For 300 years, sailors of Britain’s Royal Navy were offered rum as part of their daily ration. In keeping with this boozy tradition, the Royal Navy singlehandedly pioneered the art of rum blending, albeit unintentionally.
ONCE upon a time, in a not-so-distant past, there existed a world where sipping rum while on the clock was not a gasp-inducing NSFW activity — it was reality. A mere five decades ago, if you were fortunate enough to be a part of the esteemed Royal Navy, your workplace came with an unexpected and delightful perk — rum at your fingertips.
For over two centuries, rum had been an integral part of the Navy's identity, until the tradition was discontinued in 1970. But more on that later.
The tradition of providing sailors with rum began in the late 1500s when the British Navy kickstarted its naval supremacy. Since its early days, the English fleet had always carried alcohol on board. The scarcity of clean drinking water and the challenges of transporting it safely made alcohol a preferable choice for sailors at sea.
While water turned green and slimy during the journey, spirits only improved with time, thanks to the unique influence of the wooden barrels they were stored in. This sparked the fascination with aged spirits, as people realised the voyage itself enhanced the drink’s quality. However, not all beverages fared well during travel. Beer, for example, worsened, and only higher alcohol content beers, like the famous India Pale Ale, endured longer journeys. As ships travelled from port to port, each vessel acquired whatever alcohol it could, and the amount each sailor drank was determined by their captain, who carefully balanced motivation and the risk of mutiny by administering the ration.
Via Black Tot Rum
In 1731, a significant event took place: sailors were officially granted their first alcohol ration onboard as per the Naval Code. Depending on availability, crews were provided with either eight pints of beer or half a pint of spirits each day. The preferred choice among the fleet quickly became rum.
As time went on, it became apparent that the generous rum ration had adverse effects on discipline. Consequently, the ration was gradually reduced by half until it reached a mere '1 gill' or 142 millilitres per day. In 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon ordered that the rum for lower-ranking officers be diluted to minimise its effects. While still potent, this adjustment undoubtedly made the task of sailing a ship a bit easier.
Due to the admiral's grogram cloth coat made of coarse fabric, the sailors affectionately nicknamed him 'Old Grog.' The watered-down rum they received came to be known as grog, a term still commonly used today.
It is important to note that sailors had a choice regarding their rum provision. They could either consume their ration or opt for the equivalent payment instead. After all, on the ships, rum held significant value as a form of currency. One could trade it with the ship's chef for extra food, or use it to secure a few more hours of shore leave. Real money had little worth onboard. However, the monetary value was often so low that most sailors preferred to enjoy their rum.
The recipe for Navy Rum varied over the years, depending on the Admiralty's available stocks. Initially, ships would consume whatever rum they acquired from the ports they visited. In the early 1800s, a specialised system consisting of 32 wooden vats was set up at the West India Docks specifically for the production of the Navy blend.
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While English colonies like Barbados, Guyana, and Trinidad supplied a considerable portion of the Navy's rum, shortages led to the inclusion of rum from the Caribbean and other parts of the world, including Martinique, Cuba, Mauritius, and even Australia. Remarkably, despite being under British rule until 1962, rum sourced from Jamaica was generally excluded from usage due to its potency and unique taste.
The official mixture of Royal Navy rum proved for the first time that rum from different countries could be combined. This blending process took place in various victualing yards located in England. These yards served as storage and preparation areas for naval supplies and provisions before they were sent out to the ships. The rum was poured into large open containers called vats, which could hold thousands of gallons. These vats were connected, allowing the rum to be transferred from one vat to another.
For up to two years, the rum circulated within the vats, with water added and an agitator used to ensure consistent strength throughout the blend. The vats were never completely emptied but always replenished with fresh rum. At its peak, the blending process churned up to four million gallons of rum. By 1970, a system similar to solera had developed, resulting in the inclusion of rum that had been aged for decades in the final blend. Before being shipped to the sea, the caramel was added to the rum to give it a burnished colour and a hint of sweetness. Larger ships were supplied with rations in casks, whereas smaller vessels and submarines received wicker-wrapped stone flagons.
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The Royal Navy had become a pioneer in the art of rum blending, albeit unintentionally. After upholding the tradition for almost three centuries, a parliamentary vote took place on July 20, 1971, intending to discontinue the provision of rum to the fleet. The modernisation and increasing complexity of the navy necessitated sober sailors to operate radar and critical life systems.
While wooden sailing ships had long disappeared, crews operating nuclear submarines were still receiving a daily rum ration. The decision was fiercely debated, with concerns raised about the potential impact on morale. Nevertheless, the day of reckoning arrived. Three days later, on the 31st of July, 1970, the final rum ration was distributed to the fleet. Navy bases and some ships held 'funerals' to commemorate 'the day the rum died,' forever known as Black Tot Day.
The remaining blend of rum was sealed in stone flagons, left untouched except for rare occasions such as royal weddings or state events like the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Eventually, a significant portion was sold to private collectors to create space in the storehouses. The Elixir Distillers company, among others, acquired these precious remnants of the Navy Rum blend, preserving their historical significance by bottling them.