A Rum Tale

07 31 drunken sailorsToday I am marking the passing of a three hundred year old tradition. On July 31st 1970 at 11 am the last daily rum ration was issued to sailors of the Royal Navy. It is known as Black Tot Day and was a sad event. Some wore black arm bands to mark the solemnity of the occasion. One navy training camp held a mock funeral. But instead of being sad, let’s take a look at how the bizarre tradition of giving alcohol to troops on active service came about.

The rum ration had been introduced in the seventeenth century as an alternative to beer. Sailors on a long voyage couldn’t drink water because in couldn’t be stored without spoiling, so they drank beer instead. On a long voyage though, it did mean carrying an awful lot of liquid. The daily ration per seaman was eight pints a day. In 1665 the British captured Jamaica from Spain and they discovered rum. It quickly replaced beer and the ration was a generous half a pint of rum. I’m surprised anybody got anything done at all. However this situation persisted until 1740. An admiral named Edward Vernon (whose nickname was Old Grog for reasons too dull to explain) decided it was causing a few problems. He said it led to many fatal consequences to their morals as well as their health and decided to water down the ration at a rate of four parts water to one part rum. He also added lemon or lime juice to disguise how awful the water was. The new drink ‘grog’ was named after him. He didn’t realise it at the time, but the citrus juice was also helping to prevent the sailors developing scurvy. The ration was still half a pint but mixed with two pints of water and split into two servings.

In 1824 it was decided that the half pint of rum was causing a bit of a discipline problem and the ration was reduced to a quarter of a pint a day. In 1850 there was talk of ending it altogether, but instead it was halved again to one eighth of a pint, which is still around three measures a day. Then in 1969 it was put to the government that 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. The government agreed adding that it definitely not a money saving exercise.

The rum that was issued to the Navy was overproof, which means that it was stronger than the rum we can buy. It was 50% ABV (alcohol by volume) rather than 40% proof. The word ‘proof’ in relation to alcohol comes from the way pre-1740 sailors used to check that their rum had not been watered down. They would pour a little on some grains of gunpowder and set fire to it with a magnifying glass. If the flame went out, it was underproof and had been watered. If the powder burned it was proof. If it was overproof, the whole lot would explode.


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