Tuesday, October 23, 2018

How Pusser’s Rum Became The Official Drink Of The British Royal Navy

     On the deck of HMS Fife, docked in Pearl Harbor, soldiers stood wearing black armbands as the sun rose on July 31, 1970. They looked somber , part formal, part grieving. Following a 21-gun salute, they held their glasses high, their last “tot”, and cried: “The Queen.” They tossed back the drink and threw the glasses into the blue water below. They were not alone.   Anchored near the International Dateline, HMS Fife was the last among the many British ships that lowered their oars for a moment to say goodbye to a tradition they had been following for around 300 years. Tot was the daily ration of rum the Royal British Navy had nursed in its long seafaring history.

     A British naval destroyer’s crew line up for an issue of rum after arriving safely at a port somewhere in England, 1941.  But the navy hardly figured in the scene when the drink took birth in the dark and sinister sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean some three and half centuries ago. Europe needed sugar in the 17th century. In plenty. And for planters from England, the vast, barren lands of the Caribbean islands looked perfect for growing sugarcane. As they made sugar from molasses, they stumbled across a more interesting by-product, thanks to the extreme heat and fermentation, rumbullian alias rum.   Prince William with a tot of rum

     The drink, which first quenched the thirst of workers and planters, eventually crossed the oceans to reach America and Europe. Demand increased, for sugar and rum. The planters needed workers who could be forced to work in such punishing conditions.   People in Africa were enslaved for it. As trade increased and money and merchandise floated in the ocean, traders attracted pirates. The water between the Caribbean and Europe turned red with violence. The traders had only one option — send an SOS to the British Royal Navy. The navy glided in, lured not only by the big money the traders offered but also by the dark liquid sloshing inside the barrels in their ships.  

     Till then, the English sailors had tried every drink they could get their hands on. Beer went stale during long voyages. Wine followed. French brandy was good for a while, but it turned anti-national once England fell out with France.  So rum fit into the role of the official drink of the British Royal Navy. It was a long honeymoon. The humid heat of the tropics could only be fought with some stiff drink. Add to that the squalid condition in the quarters below the decks where hundreds of sailors sweated away at the oars. The long tedious voyages needed some reprieve. Rum not only gave them that, but also imparted some sense of taste amid the cold porridge and salted meat that came in daily. They called the drink Pusser’s rum because the ship’s purser, for which, pusser is the slang for it was responsible for issuing the rum. Pusser’s became the original rum of the British Navy. But it did not take long for the British Navy to realize that if unchecked, the new habit could spell disaster to their authority on the seas. Meanwhile, the sailors suspected that the drink they were served had been watered down. They invented an ingenious method to prove its spirit. They poured a bit of their ration on gunpowder.   If it smolders and burned, it was proof. If it exploded, it was overproof, with a higher alcohol content. If nothing happened, the purser might himself be tossed into the sea. The term “proof strength” for alcohol originated from this suspicion of the daily ration of rum. Over the years, naval strength rum has become the stuff of legends.  Today you can taste many versions of the drink that served seamen for centuries, Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof, Pusser’s Rum Original Admiralty Blend, etc.   Produced from British Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Guyana, Pusser’s is a blend of five stills. It is a veritable experience of Caribbean islands and cultures.