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  • Writer's pictureStuart Pearce

Battle of the blends

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

With all the hysteria about chasing the latest single distillery, single marque, even single cask rums it's easy to forget that some of the great bottlings are the result of expert blending. A symphony of different rums, marks and styles combined in just the right proportions to produce unique, well balanced and complex rum blends.

Today I will taste and review a line-up of 7 of the great rum blends from 4 world renowned rum blenders.

Navy strength - a common yet fairly misunderstood term. And one only coined in 1990's. Prior to the invention of a hydrometer to measure abv the British Royal Navy (who's crew insisted on a potent spirit) mixed a small sample of the spirit with gunpowder to form a paste and tried to ignite it. If the spirit was over a certain strength, the powder would light, and if under, it wouldn’t. We now know that this strength is 57% ABV. Navy strength or gunpowder proof.

With abv's ranging from 54.5% to 57%, only some of today's rums would be classified as Navy strength. Sadly the lack of gunpowder in the Reigate area, combined with a 'no sense of adventure' local police force, preclude me from testing the above science.

The British naval rum ration, clearly integral to the term navy strength, was finally axed in 1970, much to the dismay of many mariners. 'Black Tot Day' is commemorated annually on 31st July - and all year round thanks to the Black Tot brand - centred around this event and the history of the rum ration.

These are limited edition rums, many now hard to come by. Many thanks to those who generously furnished me with samples of the rums that I don't have my own bottle.

So.... blends, just a way to use up 2nd class rums? or a refined skill (even art) of using the finest rums, in just the right balance, to produce something superior to the some of it's parts - let's find out...

7 rums, 20ml of each, left to open up for 30 mins, nosed first, then tasted, in increasing abv order (in chronological order where they're the same). Assisted today by some silky blues from Guy Davis.

Left to right as per lead photo of bottles. Darkest are easily the Pusser's & Black Tot 50th. Lightest being the Black Tot 2021 (unexpected, given the aging of the elements)

Pusser's 50th Anniversary Rum, 54.5%, 7yr, 4498btls (i've also seen this listed as 3600?)

Released in 2020 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Black Tot Day.

The only rum in the line-up to reflect the original Royal Navy blend.

For those unfamiliar with Pusser’s, they purchased the rights and recipe to produce a Navy Rum which recreates the blend used by the British Royal Navy. Founder Charles Tobias formed Pusser’s Rum Ltd in 1979.

This original blend is the product of five stills from two counties, three in Guyana and two in Trinidad. A highlight, and apparently a heavy influence on the flavour, is the component from the Greenheart double wooden pot still originally constructed at the Port Mourant Estate. A super special and unique wooden still dating back to 1732.

The blend was put together at the West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD) in Barbados, back in 2015. The rums in the blend were already 3 years old at this point, by the time of bottling in 2019 this would be a 7 year old, tropically aged rum blend.

Nose: A big step up from their gunpower blend that I wasn't so keen on. Lots of decent, young, yet quite weighty, demerara notes. Raisin, dark chocolate, aniseed. Burnt brown sugar, prunes & nutmeg.

Mouth: A good mouthful of spicy, rich raisin caramel. Quite buttery and unctuous - a tiny bit too much, making me suspicious of a smidge of added sugar. A decent toffee & dark chocolate demerara, with a touch of spicy ginger. And a wave of mocha. Not sufficiently interesting when compared to the other blends. [83-pts]

Black Tot 50th Anniversary, 54.5%, 11.5yr (weighted av), 5000btls

Another blend released in 2020 to commemorate the anniversary of black tot day.

The first in a line of limited edition premium rum's from the Black Tot brand.

Note the outstanding information on the rear label, providing us with a comprehensive breakdown of each element of the blend. I absolutely love this, it even details how much of each element was tropically & continentally aged! And if that's not enough, there's even more stats & facts on their website (here).

Heavy Guyana influence on this one (61.5%), with 15% each from Barbados and Trindad, 8% from Hampden in Jamaica and a small element (0.5%) of original British Royal Navy rum.

Nose: A really different experience to the Pusser's - much more complexity. Initially the Hampden element jumps out and livens things up. After a while that settles down and the nose is dominated by the Guyana 'rum & raisin' richness. I'm only getting hints of the Foursquare and the Caroni diesel but that's fine, it's a symphony with everything contributing and I really like it. Every time I go back I'm picking out new notes, all playing together very well.

Mouth: A clean, complex and tasty blend. Where some rums come in waves, this hits you with lots of flavours right from the start. Guyana richness, lifted by Jamaican fresh estery flavours. Lots of spicy toasted oak and alcoholic salty prune juice. Long clean finish. Tasty stuff [88pts]

Black Tot Master Blender's Reserve 2021, 54.5%, 12.2yr (weighted av), 6000btls

The second release of Black Tot's 'Master Blender's Reserve'. Again, fascinating detail on the label, and again - for those wanting even more information on the blend - it's available (here)

These all molasses blends have no added sugar, are non chill filtered, and were bottled in Scotland.

To make this next release, Black Tot started with a a large measure of the 50th anniversary (11.5%) and the usual token splash of ancient, original British Royal Navy rum.

Beyond this they made a significant shift in the blend, with Guyana down from 62% to just 14% !! The balance being made up with nearly triple the amount of Trinidadian rum (42%) and the addition of some Aussie Beenleigh (6.7%).

Nose: A little creamier and much more estery & fruity than the 50th. Noses younger, fresher but maybe a little less rounded. Again the nose leads with fresh estery pineapple balanced by some earthy coffee, tobacco & spice. But in this case the young funky notes are here to stay. Complex yet super approachable.

Mouth: Taste is sort if an very estery TDL. The combination of Trinidad and Jamaica coming to the fore. Vanilla. Lots of banana, even some cherry and tropical fruit. Fresh and funky, not quite as complete as the 50th but another impressive blend. [87+pts]

Black Tot Master Blender's Reserve 2022, 54.5%, 13yr (weighted av), 5000btls

The 2022 Master Blender's Reserve. They've doubled the number of elements in the blend, so we now get a summary by country on the label. Fear not, the full uncensoured gory detail is available (here)

Again we start with 12% of the 2021 and a splash of the original Navy rum.

Beyond that the highlights are: they swapped out the 9yr Hampden for some very well aged Jamaican from other distilleries. And Beenleigh has been dropped in favour of double the amount from Barbados (25%).

Nose: The drop in younger Hampden and increase are Barbados elements are readily apparent on the nose. Less of the zippy estery pineapple. More big rich deep coconut, dried fruit and chocolate. Dark chocolate coated orange peel. Some lovely rich sweet gluey old varnish. Nosing these side by side is really interesting. The 3 BT Master Blender's are all excellent but also all really different.

Mouth: A different kettle of fish. A big deep warming rum. Those well aged Jamaican elements are providing a huge rich backbone, and the big deep signature Foursquare vanilla & coconut are cosy like an old warm jacket.

A long Guyana rum & raisin finish.

The most drinkable, but least interesting of the 3 Black Tot. A crowd pleaser. [87-pts]

Kill Devil Navy Style, 57%

The rear label tells us that this is a blend of Guyana & Jamaica rums. Other than that, I've been unable to find any detail about the rums used or the number of bottles produced.

Nose: Quite an unusual nose, fruity but artificial fruity. Like an alcoholic Vimto. I can smell some Worthy Park banana, and some creamy anise. And weirdly some curry leaves. Possibly some Demerara notes but overall a little flat, nothing is really grabbing me.

Mouth: Oof, that's not so good. A wash of sweet fruit with an unpleasant off yoghurt core. I don't really want to head back for a second sip, hope you all appreciate the efforts I go to ;-) Banana milk for sure, some salt, herbs and vanilla oak. Doesn't work. Not the worst rum I've had, but it's in that direction. [70pts]

Velier Royal Navy, Very Old Rum, 57.18%, 17.42yr (weighted av), ??btls

The first of two Velier blends. Some very old rums in here, from British Caribbean Distilleries. Over 20yr old Caroni, Guyana over 15yr (continental) and Jamaica over 12yr. Easily the oldest of today's line-up. No indication of the number of bottles released.

Nose: Oh hello Caroni. A good splash of dirty diesel is first to hit, followed closely by an estery fruit cocktail and finally a deep rich rummy Demerara. Amazing - I could nose this for hours. A lovely, super dry nose after the sickly sweet KD.

Mouth: Moorsh, dry, very slightly bitter salty fruit. Coffee, tobacco, dry esters, milk chocolate, herbs. Gluey banana, thyme & marzipan ... hmm Mount Gilboa anyone?

And it's still going. Rich, dry Demerara trading blows with some funky Jamaican, possibly a low ester Long Pond. This is what I'm looking for. This is blending at it's pinnacle. Delicious. [92pts] I am now hunting a bottle. Please let me know if you see one for sale :-)

Velier Royal Navy Tiger Shark, 57.18%, 14yr (weighted av), ??btls

Sadly we don't get the rich information provided by Black Tot. The label simply states that this is British Caribbean Pot Stills, 100% tropically aged. And well aged too, with a weighted average of 14 years.

Nose: A very rich plummy nose. Lots of banana, stewed tea and a good splash of glue. Impressive alcohol integration, a very well balanced inviting rum. Toasted spice and bitter oaky Guyanese pot still notes. Shame its missing the level of dirty Caroni notes.

Mouth: A delicious, well aged Worthy Park, and some other stuff. Sorry to be blasé but it's about as good a description as I can give - there's a good dose of Guyana, a touch of Trinidad, and lots and lots of delicious banana & stewed tea Jamaican Worthy Park. A huge leap from the traditional royal navy recipe we started today's tasting with, I struggle to see this as a navy blend but that's rather irrelevant - it tastes fantastic. Not as interesting or as complex a blend as the 'Very Old Royal Navy' but a faultless, delicious rum. [90pts]

Conclusion - The Velier blends are a step above, really impressive, but also really expensive if you can find them at all. I was really impressed by the Black Tot trio, the 50th was marginal winner for me but all of them are worth picking up. I seem to remember that the Pusser's was a fraction of the price of the rest, so value wise that deserves a mention too. Rum blends most definitely can be more than the sum of their parts!

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