Spirits: Old Navy
It was not quite as dramatic as the flap of an insect’s wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas, but Charles Tobias was involved in his own version of the butterfly effect. His response to a traffic jam on a Southern California freeway in 1974 set in motion a chain of events that led to the resurrection of the British Royal Navy’s official rum six years later and the arrival in America this summer of Pusser’s Navy Rum 15 Year Old.
The original Pusser’s was a 95.5-proof rum that had been popular with British sailors for more than 300 years before its production ceased in 1970. Tobias discovered Pusser’s at sea, which seems appropriate given the rum’s place in naval history. To escape the freeway traffic, Tobias, who had recently sold his electronics company, exited at the nearest off-ramp, drove to where his yacht was berthed, and embarked on an around-the-world odyssey. At the harbor of Gibraltar, Tobias, in need of a part for his 72-foot ketch-rigged motor sailer, came alongside a British frigate, which granted him permission to board. He met with the ship’s captain, and their conversation drifted to the British navy’s decision four year’s earlier to dissolve the centuries-old tradition of issuing a daily ration of rum—called a tot—to crew members. Because the ship’s purser was in charge of this distribution, the rum became known as “Pusser’s,” a corruption of the officer’s title. Before Tobias got under way, the captain provided him with the boat part he needed and with a jug of the ship’s remaining Pusser’s.
At sunset that evening, Tobias enjoyed his first tot of the rich, dark rum. “It was the best rum I ever tasted,” he recalls. “It was like drinking liquid history. I knew that I had to find out how it was made, where it was made, and that I had to make sure it would keep on being made.”
After much negotiating with the British government, Tobias obtained the Royal Navy’s 1810 recipe for the rum. He also acquired the rights to the Pusser’s name and permission to depict the British flag on the bottles’ labels. To truly re-create the spirit’s rich flavors, he gained access to the two wooden pot stills in Guyana where the British navy had made its rum some 200 years prior. The stills are constructed of European oak and greenheart, a dense wood also used to build wharfs and other constructions that the sea might otherwise corrode. “They operate at about 67 percent, which greatly increases the cost of distillation,” Tobias says of the stills. “But nothing can touch the flavor the wood imparts to the spirits. It’s a flavor that can only be produced in this inefficient way.”
Tobias reintroduced Pusser’s in 1980, and in 2001, he debuted an aged, 80-proof version in the United Kingdom. Now, Pusser’s 15 Year Old is available in the United States. The rum’s nuances of cinnamon and citrus are followed by heavy, musty, toasted oak. Aging the rum in wood barrels contributes to this flavor, but at the end of the 15-year process, only 7 percent of the rum remains in the barrels due to evaporation. Thus, producing a single bottle of Pusser’s 15 Year Old requires the equivalent of 16 bottles of the original rum. However, those are spirits well spent.