The History of Rum
RUM AND THE NAVY
A “Rum Tale” by Vikram Karve
If you like Rum — you must thank the Navy.
It is the Navy which introduced Rum throughout the world.
Here is a short history of Rum.
BLACK TOT DAY
Every year — July 31 is observed as Black Tot Day
On this day 50 years ago — on 31 July 1970 — the last Rum Rations were served to sailors — so this day was observed as “Black Tot Day”
On 31 July 1970 — the last “Tot” of Rum was served to sailors — and thereafter — the Royal Navy Stopped the Daily Tot of Rum for all serving Naval Personnel.
This Naval Tradition of Rum Rations had been around since 1667.
Black Tot Day was a sad day for Navy Sailors.
On December 17, 1969 the Admiralty Board issued a written answer to a question from the MP for Woolwich East, Christopher Mayhew saying:
“The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend”.
This led to a debate in the House of Commons on the evening of January 28, 1970, now referred to as the ‘Great Rum Debate’, started by James Wellbeloved, MP for Erith and Crayford, who believed that the Rum Ration should not be removed.
The debate lasted an hour and 15 minutes and closed at 10:29 PM with a decision that the Rum Ration was no longer appropriate.
July 31, 1970 was the final day of the rum ration and it was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11 AM) after the pipe of “up spirits”.
Some sailors wore black armbands — “Tots” were “buried at sea” — and in one Navy Stone Frigate (Shore Based Training Establishment) HMS Collingwood — the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire — there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.
The move was not popular with the sailors despite an extra can of beer being added to the daily rations in compensation — the last “Tot” of Rum of 31 July 1970 was called the “Black Tot” — and July 31, 1970 was named “Black Tot Day” to signify the death of Rum Rations — so — the date “31 July” went down in history as a “Black Tot Day”.
On the occasion of Black Tot Day — here is the story of the close association of the Navy with Rum.
HISTORY OF RUM
Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane from Canary Islands to the West Indies on his 2nd voyage and sugarcane proliferated in the Caribbean.
Rum was first distilled in 17th century as a way to dispose excess molasses and was adopted as the Official Spirit of British Navy.
Some say that the name “Rum” is a short form of “Rumbullion” or “Rumbustion” (old English words meaning rumpus or fracas — presumably the result of over-indulgence in imbibing the beverage).
Others suggest that “Rum” is the last syllable of the Latin word saccharum which means sugar or sweet and hence the name “Rum” — the last syllable (last 3 letters) of “saccharum” (saccha — RUM)
Before you start reading this rather longish story — why don’t you make yourself a drink of “Grog” and sip it while reading this story…?
This will help you get a better “feel” of the story.
Here is a bit about “Grog” and a recipe for the drink.
In its earliest incarnation — “Grog” was merely a mixture of hot Rum and Water with an occasional sprinkling of spices.
The 18th Century Royal Navy (British) Admiral Edward Vernon — nicknamed “Old Grog” for the grogram fabric cloak he wore — he attempted to prevent scurvy among his men by serving them a pint of Rum a day.
The dark Navy Rum had nothing to do with scurvy — but it did have a way of knocking the sailors on their duffle bags.
Admiral Vernon then issued the infamous Captain’s Order Number 349 — stating that all Rum should be mixed with water, a dash of brown sugar, and lime to make it more palatable.
In their displeasure — the sailors christened the weakened beverage after the Admiral (“Grog” after the nickname of the Admiral “Old Grog”)
RECIPE FOR GROG
Here is an old Navy Recipe for “GROG” (try it at your own risk):
Dark Rum — 60 ml
Fresh Lime Juice — 30ml
Brown Sugar — One Teaspoon
Hot Water — 120 ml
Slice of Orange and a Cinnamon Stick
Mix the rum, lime juice, brown sugar, and hot water in a mug.
Garnish with an orange slice and a cinnamon stick.
Now — Dear Reader — Sip your “Grog” and enjoy the story…
THE “RUM” NAVY
Some friends asked me why Rum is associated with the Navy — or why Navy is associated with Rum.
So — I thought it apt to write a few blog posts on the close relationship between Navy and Rum — the Sailor’s favourite drink.
Here is the first article…
THE “RUM” NAVY
A “TOT” OF RUM
STORY BY VIKRAM KARVE
Sailors require significant quantities of fresh water on extended voyages.
In the early days of sailing — since desalinating sea water was not practical — fresh water was taken on board in casks.
But — this stored fresh water quickly developed algae and became slimy.
The stagnant water was sweetened with beer or wine to make it palatable — which involved more casks and stowage space.
However — even this beer/wine fortified water was vulnerable to spoilage and turned into vinegar.
So — beer was carried instead of fresh water — and — each sailor was issued a daily ration of beer of “One Gallon of Beer per day” (Four and a Half Litres of Beer).
As longer voyages became more common — the Beer Ration of One Gallon (4.5 Litres) of Beer per sailor per day — for a large number of sailors — for long voyages of many days — this Beer Ration occupied a large volume — and — the task of stowage became more and more difficult.
So — Beer was substituted with Rum.
Rum was a “spirit” and did not spoil with time — in fact — the Rum improved with ageing in the oak barrels where the Rum was stored on board ships.
THE “RUM” NAVY
A “TOT” OF RUM
Musings of a Navy Veteran By Vikram Karve
“Rum Ration” was issued to Royal Navy Sailors from 1665 — after Britain captured Jamaica.
Before the advent of Rum — the daily drink ration for a Royal Navy Sailor was One Gallon of Beer — yes — one gallon or 8 Pints of Beer — which amounts to a plentiful 4.5 Litres of Beer…!!!
Due to the difficulty in storing the large quantities of Beer on board ships — in 1655 — half a pint (around 300 ml) of Rum was made equivalent to One Gallon of Beer — and Rum was issued to Sailors in lieu of Beer.
The daily Rum Ration of Half a Pint (almost 300 ml) means around Five Large Pegs of today’s standard Large Peg Measure of 60 ml (or 10 Small Pegs of 30 ml).
The half pint (300 ml) of Rum was originally issued neat.
Sailors would check their rum had not been watered down by pouring it onto gunpowder and setting light to it, from where the term “proof” originates.
By volume — 57.15% alcohol has been calculated as the minimum required for it to pass the test.
The sailors would “prove” its strength by checking that gunpowder doused with rum would still burn — thus verifying that Rum was at least 100 Proof = 57.15 % Alcohol by Volume (ABV) or more.
A small quantity of Rum would be mixed with gunpowder (gunpowder was available on warships of those days which fired gunpowder propelled “shots” from cannons).
The Rum-Gunpowder Mixture would be ignited.
If the mixture burned with a steady blue flame — this was “proof” that the Rum contained the proper amount of alcohol (57.15% ABV [Alcohol by Volume]).
The term “Proof” has originated from this practice of Sailors “testing” the strength of their Rum by pouring it onto gunpowder and setting light to the mixture.
By volume — 57.15% alcohol has been calculated as the minimum required for it to pass the test — as gunpowder would not burn if soaked in rum that contained less than 57.15% ABV.
Rum that contained this percentage of alcohol was defined as having 100 degrees proof.
100 Proof means 57.15% Alcohol by Volume.
Now — the term “Proof” has been extended to other spirits like Whisky, Brandy, Vodka, Gin etc as well.
The gunpowder test was officially replaced by a specific-gravity test in 1816.
NAVY TOT OF RUM
Thus — the Navy “Tot” was a substantial amount of 300 ml (10 Small Pegs) of strong 100 Proof Rum (57.1% Alcohol by Volume).
(NB: This article uses the British Imperial (UK) System. The American Standards of Proof (ABV) are different. Whereas the Imperial UK 100 Proof = 57.15% Alcohol by Volume — the American US 100 Proof = 50% Alcohol by Volume. In India we follow the British System)
The Navy “Tot” was a substantial amount of 300 ml (10 Small Pegs) of strong 100 Proof Rum (57.1% Alcohol by Volume).
100 Proof Rum was quite strong — so — later — the strength of the Rum was reduced from 100 Proof to 95.5 Proof [54.6 % Alcohol by Volume (ABV)] (American US 109 Proof)
Present Day Rums available in India are much weaker at 75 Proof (42.8% Alcohol by Volume)
So — effectively:
One “Tot” of 100 Proof Rum was equivalent to 400 ml of Present Day 75 Proof Rum or 13.5 Small Pegs or Half a Bottle of Rum
– as we know it.
The 300 ml “Tot” of Rum was given to Sailors “Neat” and the sailors drank the “Tot” of Rum “down-the-hatch” in one go.
Imagine drinking “Half a Bottle” of Rum straight “down-the-hatch”.
Dear Reader — please try this experiment — drinking a “Tot” of Rum “down-the-hatch” in one go.
Open a bottle of Rum — put it to your lips — and drink half the bottle of rum in one go — straight “down-the-hatch — and tell me how you feel.
If you feel fit and fine — you are true “Sailor”.
No wonder — sailors are known to be hard drinkers — drinking your daily Rum Ration — a “Tot” of Rum every day — it will make you a robust drinker.
The “Rum Ration” was issued to every sailor at mid-day (between 11 AM and 12 Noon) and this Rum Ration was announced with the pipe (Bosun’s Call) “Up Spirits” — on hearing which — the Sailors would exclaim “Stand Fast the Holy Ghost” — and rush to queue for their “Tot” of Rum.
The Rum Ration was served from a barrel also known as the “Rum Tub” made of oak and ornately decorated and reinforced with brass bands with the brass letters saying “The Queen, God Bless Her”.
Tot “tumblers” were kept separate — and they were never washed from the inside — in the belief that the residue from previous “Tots” would make the subsequent “Tots” even stronger.
The “Tot” of Rum was consumed as soon as it was issued — straight “down the hatch”.
This style of drinking “Tots” — the massive sudden intake of incredibly strong Rum — caused discipline problems due to drunk and disorderly behavior of some sailors who could not “digest” the huge “Tot” of Rum.
Also — some hard-drinking sailors “bartered” Rum Rations from others and hoarded the Rum below decks to drink and this caused drunkenness and disorder below the decks.
As drunkenness on board Naval Ships increasingly became a problem — in 1740 — Admiral Edward Vernon ordered the Rum Ration of One “Tot” (300 ml of Rum) for Junior Sailors to be diluted with two parts of water to make it 900 ml of Rum-Water Mixture.
Also — the Rum Issue was split into two servings per day — one at mid-day before lunch and the other after work in the evening.
Admiral Vernon was nicknamed as “Old Grog” — because of his habitual waterproof Grogram Cloak which he always wore on board ship.
So — the diluted Rum Ration introduced by Admiral “Old Grog” Vernon was nicknamed as “GROG”.
Admiral “Old Grog” Vernon opined:
“The pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams and often at once is attended with many fatal consequences to their morals as well as their health…many of their lives shortened thereby…besides stupefying their rational qualities which makes them heedlessly slaves to every brutish passion…”
On August 21, 1740, Admiral “Old Grog” Vernon issued his “infamous” Order №349 to Captains which stated inter alia:
“The Rum should be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to a half pint of rum, to be mixed in a scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done on 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…and let those that are good husband men receive extra lime juice and sugar that it be made more palatable to them…”
The addition of lime and sugar was prevent scurvy which was prevalent among sailors due to “Vitamin C” deficiency during long sailings.
(The “Lime” in the “Grog” may be the origin of the term “Limey” to describe an Englishman…)
However — this dilution of Rum with water was not appreciated by the hard-drinking sailors.
So — to express their displeasure — the sailors christened the weakened beverage “Grog” after the Admiral who was known as “Old Grog”.
However — Senior Sailors (Petty Officer and above) still received their “Tot” of Rum neat — straight from the barrel — whereas “Junior Sailors” were issued the “Grog”.
Yes — the “Petty Officers” were served first and were entitled to take their rum undiluted — whereas the “Ratings” drank their “grog” in one long gulp.
Later — “Pusser’s Rum” — created in 1784 — and approved by the Admiralty — was a popular brand of Rum — available only in the Navy.
Pusser’s Rum was a blend of 3 Rums from Guyana and 2 Rums from Trinidad — blended by traditional techniques and matured for 3 years in barrels, before bottling.
Rum was safely stored on board ships in the hold (below decks) — with an armed Royal Marine on guard round the clock.
Dear Reader — I will end this “Rum Tale” here — but post some more Navy “Rum Tales” in subsequent blog posts — and tell you more about the “Rum Bum Lash” Navy.
Meanwhile — if you are a Rum “aficionado” — Pusser’s Black Label Rum is arguably as close as you can get to drinking what the Royal Navy Sailor once drank.
This “Gunpowder Proof” Rum is supposed to be 95.5 proof (54.6 % Alcohol by Volume (ABV)) (US 109 Proof) — which was issued to the Sailors in the “Grog” after 1740 — a little less strong than the original “100 Proof” Rum (57.15% ABV [Alcohol by Volume]) issued in 1665.
Here is a picture of a bottle of British Navy Pusser’s Rum which I found on the internet.
They say that this elegant, extremely hard to find Rum comes from the last remaining kegs of Royal Navy Rum — the same stuff the sailors drank…
British Navy PUSSER’S RUM Gunpowder Proof
Whereas Rum was first distilled in 17th century (as a way to dispose excess molasses) and was adopted as the Official Spirit of British Navy in 1665 — when issue of “Rum Ration” was started to Royal Navy Sailors — in India — Rum was introduced much later.
I read an article which said that the famous Indian Rum — OLD MONK RUM — it was launched in 1954.
There may have been some brands of Rum manufactured in India before Independence during the British Rule — if you know about it — please share your knowledge with us.
In fact — all rum lovers are requested to comment and share their “Rum Wisdom” with us.
Have a “Rum Day” — Cheers…!!!
Copyright © Vikram Karve
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- This story is a fictional spoof, satire, pure fiction, just for fun and humor, no offence is meant to anyone, so take it with a pinch of salt and have a laugh.
- All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the stories are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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Link to my original post in my Blog Academic and Creative Writing Journal Vikram Karve: http://karvediat.blogspot.com/2018/06/a-tot-of-rum.html
Also posted in my Writing Blog at url: https://karve.wordpress.com/2019/12/21/rum-history-and-naval-tradition/ and https://karve.wordpress.com/2019/05/16/rum-grog-a-sailors-drink/ and https://karve.wordpress.com/2019/03/25/yo-ho-ho-and-a-bottle-of-rum/ and https://karve.wordpress.com/2018/06/21/why-sailors-love-rum/ and https://karve.wordpress.com/2020/07/31/the-rum-navy/ and https://karve.wordpress.com/2021/06/14/the-history-of-rum/ and https://karve.wordpress.com/2022/05/22/one-more-rum-tale-the-history-of-rum/ etc
Please also read my blog post on Black Tot Day at url: https://karve.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/black-tot-day/
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.