How insubordination, tradition, and necessity in the British Royal Navy made rum a worldwide staple
by Ben Leggett
“The only way to drink a tot [navy rum] is to swallow it whole, grimace, and sit down to appreciate the glow which spreads from the stomach and engenders that wonderful feeling of peace and bonhomie.”
– Nelson’s Blood by James Pack
Where would rum be if not for sailors? Moreover, where would sailors be if not for rum? A seaman’s love of a spirituous tot is well documented a full century before the word “rum” even came into common usage. Today, we still use the phrase “Dutch Courage” to describe any alcohol fueled confidence boost; the phrase is derived from the English Navy’s support of the Dutch battle for independence circa 1570. Back then, however, it was genever (early gin)—not rum—which charged the hearts of fighting men. But while an old Dutch saying stated that “a sailor’s best working compass was a glass completely full of genever,” it was all about rum for the English navy man.
Global seafaring tradition has been heavily influenced by the practices established by the British Navy, but few can compete with the relationship between a sailor and his grog. Prior to Columbus discovering the West Indies in 1492, sailors all over the world were commonly offered a daily ration of alcohol—beer, brandy, genever, arrack or wine—for services to their country or captain. For the young English navy, there was little need of fortified spirits aboard their ships until Columbus opened the way to the Age of Discovery. Prior to 1492, European vessels journeyed little further than the Mediterranean Sea or North Africa. Over the next hundred years, Europeans had rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the trade-rich waters of the Indian Ocean, discovered the Pacific, and completed their first circumnavigation of the world—a world which was getting very small and very competitive. By the beginning of the 1600s, Spain had a firm hold on the West Indies, establishing a profitable colony largely due to cane plantations on the islands of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), Cuba, and Jamaica. Their staunchly Protestant rival England, who was already heavily invested in competing with the Dutch for control of the East Indies, likewise couldn’t leave control of the West Indies uncontested. So the English did what they did best and started a war.
To throw the first punch, King Charles II of England appointed one of the most influential commanders in British naval history. General at Sea Robert Blake, remembered as the “Father of the Royal Navy,” had developed a weak national fleet of 10 unequipped warships into an armada of more than 100 and was re-establishing England’s naval supremacy in Europe. But perhaps the most important part of Blake’s legend to drinkers is that in 1650 he was the first to officially issue a fortified spirit to Royal Navy sailors, replacing their daily gallon ration of beer with one of French brandy.
Beer had been provided to English navy sailors since the 15th century, but (like all ale) it was prone to spoiling during long periods at sea. It was known, however, that an ale with a higher level of alcohol and increased hop content took longer to spoil; this is why the IPA was first created. Even so, time was not on their side. With engagements outside of Europe requiring increasing periods of time at sea, the men were becoming disgruntled. In 1588, The Lord High Admiral Charles Howard noted “nothing doth displease the seaman more than sour beer.” Blake knew this too, and by temporarily instigating a ration of brandy to his fleet, he was able to save precious space aboard ship and ensure the men’s ration never spoiled. In fact, it generally got better.
Five years later, the foolish actions of one of Blake’s protégés gave rise to a navy tradition that would last for 300 years. The man’s name was Admiral William Penn and the place was Jamaica.
In a bold quest to establish a foothold in the West Indies and usurp Spanish influence further in the region, the Admiralty sent Admiral William Penn and a fleet of 38 Man-of-War battleships taking 300 soldiers on a quest to claim the Spanish-held island of Hispaniola for England. After a series of poor decisions and even poorer leadership, Penn ceased his siege of Hispaniola and instead captured the easier prize of Santiago to the south. That island was later renamed Jamaica (which is derived from Xaymaca, meaning “rich in springs.”) Penn’s insubordination in Jamaica came with sugar plantations aplenty and a locally distilled sugar cane spirit.
Taking a lesson from Blake, Penn chose to use the plentiful local cane spirit to replenish his sailors’ spent rations. A simple choice, and one which would eventually lead to rum’s establishment as a key part of a British sailor’s daily rations. Penn, meanwhile, returned to England only to be chucked in the Tower of London for disobeying orders. It was a short-lived punishment and he was soon promoted, knighted, and memorialized by his son, who established the colony and modern American state of Pennsylvania in his name. But there would be one final impact from Penn’s invasion of Jamaica that still shapes our romantic impression of rum today: piracy.
Despite the unforeseen acquisition of Jamaica, England had no initial plans for the colonial development, seeing it as little more than a disease infested rock. To deter any potential threat of Spanish reprisal, they encouraged English pirates (or “privateers”) to settle in the island capital of Port Royal (prior to the earthquake of 1692, Port Royal was an island) where they were paid a large percentage for any Spanish ships they raided in the area. Infamous figures such as the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan, arguably the most successful pirate ever, were essential to this plan. With the help of a base at Port Royal, generous commissions to freely raid enemy shipping, and almost unlimited stocks of cane spirit, Morgan and his raiding fleets managed to single-handedly keep the Spanish from monopolizing the Caribbean during the 1600s. Morgan’s exploits also laid the foundation for the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730) and modern-day anti-heroes such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Anne Bonny, Black Bart and many more.
By the start of the 18th century, rum was well established in the life of every Caribbean sailor, and with it an almost endemic alcoholic lifestyle. An English Captain visiting at the time once said:
“I really do not think it an exaggeration to say that one-third of every ship’s company were more or less intoxicated, or at least muddled and half stupefied, every morning.”
Despite such widespread debauchery, the rationing of fortified spirits aboard Royal Navy ships would not be regulated until almost eight decades after Penn took Jamaica. In 1731, the Admiralty issued Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea. It was the first official document to attempt to control spirits and their effects aboard vessels of the Royal Navy. For instance, it contained the first definition of the correct volume of a sailor’s daily alcoholic ration. “It is observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer,” it read. Prior to this document, it was the choice of the vessel’s captain to select the drink and quantity to distribute to his men. For anyone operating in or near the West Indies, that meant rum, as it was easily the cheapest spirit available. And it tasted that way, too.
Outside of the Caribbean, geography dictated the sailor’s tot. Near the British Isles, it largely remained ale. For most Mediterranean ports, it was wine and brandy, while trips to the far-flung Indian Ocean offered little except arrack. Of wines, sailors had access to a wide variety of sweetened and fortified Madeira, Rosolio or Mistela (a.k.a. Miss Taylor). By the mid to late 18th century, wine and beer had become mere substitutes for the increasingly popular rum. And with a booming Triangle Trade between the Caribbean, American colonies, and slave markets of Africa, plantations were thriving. Thanks to rum being made predominantly from a bi-product of sugar production—molasses—the spirit could be found in almost any port that traded in sugar. Still, the Royal Navy were never without their connections to French wine merchants and a personal supply of brandy for the officers.
During the 18th century, the English Navy was the largest in the world, constantly fighting to hold that distinction. Most prized of all was its firm foothold in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India, a perilous return journey of as much as three years running a gauntlet of storms, tropical disease, scurvy, and competing nations. When so far from home, a ship and its captain had to rely heavily on trade and cunning to ensure that their crew never went dry. As Captain William Bligh of the Bounty found out in 1789, a dry crew was an unhappy crew.
Despite harsh retribution meted out aboard ship for acts of insubordination or dereliction of duty, Royal Navy sailors were still notorious for their drunken, disorderly behavior. And who could blame them? In a world fraught with danger, disease, harsh punishment, and even harsher working conditions, rum was often the only reprieve. As 18th century writer Samuel Johnson put it:
“Being in a ship is being in jail with a chance of being drowned. A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”
A final act to forever cement the role of rum in the Royal Navy came in 1740 by way of a gum-stiffened coat. Vice Admiral Edward Vernon was, among other things, known for his silk, wool and mohair gum-stiffened grogram coat (his men affectionately referred to him as “Old Grog”). In an effort to maintain control of an intoxicated Royal Navy, Vernon issued Order No. 394. Addressed to all Royal Navy Captains, the order stated that a sailor’s rum allowance “be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water (around 1.13 liters) to a half pint of rum, to be mixed in a scuttled butt (dispensing barrel) kept for that purpose, and to be done upon the deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum.”
The call to “up spirits” would take place twice a day as a means of avoiding binge drinking. This practice became known as “drinking at the tub” from the twice daily ritual for all seamen to draw their grog from the scuttled butt or “grog tub.” The term “groggy” also entered the English language soon after to describe the effects this mixture had on those of weak disposition. Despite the extra effort and time eaten up by the call to up spirits, reports of drunken behavior across Admiralty fleets were noticeably diminished.
Even before Order No. 394, Vernon was well regarded not just in the eyes of the Admiralty, but also in the eyes of the men under his command. While a strict disciplinarian, Vice Admiral Vernon was renowned for caring more for his men’s well-being than was common for senior officers at the time. Vernon became the namesake of Mount Vernon, which stands on George Washington’s family estate in Virginia, so named after the American revolutionary leader’s half-brother served under Vernon’s early command.
Vernon’s rum ritual necessitated new roles and responsibilities regarding the procurement and dispensing of the grog. Few were more important than that of the purser (or “pusser”), who oversaw the purchase and dispensing of rum at the correct volume and alcohol content. With all rum purchased at harbor arriving at a higher alcohol content than was permitted, the pusser’s most difficult task was the correct dilution of each purchased cask for rationing. Whoever held this position was either a man of respect or abject disdain, depending on his ability to keep the crew on the right side of sobriety and avoid reprimand, while still enabling the crew to get as close to completely bladdered as possible to avoid a midnight episode of seaman’s justice. Until the Sykes Hydrometer was invented in 1818, the only tools a pusser had to accurately determine a spirit’s alcohol content were gunpowder and a light.
The term “proof” is still used on many bottles of liquor sold in Canada and the United States today to define the level of alcohol inside. The English Royal Arsenal is credited with having come up with the term to refer to a means of mixing rum with gunpowder to prove a spirit was alcoholic enough for purchase and correct taxation. It was the pusser’s task to dilute the tot to the correct levels for dispensing. If done just right, the powder would ignite and fizz out. Too little water and the pusser could be blown to bits. Too much and the crew would revolt against the pusser, beating him to a pulp for diluting their grog. It was a tough posting, to say the least.
With the introduction of the Hydrometer, the old fashioned technique of proving a spirit was no longer needed and the majority of the world began measuring alcohol content in “% ABV” (percentage alcohol by volume). What was known for the first time with the invention of the Hydrometer was the average level of alcohol in standard navy rum, a level that the Admiralty set at no higher than 99.24 proof or 50.76% ABV.
By the middle of the 18th century, both the English and American naval fleets were well and truly in bed with rum. And with half a pint of 51% ABV rum still being distributed each day to navy recruits, who wouldn’t want to be a sailor? But with two World Wars still to be fought and the Deptford Victualling Yard yet to create the famous Admiralty Blend, rum was not yet finished with the navy man.
Beginning as a simple means of substitution for an already spent beer ration, navy rum 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 was more than just a mild intoxicator. With only the most rudimentary equipment and medicines available to ship surgeons, rum also became an anesthetic, antiseptic and antibacterial. In 1722, the Admiralty Board acknowledged the need to improve hygiene aboard navy ships and ordered 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. It was little help, as during the Seven Years War of 1754 it was recorded that for every one sailor who 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 ship’s 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’s merely fantastical hearsay. 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.
The Admiralty finally acknowledged by 1824 that there were perhaps a few too many stories of drunken insubordination and dereliction of duty in their navy. The daily tot ration was reduced from the daily half a pint of rum to a quarter of a pint. 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 standardized 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 percent 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 counterbalance 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 they were of age. The floodgates were now open and the temperance unions were pushing hard for every inch. By 1905, you had the choice of opting out of your rum ration in favor of the extra half penny a day. 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 became 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 navy rum. That responsibility was left to the unsung heroes of the Royal Victoria 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 earned itself a place among Royal Navy legend. Around the start of the 20th century, word of a missing yard worker’s dog led to rumors 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 Majesty’s 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 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 more closely 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, but 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 were 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 spirits 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, South Africa continued to supply rum to the Royal Navy as late as 1961, by which time the spirit was 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, where 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 outs, 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 chaplain 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 its 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” (a.k.a. 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 ED&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 favorites 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
Ben Liggett is a UK-based barman, brand consultant, ambassador, trainer, and all-around self-confessed drinks geek. He is the writer and editor at DrinkingCup.net.