The sailors made a long beeline before the Pursar, the officer in charge of the grog (rum), their faces were grim with frustration. They resented their daily ration, half a pint of Pursar’s rum, not because it was rum, but because working a whole day in the sun with only half a pint of rum was an excruciatingly painful affair for life in the sea.
Imagine the oceans some four hundred years ago. Spain and England were ruling the vast expanse of the water. Trade across continents flourished only with the help of naval forces that assisted the trade ships. But life in the oceans was hard for the poor souls who worked in the navy.
Beer, that nourished the parched souls of the Royal British Navy, was already deemed anathema for it turned putrid in long journeys. So the navy was on the lookout for a solution that could replace beer from their ships. It was then that their eyes fell on the Caribbean islands. The vast sugarcane plantations in the islands that sweetened the European taste buds with sugar were already producing an interesting by-product — Rum.
Beer was now replaced by this dark drink which offered the promise of weathering those long journeys across the oceans. But rum was not as innocent as beer.
Once drunk, sailors began to sing aloud blissfully:
“The wind that blows
The ship that goes
And the lass that
loved a sailor.”
The sailors danced, rebelled, and turned into virtual hooligans in the hitherto disciplined naval vessels. Admiral Vernon, who was in charge of one of the vessels, and who was affectionately addressed by his mates as Grog, now put an order to dilute the stuff given to the sailors. Rum was to be watered down! The sailors drank the diluted solution and groaned! But Vernon didn’t waver. Grog! The sailors contemptuously called the new drink after the very man, the Admiral who they all once liked.
Without knowing, the grog, rum watered down and added with sugar and lemon (to beat scurvy) became the first cocktail in the world.
Meanwhile England made a major victory over its arch enemy on sea, Spain. As English naval force routed the Spanish Armada, the hero of the war, Admiral Nelson was slowly succumbing to his wounds in one of the naval vessels. He had a dying wish - his body should not be pitched into the sea as was the usual practice.
So when he died, Nelson’s shipmates stuffed him into a barrel of Purser’s rum to preserve it in their journey back home. The ship reached England. But when the authorities tried to retrieve the admiral’s body they were in for a shock. Not a single drop of rum was in the barrel! The thirsty sailors had made a hole and siphoned off all the rum from the barrel in their trip back home.
Purser’s rum now got a new name - Nelson’s Blood. As time marched on, the name Purser’s too got corrupted and became Pusser’s rum.
But all that fun came to an end in the last half of the 20th century.
On July 31, 1970, known as the ‘black tot day’ sailors around the world in the British Royal Navy fleet raised their glasses for one last time, many with their eyes wet, with their sound broken, said good bye to the drink which kept their spirits up during the endless voyages around the world for the last three hundred years.
It was the last remnant of an empire where the sun had never set for a long period in history.
Henceforth Pusser’s rum would never be issued on board in the ships in the Royal Navy. But such a tough drink Pusser was, it was not born to die on water. Born in the Caribbean, cradled by the waves, Pusser’s now had grown a yearning for the land again.
Nine years after Pusser’s was withdrawn from the Royal Navy ships, an entrepreneur named Charles Thobias approached the Admiralty with a proposal. He wanted the Navy to help him revive the naval drink. Thobias obtained the rights and blending information from the Admiralty, formed Pusser’s Ltd in the British Virgin Islands and began selling the highly acclaimed spirits since 1980.
The company began to support the Tot fund set up by the Navy to help naval charities using its revenue.
The rest is history.
Today Pusser’s Rum is considered as the single malt of rum with elaborate procedures that go into it. Distilled in wooden pot stills, the way it was manufactured centuries ago by sea men, Pusser’s keep a long tradition alive. The wood still imparts a distinct flavour to the dark drink, which the other rums made in metal stills, lack.
If you want a taste of the ocean, laced with the spirit of the sailors who sank Spanish ships and pirate boats in a courageous age, get one of the 18,000 limited edition Nelson Trafalgar Bicentenary Decanters made in commemoration of the victory at Trafalgor.
Remember you are also tasting Nelson’s blood.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)