Wednesday 31 July 2013

Black Tot Day - Lamb's Navy Rum

On July 31st 1970 the Royal Navy finally halted the daily rum ration to sailors, known as "Black Tot Day" this was the inevitable end of a tradition that had lasted since the 17thcentury. Increased mechanisation, and breathalysers, meant that serving a double measure of over-proof rum every day was a pretty terrible idea.

Drunken sailors - bad
 Back in 1655 the Royal Navy booted the Spanish out of Jamaica and promptly started to use local rum as their daily ration, replacing French brandy. Rum had been recorded in the Caribbean for some time before this, in 1651 a record from Barbados described:

"The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias kill-divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor."

Which could certainly describe some rums I've drunk over the years (Tesco West Indian Rum I'm looking at you).

At that time sailors got ½ pint a day of strong rum.  Sailors would check that their rum hadn't been watered down by soaking gunpowder in rum and attempting to light it, if it failed to ignite it was "under-proof" if it lit it was "over-proof".  Once reliable ABV measures were introduced it was calculated that the gunpowder and rum mix would ignite at 57.15% ABV while some rums went as high as 80%.

In 1731 the ration was split in two, with a quarter pint being served between 11 and 12 am and the remainder between 5 and 6pm.  It's an interesting coincidence that at the same time the Royal Navy was increasing rum consumption they were also becoming the pre-eminent fighting force, so even back then we Brits liked a drink and a fight.

Admiral Vernon - loved a daiquiri
By 1740 Admiral Vernon had decided that neat rum was a bad idea, stating:

unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons that the pernicious custom of the seaman drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well as their health … besides the ill consequences of stupifying [sic] their rational qualities … You are hereby required and directed … that the respective daily allowance … be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to a half pint of rum, to be mixed in a scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon the deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum… and let those that are good husbanders receive extra lime juice and sugar that it be made more palatable to them.”

Adding the water prevented sailors from hoarding their rations as it would spoil rapidly, however the taste of the water was unpleasant so lime juice was added.  At the time it was noticed that Vernon's sailors were healthier than the norm but no-one really new why, and it wasn't until 1747 that it was proved that citrus fruit prevented scurvy and not until 1756 that it was a requirement to add lime to the rum ration.

Now in the tradition of naval rums I picked up a bottle of Lamb's, as I can't afford the £610 for a bottle of the real Royal Navy rum and I've previously reviewed Pusser's.  It's been a bottle that was always tucked away on the back bar of pubs when I was growing up. Along with OVD and the depressingly ubiquitous Bacardi this was probably one of the first rums I was aware of.

A nice simple bottle

Lamb's has been around since 1849 and is a blend of 18 rums from BarbadosJamaica, Trinidad and Guyana which are blended and then aged for 4 years in the UK.  Indeed before being bombed out in The Blitz the casks were aged in cellars below the Thames at West India Dock, leading to the nickname of "Dock Rum". It's bottled at 40% ABV and runs around £16 for a 70cl bottle.

Looking at it there's a very deep, almost coffee like depth to the colour, it's a very attractive looking liquid to me. Taking a sniff you're immediately hit with a warming molasses which fades leaving a little hint of vanilla and cherry.  

A sip gives you a big hit of sweetness with a little burnt caramel edge to it and some vanilla that fades out quite quickly to eventually be replaced by a dryness coming from 4 years in ex-bourbon barrels.  It's a doughnut of a flavour profile, sweetness, then nothing, then dryness.

On the finish the dryness fades out reasonably slowly and although it slips down surprisingly smoothly there is a definite alcohol burn once it hits your stomach, while not as harsh as other rums it's definitely not the gentle warming of a Pusser's.. 

This is quite a bit better than I expected it to be and comparing to some older reviews I suspect they've rebalanced their blending as part of their re-launch of the brand this year. That being said it's not a sipper, and has no real pretensions to be, so judging it as such isn't particularly useful, if you want a sipping navy rum, grab a Pusser's.

So, as a mixer how does Lamb's perform?

With Coke it works fine, the flavours are strong enough to hold up although it definitely accents the sweetness. 

Since Admiral Vernon advocated mixing rum with lime juice and water I tried this in a Daiquiri and it was remarkably good.  Using 50ml of rum, 25ml of lime juice and 15ml of sugar syrup I knocked a quick one up and the lime cuts through the sweetness very nicely, the hint of dryness is still there and it makes for a very refreshing drink.

So, overall, a decent enough rum. It's not subtle or complex but it's not meant to be, it's a good opening gambit for someone trying dark rums. I'd happily keep a bottle around for mixing when I want something with a bit more heft than a Mount Gay or an Appleton's


  • 40% ABV
  • £16 for 70cl bottle
  • Nose – Molasses, vanilla, cherry
  • Flavour – Burnt caramel sweetness, a gap, then dryness
  • Finish – Surprisingly smooth going down but noticeable burn once it reaches the stomach
  • Not a sipper
  • Mix with coke or in a daiquiri

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