Beginning as a simple means of substitution for an already spent beer ration, navy rum under its seafaring moniker ‘grog’, had spread around the world on the back of the Royal Navy and was now being enjoyed in the taverns and coffeehouses of Europe’s most influential trade ports.
As a fortified spirit, rum played the role of more than just the mild intoxicator. With only the most rudimentary equipment and medicines available to ship surgeons, rum equally played the role of anesthetic, antiseptic and antibacterial. In 1722, the Admiralty Board acknowledged the need to improve hygiene aboard navy ships and as such ordered her long distance vessels to install a small pot still to purify the water stores which were often little more than an incubator for bacteria and disease. Little help it made however as during the Seven Years War of 1754, it was recorded that for every one sailor that died in combat, 80 died of disease or desertion. Already held in such high esteem, rum was also often the cleanest thing to drink aboard ship.
At the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, English hero and Admiral Horatio Nelson took a fatal sniper round to the chest in the closing moments of victory over the French. To preserve his body for the return voyage to England and a state funeral, the ships lead surgeon – Irishman William Beatty – elected to preserve the body in a barrel of French brandy which was lashed to the deck and under guard for the entire journey. While this event has led to many stories of sailors drinking this brandy out of respect for Nelson, it is merely fantastical hearsay despite a good yarn. While the brandy preserved the body in near perfect condition during the long return voyage (and a week-long storm labelled ‘The Storm of the Century’) the ship’s surgeon was greatly criticized for his choice of preserving spirit when common practice dictated using rum.
While civilians commonly enjoyed their rum tot either neat or mixed in a punch, for the navy man it was a compulsory mixture of water and rum from which the term ‘grog’ had evolved. Compulsory though this mixture may have been, the role of the Pusser to acquire, dilute and dispense grog to sailors at the correct alcoholic dosage, was anything but standard. Unsurprisingly, it was not uncommon for the Pusser to be a popular man. As was their want, sailors created a colloquial guide for the different ratios of rum to water:Nor’wester: ½ water ½ rum
Due North: Pure rum
Due West: Pure water (never happened)
West Nor’west: 1/3 rum 2/3 water
North Nor’west: 2/3 rum 1/3 water
Therefore if a sailor requested of the Pusser for his grog with more ‘Northing’, you can work out what he was asking for. The means in which you imbibed your grog tot divided you into one of three categories; the ‘sippers’, the ‘gulpers’ and the ‘sandy bottoms’ (who emptied their cup in one go). The everyday language of the Royal Navy sailor has inspired a multitude of books to be published in honour of the many colourful limericks, titles and terms common in navy parlance. Regarding the world of grog, unsurprisingly this contributed its fair share to the vernacular:Rummage: A term used by custom officials when searching for smuggled barrels of rum aboard ship Jack Dusty: The stores manager who maintained accounts of all grog issued Tanky: Jack’s assistant who did the fetching, tanking (filling) and distributing of grog Splice the Mainbrace: An Admiralty gift of an extra grog ration to all Navy vessels at a time of national pride. Derived from the completion of a difficult task (such as splicing the mainbrace) which was usually rewarded with an extra serving of rations. Rum Fanny: A sailor’s personal grog receptacle named after young Fanny Adams who was murdered and dismembered at the Deptford Victualling Yard in London where mutton was tinned for distribution to navy vessels. A sailor’s disdain for this processed meat mutton fuelled rumours that parts of Fanny made it into the tins. Later, the tins (aka Fanny-cups) were discovered to be perfect for ‘catching grog’ from the grog tub. Rum Boss: The elected person aboard larger navy vessels who collects grog rations for his allocated mess group. Queens Share: Or simply known as ‘Queens’; any leftover grog from the Rum Boss’ Fanny-cup after distribution to his mess group. This was usually saved and accrued for a special occasion. Grog Day: The day a young navy sailor comes of age and is allocate his first issue of grog. Barricoe: Pronounced ‘breaker’; a small barrel used to transport the correct volume of grog from the spirits room to the grog tub. Scuttlebutt: Also known as the ‘Grog Tub’; a half barrel tub used for the mixing and dispensing of grog on deck to sailors. Nelsons Blood: A name given to navy rum after the death of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. Nelson was embalmed in a ration barrel of brandy (popularly believed to be rum) until his return to port. Limey: Nickname given to Royal Navy sailors by their American counterparts in reference to their compulsory consumption of citrus aboard all ships in 1867 to prevent scurvy.
The Admiralty finally acknowledged by 1824 that there were perhaps a few to many stories of drunken insubordination and dereliction of duty in their navy. As such the daily tot ration was reduced from the daily ½ a pint of rum to ¼ of a pint or 1 gill (1 gill = 4oz US / 100ml UK). To help compensate the sailors for this halving of their rations – and perhaps to subvert potential mutiny – 2 shillings was added to all sailors’ monthly wages as well as the addition of coffee and tea to their daily allocation. The serving of grog also became issued only once a day (at noon) instead of twice. Somewhat ironically the rum ration actually increased by around a fifth anyway, due to implementation the same year of the imperial system of measurement which redefined the volume of a gallon. Before King George IV of England standardised the imperial gallon, a gallon of wine or spirits was 231 cubic inches whereas a gallon of beer was 282; so that merchants wouldn’t have to pay for the volume taken up by the natural 10% frothy head on beer. Meeting somewhat in the middle, the new standard imperial gallon held 277 cubic inches – good news for Royal Navy sailors.
By 1831, beer was no longer offered as an alternative to the rum ration while wine remained an option as it was believed to hold medicinal benefits. In 1850, the rum ration was cut again to half a gill; with the sugar and meat rations increased to counter-balance this. The first significant blow to navy rum came not from the Admiralty but from increasing pressure from temperance movements back home. In 1875, England reached an all-time high in alcohol consumption per capita due to increased economic prosperity. Pressure from temperance unions was succeeding in influencing politics for the first time and the Admiralty was forced to introduce an age restriction, prohibiting sailors below 20 years old from drinking rum. In compensation, the equivalent cost per tot was added to their wages each year until ‘UA’ was taken off their station card. The flood gates were now open and the temperance unions were pushing hard for every inch. By 1905, the choice to opt out of your rum ration in favour of the extra half penny a day was instigated. Two years later it was increased to a full penny and by 1919 it was three times that amount. By this time England had already been entrenched in one World War and with conscription swelling the ranks of the Navy once more, navy rum once again becoming a means of reprieve from the burdens of war.
With this rise in the number of Royal Navy sailors also came the need to increase and sustain the supply of the navy rum. A responsibility left to the unsung heroes of the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, previously the Deptford Victualling Yard. Situated on the Thames in central London, the Royal Victoria Yard was singly responsible for the navy’s rum, as it was from here that the Navy tot was blended, matured and shipped. Despite never setting sail, the Royal Victoria Yard didn’t escape earning itself a place among Royal Navy legend. Around the start of the 20th century, word of a missing yard worker’s dog led to rumours that said hound had somehow fallen into one of the blending vats. The story became so well spread that an order was finally given to drain the accused vat of its contents in search of the remains of the missing dog. Instead of bones, the workers discovered tens of bottles with string tied around their necks lying at the bottom of the vat.
While not of flesh and blood, ‘dog’ was already a common name given to a tool used by Scotch distillers. Traditionally a skinny copper pipe sealed at one end and attached to a length of string or chain, dogs were used to drop through the bung hole of a barrel to extract spirit for sampling. By also tying lengths of string to empty glass bottles, a somewhat cunning (albeit thirsty) warehouse employee created their own rudimentary dog for no doubt more than just sampling. With so many bottles at the bottom of the vat, one could count how many times dogs were hastily dropped in fear of discovery. In early Scotch distilleries, the common technique of sliding a whisky filled Dog down your trouser leg and strolling out the front door became known as ‘walking the dog’.
Prior to the Admiralty taking over the procurement and supply of rum for His Majesties fleet, the role fell to the Pusser and / or Captain, to purchase what rum they could from wherever they could. More often than not it was a cheap, rough, firewater with more in keeping with the spirit’s earlier title of ‘Kill Devil’. Today we have access to rums well in excess of 10 years of age whose smooth characters closer resemble an old Cognac or Scotch than the rums of old. For the pre 20th century sailor, nothing was smoother or more complex than the Admiralty blend. According to Nelson’s Blood: Story of Navy Rum by Cpt. A. J. Pack, the Admiralty blend consisted primarily of British Guiana rum with some Trinidad for lightness and either Cuba, Barbados or Martinique for body, depending on supply and price. These were blended in various vats from 4-32,000 gallons each before being stored in riverside warehouses ready for shipment. Much of the old yard today has been redeveloped into luxury apartments however two former rum warehouses still exist on the riverbank looking over the Thames.
Throughout both the first and second World Wars, the Deptford rum vats were worked almost all day, every day to ensure the Royal Navy received the vast volumes required to sustain their swollen fleet. Only two recorded periods when the yard missed its quota was when merchant shipping was taking heavy losses from German U-Boats attacks in 1941 and when the Royal Victoria Yard got the crap knocked out of it during The Blitz. To help ensure the availability of the vast volumes required for the Pacific and Asian fleets, the Admiralty recruited out of Durban and Natal, aid from the South African National Chemical Syndicate. Initially established to manufacture methylated and rectified spirits for the tanning industry, the Syndicate took to distilling cane spirit in support of the war effort. While the spirit was regarded as rum in title, the unblended, unaged spirit was more similar in taste to that of its methylated cousins. Regardless of this, South Africa continued to supply rum to the Royal Navy as late as 1961 by which time the spirit was now shipped to England where it was matured on British soil for 5 years (known as an ‘early landing’) for a smoother finish.
Today cane spirit is still produced out of Natal in South Africa were a sugar cane vodka called Mainstay has been commercially produced since 1954. And yes, we would call this a rum too. By the mid 20th century, rum was on the out with many sailors electing extra pay in lieu of their tot. At precisely 6 bells in the afternoon watch on the 31st July 1970, the Royal Navy grog tub was filled for the last time. Admiralty vessels stationed throughout the world staged a final call to “Splice the Yardarm” along with mock funerals on what was coined by the media as Black Tot Day. A chaplin stationed at Royal Navy base HMS Jufair in Bahrain dedicated a sermon to the passing of this navy legend, inscribing into a mock headstone with the words,
“…we therefore commit it’s cask to the ground, sip to sip, splashes to splashes, thirst to thirst, in the sure and certain knowledge it will never again be restored to us”.
In return for abolition, the funds previously dedicated to the supply of grog were channeled instead into The ‘Sailors Fund’ (aka Tot Fund), which dedicated an initial £2.7 million into upgrading the amenities and living conditions of the common sailor. With abolition came the loss of a historical ritual practiced for over 300 years in all corners of the globe touched by the sea. If not for an inspired ex US Marine named Charles Tobias, the recipe for the Admiralty blend would have been lost with it. Thanks to the assistance of brokers E.D & F Man who had supplied the Royal Navy with rum for blending for almost two centuries, the recipe is kept alive inside every bottle of Pusser’s brand rum. Further still, for every case of Pusser’s sold an additional USD$2 is donated to the Royal Sailors Fund in salute to their legacy. Over 350 years ago, an Admiral claimed the island of Jamaica for the English crown and unwittingly began a series of events which would give us those two favourites of the Caribbean; rum and pirates. But the relationship between sailors and their daily tot is a tradition to truly define an age of heroes.
“Jacks happy days will soon be gone,
to return again, ah, never.
For they’ve raised his pay by five cents a day,
but stopped his grog forever.
All hands to Splice the Mainbrace call,
but splice it now in sorrow,
for the spirit room key must be laid away,
forever on tomorrow.“
– Farewell to Grog by USN Paymaster Caspar Schenck – 1862,
- Nelsons Blood: The Story of Naval Rum. Capt James Pack OBE RN – 1996
- Spirituous Journey – Book One: From the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail. Jared Brown + Anistatia Miller – 2009
- Pusser’s Rum – Official Website
- Star Newspaper: How the Navy is Fed. 8th December, 1900 – Article, Papers Past Archive
- Demerara Distillers Ltd – Official Website
- Health Committee Publications: Estimated Alcohol Consumption Per Capita, UK – Graph. House of Commons historical records.
- Port Cities London: Deptford and Woolwich, London’s Royal Dockyards. Royal Museums Grenwich, Website.
- Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations. Robert Debs Heinl – 1996
- The Rum Fanny – Document. Anon.
- Mainstay Vodka – Official Website
- The Belvenie News: The Excisemen by Brand Ambassador Lorne Cousin – Official Website
- Look and Learn: History Picture Library – Archive