Full Nelson + Wood’s Navy Rum.
I was recently able to get my hands on some older bottles of one of my favourite rums and thought it must be time for a sprawling and ill-conceived article about a product that a lot of people will have little chance of finding but with a damn fine cocktail at the end as a reward. If you don’t live in the UK and have no intention of visiting the UK you might as well tune out now as Wood’s Old Navy Rum is extremely sparsely (if at all*) distributed outside of its home nation. Glad to see you’re still with us. Wood’s 100 Old Navy Rum was a direct descendant of the rum that was issued to Royal Navy sailors for hundreds of years until the infamous “black tot day” of 31st July 1970 whence they got a can of lager instead – poor bastards. Wood’s is bottled at 57% alcohol which is the original Navy proof before it was cut back to a watery 54.5% in 1866. Until about 6 years ago it was issued to the public in one litre bottles for about £25 making it extraordinarily good value just in terms of alcohol for money alone. But all good things must come to an end and around 2016 a marketing team was brought in and the bottle was shrunk to a measly 700ml**, the “100” dropped (it refers to the outdated UK proof system where 100 = 57.14% alcohol), the label “modernised” and the price moderately increased. A little booklet was attached around that time explaining that the rum inside was exactly the same. Having already swally’d all my old skool Wood’s I had to take their word for it. Until now. But before we get to the comparison let’s talk about what Wood’s rum is. It’s a 100% demerara rum (Navy rum was usually a mixed source rum containing a fairly high proportion of demerara) made in Guyana in some of the last wooden rum pot stills in the world after which it is shipped to the UK and aged in a temperate climate for around thee years – formerly under the Thames in London and more recently in Glasgow. Yes, it is heavily coloured with caramel to give it that distinctive mahogany colour. The nose is a blast of ethanol and molasses but with some perseverance an underlying spiciness can be detected. When sipped the first reaction is, “shiver me timbers, this be a powerful brew” with an astringency from the high alcohol content with relatively little aging coming as quite a shock. But then. Spices, molasses, toffee, raisins, cinnamon and a warming richness that lasts and lasts. The heavy molasses flavour gives an impression of sweetness yet I measured zero (or at least negligible) added sugar in either bottle with the hydrometer test. While not for the feint of heart this “grown up” rum is pretty unique and even in the smaller bottle is superb value for money. This is really an ideal rum for mixing, especially in Tiki drinks and although old sea dogs will insist it should only be drunk neat you follow their advice at your own peril. Those in the UK with easy access to Wood’s but difficulty finding overproof demerara rums such as Lemon Hart 151 can consider Wood’s an acceptable substitution – but chuck a little extra in there. Rum-heads from other parts who happen to find themselves in the UK should put Wood’s at the top of their shopping lists. It can be found in most bottle shops and even some supermarkets (Morrison’s being a reliable source in my experience) but don’t bank on finding it at the airport due to its high alcohol content.
But, now the question: is there a difference in taste between now and 6 (or more) years ago. I tasted from an fresh bottle of each to see. And. Yes, there are differences although very minor. To me the older version is a little harsher and oilier. A slight bitter edge that is missing from the newer version is detectable. The newer bottle is marginally smoother, creamier and more approachable. Perhaps the best way to describe the newer bottle is as a tiny bit more “tamed”. I’d say they are both equally good but just very slightly different. Whether the change came with the new label or is just a gradual shift over the years is impossible to say at this distance and ultimately it’s not any more important than showing us that spirits do change over the years. I’ve got to say I kind of like the older presentation – it’s just more “honest”. The sailor on the old label looks like he’s having a grand old time while the one on the newer one looks bored to tears. I’m guessing he’s on the can of lager while the older fellow has just had his tot of Navy proof rum. While this isn’t exactly one of my spirit review articles as such, if it was Wood’s Old Navy Rum (current version) would score an A. Which it doesn’t because it isn’t. But anyway, did I promise you a tasty cocktail for enduring my ravings? I think I did…
My Full Nelson is my Navy proof version of the Navy Grog with a few tweaks here and there. I’d promised to myself that I’d keep this recipe secret for my very own Tiki bar but I’m just too damn grateful to you readers to hide it any longer. The key to the Nelson is to use Wood’s for its demerara richness and Smith & Cross for its glorious Jamaican funkiness. That S&C is also a 57% rum is a happy coincidence that keeps us right in the Royal Navy vibe. The tweaks that make it differ from just a Navy Grog with stronger rums are in the sweeteners. I use ginger syrup and falernum to maximise the spiciness already present in the Wood’s and fire an extra dash of Ango in there for good measure. Note with that 2 ounces of 57% rum the Full Nelson is no stronger that a Navy Grog but just less diluted. Serving it over ice in a tankard helps with the dilution over time and is not just for the aesthetic.
1oz/30ml Wood’s Navy rum***.
1oz/30ml Smith and Cross rum.
1oz/30ml white grapefruit juice.
1oz/30ml fresh lime juice.
0.75oz/22ml Ginger syrup.
2 dashes Angostura bitters/
Pulse blend 6-8 times with 4oz (120ml) of crushed ice and pour into a tankard containing a few cubes of ice.
Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Toast Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805).
*As far as I can tell the older version was internationally distributed but that ended with the change of bottle size. Notice that the “export strength” flag is absent from the new version. Some old stock of the 1 litre older version still exists in places which is where mine came from.
**OK, so it’s got a nice cork now but I’d much rather have my 300ml back.
***If you can’t get any use another Navy Rum but it won’t be quite the same.