The 50th anniversary of Black Tot day is upon us. On Friday July 31st 2020 it will be 50 years since the British Royal Navy gave out the last ration of rum to their sailors. There is a long history of giving alcohol to sailors. Until 1655 it was beer that was given to sailors daily, but they switched to rum as that took a lot less space to store. In current times it would be unthinkable in most professions to have people drink on the job, let alone in one where lives can constantly be at stake. That’s exactly what the House of Commons thought on January 28th 1970, where it was decided the rum ration was no longer appropriate.
At that point there was a large amount of rum still in storage, sitting in ceramic flagons. Question is, what happened to it? Apart from being served at state banquets, not much…..for a long time. This is when Sukhinder Singh enters the story. He’s the owner of The Whisky Exchange in London and a major spirits collector. At some point he was approached by an ex Royal Navy officer who owned some old rum flagons and asked him if he was interested in buying them. Sukhinder bought them and was then introduced to several other people who owned a few flagons. Subsequently, he got in touch with the Royal Navy who told him they sold their full stock in 1994 to a private individual. About 10/15 years later, this person sold one part of his stock to a company in the US and the other part to a wine trading company in the UK, who were selling it off to individuals as an investment. This apparently didn’t go in accordance with the law and the UK government shut the company down and took the rum stock back.
Around 2008, after reaching out to the government again, Sukhinder was put in touch with a liquidator who was handling the sale of the rum. He told him:”I’ve just sold it all yesterday, 3000 flagons”. After all that time searching, he seemed to have missed it by a day! Luckily they hadn’t fully committed to the original purchaser yet and Sukhinder was able to outbid him.
Next up was the stock in the US. It was important to buy this as well, simply because Sukhinder didn’t want another party to replicate the project he was about to launch. Once he acquired the vast majority of the world’s existing navy rum, he blended and bottled it under the “Black Tot – Last Consignment” label. It’s a rum with a fantastic story that costs a pretty penny, but then you do own something unique.
During UK Rumfest 2019 I was very lucky to have been able to visit the Whisky Exchange and see some of Sukhinder's magnificent collection of spirits, including a few very old rums. Just seeing all those bottles was a real pleasure. All this in the presence of a bunch of great rum people, including Christelle Harris, Richard & Gayle & Christian Seale, Peter & Pauline Holland, Johnny Drejer, Steven & Barnali James, Wes Burgin, and to top it all off…..Keegan and Rob “2 breakfasts” Bosman! It was the first time I met Sukhinder, thank you again for letting me be part of that evening, it was so great to be there!
There was a mouthwatering lineup of rums to try, including Last Consignment. I only had a few sips of it, so I can’t give a detailed opinion. But, let's say I preferred the story to the rum.
The strength of the story is such that a brand can be built on it, which is the next chapter in the Black Tot saga. With the help of the expert blenders at E&A Scheer in Amsterdam, a new Black Tot blend has come to life and is now for sale. First time I tried it was in London in 2019 and I rather liked it. So when the people behind the brand offered me a sample and asked if I’d be open to writing something about it, I gladly accepted (with the important stipulation that I write what I want to write).
Black Tot’s Global Brand Ambassador is Mitch Wilson. In my personal opinion he’s a perfect example of what a great ambassador can be like. He’s incredibly knowledgeable on many aspects of rum (history, production etc), is always pleasant…even in sticky situations…without being overly salesy and he comes up with tons of great ideas to promote the brand. One of them is a crazy one. Together with Dawn Davies he’s presenting a 24 hour rum festival, with an incredible lineup of speakers.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Mitch for a bit.
What made you want to become an ambassador?
I was lucky enough to get my first barback shifts at Trailer Happiness in London - the manager at the time was Jim Wrigley, who used to be the Global Ambassador for Santa Teresa (and the world’s best ambassador at Tales in 2012). I remember hearing his stories about being an ambassador, traveling the world, and that to me always seemed like the most fun thing you could do in the bar industry (though back then I never believed I’d ever actually get there). I think ambassadors now can sometimes get a bad rap for just being a voice for marketing, but back then I always saw it as ambassadors being the ultimate experts for their category, and I always thought that’s the kind of ambassador I would want to become. The more I look at it now, it seems impossible to become an expert for the whole category - you could spend a lifetime on it and still have more to learn, but I still like the idea of striving for it regardless.
Which brands have you worked for and why?
I worked for Plantation Rum for 3 years, and for me they were a wonderful company to work for. The ambassadors included this eclectic mix of former bartenders and people that had come through the industry loving rum. Being able to focus on rum full time allowed me the scope to really deepen my understanding and spend more and more time researching, and it gave me my first opportunities to visit the Caribbean. That was the only brand I worked with prior to Black Tot.
How did you acquire your strong rum knowledge?
I just keep reading and asking questions. I always try to hang out with people that are smarter than me, and try to learn what I can from them. I’ve been very lucky to have some great rum mentors and friends that have been incredibly patient with me over the years, as they share what they’ve learnt or help me understand things better. There’s a tremendous amount of information online too, we have a lot of resources if you’re prepared to spend the time looking for them (and fact-checking!). Having a rum community that is so eager and well versed in rum makes you want to raise your game as an ambassador and make sure you can still deliver something worthwhile at a rum training, whether the person in front of you is on their first ever rum or their thousandth. I think it can be tough sometimes to admit that you don’t know something as well as you thought, so I always try to keep an open mind and listen - every nuance helps. If you can pick up one thing from each masterclass/seminar/article it soon starts to build up.
Time for the review part. Let’s look at the new Black Tot.
It’s a blend of Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica rums, bottled at an abv of 46.2%. No added sugar, fully tropically aged. The level of transparency about the product is high, which the photo below shows.
First impression is that Guyana is represented well and that we are dealing with a younger rum, as it’s a bit sharp, which is to be expected. I’m smelling wood, menthol, molasses, licorice, brown sugar, marshmallows, caramel and tobacco. Those last two are rather strong. After a bit of time, Jamaican fruitiness and cardboard pops up, together with some velvet coconut from Barbados. I absolutely love this nose. No off notes and it keeps on giving.
It’s definitely dry and dark. Getting some licorice, salted caramel, tobacco, oak, Jamaican fruit, black tea and black pepper. Spicy in the front, sweet in the middle and slightly bitter on the finish, which is fairly long.
The best part of Black Tot is the fact that the components from different countries and their specific characteristics are all noticeable. At the same time it feels like a well integrated blend. It also doesn’t seem as young as it really is. It's somewhat mature beyond its age.
The nose is very impressive. I could nose this for an hour and not get bored. On the palate it’s nice until the finish, which is slightly bitter. Which is the only part I don't like about it.
I'm terrible at making cocktails, but I think the combination of flavours and the fact that it's bottled at 46.2% will make it stand out in them. I can't wait for someone with expert cocktail skills to make me one to see if I'm right.
I have no rum in my collection to truly compare it with, so I had to think about how to score this one. My solution for this problem was to put it next to a general reference rum. In this case Mount Gay XO. A rum I drink often, know well and many people are familiar with. The additional ageing weighs heavily in comparison. It’s more complex, a lot softer and has a more pleasant finish than Black Tot. That nose isn’t far off the XO in regards to the level of enjoyment though, it’s so interesting and giving.
I’d buy Black Tot if it was available in Toronto.
Black Tot Rum – 79
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