believe it should be a secret recipe. I believe the way you appreciate a rum blend is to know exactly what went in it and to see these incredible distilleries from these incredible places. See things like the tropical versus continental ageing, seeing the breakdown between the two. Knowing the distillery, being able to shout-out the distillery is a great honour as well as they don’t let you do it unless they’re happy with the rum.”
Honest as always, Oliver admitted that when Mitch came to him with this idea, he only had five components. He went to Sukhinder with the sample and the boss said “Can you make it taste older”, so Oliver added some 42-year-old, then the blender decided he wanted to make it taste dustier, so Sukhinder suggested they try putting some flagons in the blend. “So yeah, we had no idea it would be this…mental.”
Whilst there is only 0.5% of the older components, Sukhinder explained that “the difference between 0.5% and 1% was crazy. It didn’t work.” This was not an incident of teaspoon-ing it into the blend for the sake of marketing, this was all the blend needed. They worked backwards, starting by adding the flagons because Oliver wanted that “old books, dusty floorboards, church pews […] essence of old” that you have in the Last Consignment. Sukhinder said it needed to have that aged bitterness that aged rums have that really takes you to a place, hence the 42-year-old element. So Oliver “literally just sat there with a pipette, adding a bit and a bit and a bit, and seeing where it went. We still needed it to be fresh so using 1% would have just been too much – it pushed it over an edge where it was no longer fun, no longer fruity.”
The younger components are just as important as they are needed to balance the blend, bringing lively fruitiness, freshness, spice and sweetness to the dusty and bitter. The result is a gorgeously complex and exciting rum with vivacity and titillation that dances around base notes of rich opulence and profound depths.
But enough waffling from us, what does it taste like…?!
Tasting Notes – Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum
Some funk on the initial but still approachable. A gorgeous rich toffee, cinnamon, vanilla and Stroopwafel wafts through, followed by a parade of bright pear drops, apple jelly and apple juice. Dried blueberry, mixed fruit leather, Vimto, juicy raisins, ripe green grapes, dried mano, dried strawberry, barbecued pineapple, grapefruit zest and sweet liquorice tumble forward one after the other. Further nosing reveals Oliver’s dusty books in an old library, bookended by coffee grounds and nutmeg.
Wow! Liquorice and vanilla bean propel themselves forward, coating the palate along with some bitter funk. It’s an insanely layered sipping journey, with flavours undulating through the mouth. Vimto, stewed pear juice, pear drops, toffee, cooked cinnamon apples with more cinnamon and nutmeg for dusting, Danish pastry with cream, lime juice, dark bitter chocolate, sweet liquorice fruit roll ups, walnuts, bananas, a touch of menthol and tarragon aniseed…we could go on.
Sukhinder mentioned that they didn’t want to recreate Last Consignment but create something in the middle of it and Finest Caribbean that you just want to drink the whole bottle of. In our opinion, they have entirely succeeded. Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum is special, layered and balanced, with exceptional development flavour and transparency of origin. It’s an exceptionally enjoyable expression for those not interested in the breakdown of the blend, and for those nerds who are, the excitement of having lost distillery components from Caroni and Uitvlugt, as well as the juice from the original Navy flagons is just amazing.
Black Tot 50th Anniversary Rum is a true gem of a rum that will not be recreated as the team acted like independent bottlers, choosing specific casks for this limited run blend. Therefore, we’ll be savouring this for some time to come (if we can somehow exercise restraint) and can’t wait to see what the folks behind the Black Tot Rum brand come up with next.