The Death Of Grog
Official Anniversary of Black Tot Day
By the early-1700’s, sea voyages were going further and lasting longer—but alas, the drinking water was not. The insufferable question every Admiral of the Royal Navy was asking was, “how could their ships stay longer at sea and still maintain the significant quantities of fresh drinking water necessary to the life of each and every sailor? The only bearable answer was: grog. But, what is grog. Do you think you know what it is?
A Wee Beer…
Prior to 1740, grog was the Royal Navy’s term for “a wee beer.” What was their definition of the term, ‘wee’? Navy sailors were allotted one gallon of beer per man, per day. This translated to dozens of casks of beer in the stowage. But they were not alone in storage. Ships required many more barrels of fresh drinking water, also a gallon per man, per day. The beer might have been viewed as hogging precious space, but the water, stagnant and sitting in wooden casks, developed algae and bio-slime, and no one wanted to drink it—it did not taste good. This lead to the men drinking beer, exclusively, which in turn lead to accidents, illnesses and disciplinary problems. Then, somebody had the idea of just sweetening the slimy water with beer or barley wine to make it more palatable, and ridding of the beer-rations practice, entirely. The results of pitching that idea were disastrous!
Distilling seawater while at sea was not practical. Therefore, more casks of water were taken aboard for the ever-lengthening voyages. Of course, the problem with stowage space grew ever more difficult, and those in charge began eyeing those daily beer rations again (a gallon per man per day, remember). There was nothing for it, the beer rations were adding up and required serious trimming. First, they were cut in half. It was nothing short of melee. So, somebody put on their thinking-cap and determined that since England’s conquest of Jamaica nearly a century before made rum so readily available, they should replace the beer with rum; the sailors would require much less of it because it was 57% alcohol. Shortly, a half-pint (or 2 gills) of rum replaced beer and the ships’ crew were exceedingly happy. So that’s great. But, how does trading beer for rum keep the drinking water from spoiling? Uh-oh, it doesn’t. Not only that, but the rum given to sailors straight caused additional problems. Some sailors began saving their rum rations for several days to drink all at once, and enjoy some drunken downtime. This did not go over well with the British Royal Navy.
Vice Admiral Edward Vernon of the British Royal Navy ordered that his sailors’ rations of rum be diluted with water. Water diluted the rum’s effects, accelerated its spoilage (preventing sailors from hoarding their allowance), and ended the drunken disciplinary problems. The move did not win the Vice Admiral the hearts and minds of his crew. On the contrary, they honed in on Vernon’s simple coat sewn of grogram cloth and, far from endearing, nicknamed him, “Old Grogram,” or “Old Grog,” for short.
Vernon had also ordered lime juice added to the tempered rum (August 31, 1740) to make it more agreeable. The citrus juice was added mainly to help with the taste and to prevent spoilage, but it was also found to prevent scurvy—a happy accident! All of this provided the Navy with some very good reasons to continue the practice, and continue, they did. A half pint of rum mixed with one quart of water was issued to every man, in two servings: before noon and at the end of the workday. This 4:1 ratio of water-to-rum became part of the official regulations of the Royal Navy in 1756, and continued on for more than two centuries.
Over a 230-year history, grog became the term for a small beer, or for horrible-tasting concoctions around the globe, including: a weak beer, beer-sweetened-stagnant water, watered down rum, watered down rye, a sickening mixture of spirits doused with lime or lemon, a hot totty for colds, and even powdered kava root. The term’s meaning seemed to change depending upon where you were in the world, and when. Irrespective of those changes, the Royal Navy ceremony for distributing the daily grog remained steadfast. In fact, the “Up Spirits” ritual was quite the pomp-and-circumstance. It went something like this:
- At 11am, the boatswain’s mate piped, “Up spirits”, which was the signal for the assigned Petty Officer of the Day to address the quarterdeck and retrieve the keys to the spirit storage room, usually from a ship’s officer. In procession, the men witnessed the unlocking of the door of the spirit room, and the pumping into a keg of one-eighth pint of rum for every sailor and petty officer on the ship aged 20 or older (and not under a current punishment). Note: “Six water grog” was your beer or rum diluted with water at a 6:1 ratio. Six-water-grog was often times issued as a punishment to sailors who were guilty of rowdiness, laziness and/or drunkenness.
- Two royal marines would lift the keg to the deck and stand guard while a file of cooks from the petty officers’ messes held out their jugs. Then the sergeant of marines poured the ration, under direction of the chief steward. Next, the remaining rum was mixed in a tub with two parts water and squeezed limes. This became the grog provided to the sailors; and,
- At 12-noon, the boatswain’s mate piped, “Muster for Rum”. The mess cooks lined up with tin buckets. The sergeant of marines ladled the first of the day’s servings, or “tots,” for every sailor in the cooks’ respective messes. This was supervised by the petty officer of the day, who also saw to it the few vestiges of grog tots left remaining in the keg (aka, “plushers”), were poured down the scupper drains and out to sea. Speaking of down-the-drain…
So Long, Bob Smith, We Hardly Knew Ye
The practice of serving grog twice a day carried over into the Continental Navy and the U. S. Navy. Robert Smith, then Secretary of the Navy, experimented with substituting native rye whiskey for the imported rum concoction. Finding that the American sailors preferred it, he made the change permanent. It is said his sailors followed the practice of their British antecedents and took to calling their rations, “Bob Smith” instead of grog. But, it was not enduring, because it was not for long. The temperance movements (late 19th century) wore down long-held mindsets toward liberal drinking on land and sea. The days of grog dripped slowly to a close. In 1850, the size of the tot was halved to a quarter of a pint per day. Then, in August of 1862, the American Navy ended their rum rations altogether. In the Royal Navy, the issue of grog to officers ended in 1881, and to warrant officers in 1918.
On January 28, 1970, the “Great Rum Debate” took place in the British House of Commons, and six months later the last pipe of, “Up Spirits,” in the Royal Navy was heard. Today, this is referred to as, “Black Tot Day“.
*All sailors received an allowance of an extra can of beer each day, as compensation.
Do You Want Scurvy or Hair on Your Chest?
I knew cocktails could keep me healthy! Well, Grog can. Back in the day, no one knew that Vitamin C prevented scurvy, or why Vice Admiral Vernon had the healthiest sailors in the navy. These drinks will keep the scurvy at bay…and might even put some hair on your chest!
Traditional Navy grog recipe:
1 shot rum of your choice, dark or white
1 tsp. sugar
Squeeze of lime
Boiling water to fill a mug (sans the bio-slime).
Caribbean Grog recipe:
1 shot of light rum
1 tsp. honey
Squeezes of grapefruit juice, orange juice & pineapple juice
Boiling water to fill a mug.
Rum with water, sugar, and nutmeg was known as, “Bumbo” and was more popular with pirates. In Australia and New Zealand, the word, grog, is slang for any alcoholic drink. In some parts of Europe, grog is a “hot totty,” that usually includes black tea, lemon juice, honey and a splash of rum (this is also a popular winter cold cure, although I substitute Peppermint Schnapps for the rum). In Fiji, grog is a drink made of powdered kava root mixed with cold water, and is traditionally drunk from the half-shell of a coconut, called a ‘bilo’.
How did sailors check if their rum was watered down? They would pour some of the rum onto gunpowder and try to light it. If the powder lit, the rum was “proven” (which means it is over 57% alcohol). This is the original, liquor-related definition of the word, ‘proof’.
How did rum acquire the nickname, “Nelson’s Blood”? After Trafalgar, in 1805, Lord Nelson’s body was prepared for shipping home to England, just as he had requested in his Will. Also included in his final Testament is the instructions for that preparation: that his body be preserved in a barrel of rum. The ship made it home to England. The barrel and body of Nelson made it, too. But when they opened the barrel, the rum was gone—it had been tapped! (Ick-factor of 10.)
When did the history of grog end? Not yet! An American purchased the rights to the formula for grog, and royalties from the sale of grog are still donated to the Royal Navy’s Sailor’s Fund.