Navy Highballs

May 19, 2012

Pirates drink rum. That’s something I’d forgotten, sipping on Daiquiris and Mojitos made from fine Cuban white rum recently.

When in New Zealand recently, I had a great drink, called the Navy Highball, at an excellent little Wellington bar called Monterey. They do only a few cocktails, but do them well. The ones I tried were great, but it was this one that I scribbled down the ingredients for. I remember my mate Ben saying “Rhubarb Bitters – you’ll never find those in Taiwan”. I could only agree, until suddenly, a couple of months ago, I discovered that the Breeze Supermarket had imported the whole range of Fees Brothers Bitters.

But that still left the Pusser’s Navy Rum. There’s nothing like that for me to buy in Taiwan. But it just happened that making a rush purchase when I couldn’t find what I wanted at the airport, I ended up buying the Australian Overproof Bundaberg Rum. I had read in ‘Imbibe’ that there was a really good old-style pot-still rum made in Australia, which David Wondrich recommended for old Jamaican-style rum. But I couldn’t remember its name. Turns out, it wasn’t Bundaberg; it was Inner Circle. ‘Bundy’ has more of a reputation as a binge-drink of choice for Aussie yobbos.

So I was a bit disappointed that I’d wasted one of the eight bottles of booze I’d smuggled back from Kiwiland. This was only confirmed on my first sip of the Bundy OP. Vile rocket fuel. Then, much later, trying it with a little lime and tonic, I found I quite enjoyed it. In fact, it just needed a little taming. Then I really appreciated its strong flavour and high proof. After that, I even appreciated the taste after straight sipping – an acquired taste very similar to my experience with Neisson’s Rhum Agricole which I had actually thought spoiled on first whiff from the bottle. (I have since learnt a term for this – ‘Hogo’ – from the French haut goût or ‘high taste’).

The next thing that led me to re-evaluate the Bundaberg was browsing Imbibe again, I found that Wondrich actually recommended it for a couple of drinks like the Black Strap and the Stone Fence that called for “real pirate juice”. Pirate Juice! I liked the sound of that. And I suddenly remembered the Navy Highball. Time to buy that Rhubarb Bitters.

The Navy Highball is so called because it is made with Pusser’s Navy Rum. So what exactly is Navy Rum? My first thought is that it meant rum bottled at ‘Navy Strength’. I wasn’t quite right about that.

‘Navy Strength’ is a term applied to rum and gin (for British Navy seamen and officers respectively) bottled at 57% alcohol by volume or more (which is the old British 100-proof). This is because this is the concentration at which spirit spilt on gunpowder will still allow the powder to be lit. Presumably this gave the Brits a great advantage over Frenchies who were spilling their cognac on the cannon powder in the heat of combat. It’s also where the term ‘proof’ came from. To ‘prove’ the alcohol was strong enough you’d test it with gunpowder. If it lit, it was ‘overproof’.

But British ‘Navy Rum’ doesn’t just mean it’s overproof (and in fact later Navy-style rums were made at underproof strengths). It stands for the British style of rums from Islands like Jamaica in the West Indies. It seems that they were generally blended and then aged in large wooden barrels.

This at least was the method used for Pusser’s Navy Rum, the official suppliers of the Navy until the ‘tot’ was ended in 1970. A sad day, indeed. The Navy had had a tradition of drinking rum going back to 1655 when they acquired Jamaica and it replaced Cognac as the navy’s rationed drink. It also had the advantage that unlike Cognac it improved on long hot voyages (where the Cognac deteriorated). At one point seamen were later issued with a pint of rum a day! Later lime juice was added to prevent scurvy and the rum was watered down into the famous ‘grog’. Most sources say that this was to prevent too much drunkenness, but I have also read that it was to stop hoarding and trading of the ration (as it would spoil after water was added).

Pusser’s (the name is a corruption of ‘Purser’s’, as all rations came from the ship’s purser) was originally only supplied to the Navy, and with the end of the ‘tot’ production ceased until seven years later the brand was purchased and reproduced (according to the makers) according to the original recipe.

Well, no Pusser’s in Taiwan. No Lamb’s. Not even any Goslings. I don’t know if Bundaberg OP can really be called ‘Navy Rum’, but it’s definitely ‘Navy Strength’ (57.7%) and Wondrich calls it “real pirate juice”. That’s good enough for me.

The other change I made to Monterrey’s Navy Highball was that I used ginger beer instead of ginger ale. I finally found some (at Jason’s Supermarket in Banqiao FE21 Mall). Bickford’s, like the Bundy, is from Australia and it’s an old-style spicy ginger beer, from which modern ginger ale is a stunted descendant. It seemed like a good match.

Navy Highball

2 oz Navy Rum

1/2 oz orange curacao

1 oz lime juice

2 dashes of rhubarb bitters

ginger beer

Build in a highball glass full of ice, stir and garnish with lime.

As I said, this is an adaptation of Monterey’s recipe, I made up the proportions myself, and made substitutions (they seemed to work well though). The original called for Pusser’s, but the Bundaberg OP was fine. If you’re using ginger beer instead of ginger ale, you need a strong full rum to stand up to that spice. Make those dashes of bitters good ones too. Three dashes won’t hurt. I used Grand Marnier for Orange Curacao, and to tell the truth, it was a bit buried in this drink – substituting Cointreau or other Triple Sec would work just as well. You could even leave it out without hurting the drink (though add a teaspoon of sugar, as the Curacao acts as sweetener).

I was right to think that the Bundy would make for good pirate juice in this cocktail, and that ginger beer would work better than ginger ale – that stuff really puts the ‘yo ho ho’ in the bottle of rum! This drink made a highball that for me could be a refresher, but also evoked drinking outside a bar perched atop a cliff looking out over a stormy sea. No, really, it did. In fact it made me think ‘Ahh! Dark ‘n’ Stormy!’.

The Dark ‘n’ Stormy is drink whose recipe is trademarked. It can only be made with Goslings Black Seal Rum, and Barrit’s Ginger Beer (or Gosling’s own brand). This trademark can’t be enforced very stringently though, as a pre-bottled ‘Dark and Stormy’ is is made by none other than Bundaberg.

The Goslings were bound for American in the early 19th Century, but ended up in Bermuda where they ended up blending and aging rums. Their ‘Black Seal’ moniker comes not from the sea mammal on their current bottles, but from the wax seal that was used to stopper the old product.

I thought I’d give this a go with the Bundaberg and Bickford’s. Of course it can’t really be called a Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

The Somewhat Dark and Rather Stormy

2 oz Bundaberg OP rum (or other pirate juice)

4 oz Bickford’s (or other ginger beer)

Build in a highball glass full of ice, stir and garnish with lime and a slice of fresh ginger root.

The lime is a little controversial in this drink. Some say it shouldn’t go anywhere near a ‘Dark ‘n’ Stormy’. Others squeeze a wedge and drop it in. I compromised and just used it as garnish.

This was an excellent drink, but the Navy Highball was still better.

I still had a little of the bottle of Bickford’s to finish off , so I went for one more rum and ginger beer highball, which I found in ‘Boozehound’, but comes from bartending great Dale DeGroff.

Anejo Highball

1 1/2 oz aged rum

1/2 oz Cointreau

1/4 oz lime juice

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

ginger beer

Build in a highball glass full of ice, stir and garnish with a lime wheel and an orange wheel.

This bears obvious similarities to the Navy Highball, but this time I made it with Anejo Rum – in my case Havana Club (but Jason Wilson recommends Flor de Cana Gran Reserva, Chairman’s Reserve or Appleton V/X if you live in an embargoed nation). I think my ginger beer was a bit strong. I tried again with Bundaberg and it was actually better. The Havana Club couldn’t stand up to the ginger beer. But this would definitely be worth trying again with less or weaker ginger beer for a more subtle drink than my pirate fix.

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15 Responses to “Navy Highballs”

  1. Alicia Says:

    Your Navy Highball sounds tasty! And it sounds like you are getting really inventive for where to find your cocktail ingredients!

  2. theboolion Says:

    Thanks Alicia. I was more lucky than inventive.

  3. putneyfarm Says:

    I like the Navy Highball recipe- we will be trying this. Did the Rhubarb bitters show trough? We may buy some, suddenly we are seeing a lot of recipes using it.

    Funny, I had the same experience with Bundy when I was in Oz (many moons ago) and I grew to like it, too. I would recognize the smell right away…

    • theboolion Says:

      Thanks, Putneyfarm. The rhubarb did show through. It’s a taste I like, so I’m usually generous with my dashes. I may have done three. I think you’ll like it. Now that I have access to all the Fees Brothers Bitters, I’m being a bit extravagant and buying one a month – hey, they last forever.

  4. putneyfarm Says:

    Adding you to our blogroll…great stuff!

  5. benedictchapman Says:

    Nice post Brian, but you got lost after the first sentence ;). No pirates would be drinking navy highballs. Imagine the difficulties sourcing rhubarb bitters on the Spanish Main. Nor grog, which even navymen only drank to make their nasty ship water palatable. You should be pouring your pirate juice into bumbo.

  6. benedictchapman Says:

    Nice to see Bundaburg getting some love. I find the stuff pretty rough myself, but Deirdre’s grandfather was a chemist at Bundaburg, so it’s the family drink.

  7. benedictchapman Says:

    Nice shout out to Monterey, but I got to say that though they only have a few cocktails on the menu, they can make anything they have ingredients for.

  8. theboolion Says:

    Bumbo, ay? Looks like a simple Rum Sling. I’ve tried something very like it. And hot buttered rum which is even more spiced up.I don’t doubt that there would have been few pirates really drinking Navy Highballs. I was just remembering that good rum can be the old pirate juice stuff, and hey, I think pirates would have drunk it with ginger beer if they’d had it to hand.

    I wasn’t meaning to suggest that Monterey only had a few cocktails. I just liked the fact that their menu (food menu too) didn’t try to do everything. They have a few things they focus on doing well. I liked that bar a lot.

    • benedictchapman Says:

      Speaking of ginger beer, here’s you may want to add to your armoury.

      • theboolion Says:

        Ginger syrup! In a fantastic coincidence, a couple of night’s ago, as I was trying to go to sleep, I was working out a cocktail that I’m going to try and create. I came up with the idea of ginger-infused simple syrup all on my own. Of course, I knew that it would have been done before, but I was quite proud of my idea, and planned to make it on Saturday already. Not sure if the cocktail will work or not.

    • benedictchapman Says:

      Hot buttered rum is a weird drink isn’t it. Warmed up, watered down, buttered up rum should really be a bit yuck, but is surprisingly delicious.

      Hadn’t thought of spicing it up too. What spices do you use?

      • theboolion Says:

        I added a cinnamon stick and a couple of cloves. Allspice is also suggested sometimes.

        I think I basically followed Chris McMillian’s recipe, although I may have modified it from other sources:

  9. Tiger Mountaineer Says:

    Speaking of ginger syrup, I’ve made candied ginger a couple times lately, and the process (http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2008/12/candied-ginger/) creates two byproducts that are excellent in cocktails. After pre-boiling the ginger, you get a spicy tea that can substitute for ginger beer (just mix half n half with ginger ale), and the candying process leaves you with a thick ginger syrup that you can mix with rum or other cocktails.

    • theboolion Says:

      I made a syrup today, but it was definitely too strong for the tequila-based cocktail I want to make. I’m going to have to weaken it if I want to use it in place of simple syrup, otherwise I’ll just have to add a little to syrup each time.


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