Rum Review: Pusser’s Black Label Gunpowder Proof

Rum Review: Pusser’s Black Label Gunpowder Proof

Pusser’s a well known rum brand at a reasonable price. Their “blue label” product (reviewed here) is downright inexpensive and claims to be the authentic blend used by British Navy for some 200 years (from about 1730 to 1970). So what is this black label “Gunpowder” proof all about? In the 19th century (or before) the British Admiralty began issuing an alcohol ration to every sailor. At first brandies and such were tried, but these tended to spoil over long voyages. By contrast rum seemed only to get better and so by around 1730 all the rations were converted to rum. At first “the tot” was a half pint of over proof rum, a full cup. That’s a lot of distilled spirit at 57%+ ABV. Over the years the ration changed. First water was added to bring the ABV (and hopefully drunkeness) down and then the ration was cut in half and eventually in half again. But at the beginning it was potent stuff and the sailors knew how to tell they were being cheated. As it turns out, if you put a little bit of gunpowder on paper and pour a little rum over it (any distilled spirit will have this effect) if the ABV is above a certain “magic number” the gunpowder will still ignite even wet. If it refuses to ignite, the ABV is below the magic number.

That magic number turns out to be 56% ABV! But Pusser’s “Gunpowder rum” is bottled at 54.5% ABV! The gunpowder will not ignite. It all comes down to marketing, and they were hoping you, the consumer, wouldn’t know! Well now you do! But “Gunpowder proof” or not, this is a damned good rum!

 

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Color: Medium dark amber shading to a copper red..

Legs: Tiny beads form all along the border when the glass is swirled. After a long while they begin to
coalesce into thick legs that run slowly down the glass

Aroma: Alcohol of course but not so much as you might expect from the 54.5% ABV at which the rum is bottled but it does manage to tickle the back of my throat if I inhale the glass deeply. No acetone notes, this is not a “young rum”. There is plenty to smell though. Prune, raisin, dark brown sugar, and a little bit of that “pot still” funk that one gets so much of in the 40% ABV “blue label” product. But in this version the funk is transformed from moldy forrest floor to over-ripe dark fruit.

Flavors: This rum shines on many levels from the layers of its aroma to the flavors that come through on the palate. Rich in dark fruit, prune but especially raisin, treacle (burnt caramel), vanilla, tobacco, and oak round it all out. The pot still funk is there too but far less intense than it is in the blue label and as in the aroma it tastes more like over-fermented raisin than old socks.

Texture and finish: The rum is a little creamy, but gets creamier as the glass is consumed. The finish is medium, brown-sugar sweet, and a little hot as the extra alcohol takes affect in the swallow. But it is not a harsh finish by any means, the rum shows its pedigree. There is no need to dilute this rum, it is nicely smooth at full strength. But a tiny bit of water didn’t hurt it and brought more brown sugar sweetness and frutiness to the foreground.

Speaking of sugar, the sugar test reference shows 7g/l added sugar, a tiny bit more than the 6g/l in the blue label, but these are low numbers. Some rums go as high as 40g/l, and for comparison, coca cola has a whopping 108g/l!!

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For roughly $40 at most retailers Pusser’s Gunpowder rum is a bargain. The price is about 60% above the usual blue label price (another outstanding value its price of about $25 most places) but it is a much better rum experience over all especially if the moldy funk of the blue label product is off putting to your palate.

I have paired the Gunpowder rum with a few cigars and they all seem to go well. This rum seems to hit the sweet spot as goes enhancing tobacco flavors. This might turn out to be the best cigar-pairing rum ever!

The navy tot by the way was often mixed with a little lime juice (to prevent scurvy) and sugar (undoubtedly to smooth out what would have been very young rum). This process may have pushed rum into the “anything goes” spirit we often see in products today. But by the way, a squeeze of lime is pretty good in rum…

Rum Review: Pusser’s Navy Rum

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This rum has a real history. The British navy used to issue a “rum ration” to all its sailors starting way back in 1655. Before this the navy issued beer rations and also tried wine and even brandy, but none of these spirits fared well exposed to the temperature variations experienced in different parts of the world. Rum, by contrast, just seemed to get better with time. The ration ended in 1970 (and British sailors held many a mock funeral for it) , but the formula for the rum was preserved and the makers of Pusser’s bought it from the British Admiralty on promise of never disclosing it. There are (I believe) some 7 different Caribbean rums in this blend making it one of the more complexly blended rums around. What the sailors actually drank, at least in the early days of the ration, was distributed at a higher ABV (56%) and tested by pouring a bit on some gunpowder. If the alcohol content of the rum is less than 56% the gunpowder will not ignite, but at 56% and above, the gunpowder burns.

In the glass: Medium amber about half way between my lightest and darkest rums. Nice color. Swirled makes fat legs that start slowly and then speed up as they drift down the glass.

On the nose: If you take a deep whiff when first poured you get a tremendous hit of a sort of vegetal funk that some have called putrid. I am not a scotch drinker, but the aroma suggests to me what a heavily peated scotch smells like, though scotch drinkers tell me its not. But it does smell a bit like old socks or the moldy undergrowth of a wet forest. There is also fruit, apricot, orange and rich caramel, a lot of complexity on the nose. As the rum breaths the funk drops off a bit but it remains the dominant aroma throughout.

In the mouth: One of my creamier rums, but the cream comes along with some fire. At 42% ABV this rum has a little more alcohol than the others I’ve been drinking (although the Pusser’s “Gunpowder” rum at 54.5% ABV is supposed to be available in the U.S. sometime this year and I will certainly try it). It has a little fire going down, but just enough to remind you it’s an alcoholic drink. Sugar content is low, 6g/l according to the measurements.  Note that the rum is listed at 40% ABV on that list, but that is not correct. Overall the rum is thick feeling, perhaps more so than any of my other rums except for the El Dorado  which has a lot more sugar.

Flavor: Funk! Yes that aroma of old socks or wet mold comes through loud and clear in the flavor. I am told by another rum aficionado that this vegetal taste comes from the distillate of a very old fashioned wooden pot-still used in the blend. This flavor rides on top of everything else. The rum is sweet but not very sweet and the funk cuts it anyway. There is molasses in there and brown sugar, caramel, and raisin, maybe some banana too. There are a lot of flavors to tease apart here, but everything starts with the funk.

Pusser’s is one of the world’s great rums thanks to its history and staying power. It is not a rum every rum drinker likes. Either you like the funk or develop a taste for it, or you just won’t like this rum. One reviewer who didn’t like it called it “putrid”. I’ve noticed this same funky note in two other rums, Appleton 12 year and El Dorado 15. It is pretty up-front in the Appleton though not as strong as the Pusser’s while it presents as a background note in the El Dorado. I’m sure there are many other rums, any that have a wooden pot-still component in the blend, that have it too, but I haven’t found them yet or they are too expensive for me to try. That’s the other amazing thing about Pusser’s. At $25 for a 750ml bottle in California it is among the least expensive rums I have, the Barbancourt 5 star and Gosling’s Black Seal being the other two that are really good. Will I buy this rum again? I’m on my 4th bottle now and I’m sure there will be more to come!

Drink hardy my sailor and land lubber friends!