In honor of National Rum Day today:
Sailors have long been associated with drinking; the British Royal Navy issued daily rations of hooch to its sailors for centuries. At first, each sailor was issued a gallon of beer or wine a day, but after some storage difficulties, that was changed to a ration of hard spirits: brandy in about 1650, and rum in 1687 following the British conquest of Jamaica. Enlisted men were allowed half a pint of neat rum twice daily, and boys got half that. The ship’s purser dispensed the rations, and over time (and through slurred lips, no doubt), “purser” became “pusser”…and currently-marketed Pusser’s Rum is a recreation of the blended high-strength rum that was once served to the Royal Navy.
But what do you do with a drunken sailor? Admiral Edward Vernon, hero of the War of Jenkins’ Ear and commander of the fleet‘s West Indies Squadron, was concerned with what he called “the swinish vice of drunkenness.” On August 21, 1740, he ordered that his sailors’ rum be watered down:
You are hereby required and directed ... that the respective daily allowance ... 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 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... and let those that are good husbanders receive extra lime juice and sugar that it be made more palatable to them.
Over time, naval officials noticed that the West Indies Squadron‘s sailors were healthier than other sailors, and eventually ship’s surgeons discovered that the lime juice added to their rum prevented scurvy - thus the nickname “limeys“ for British sailors. (And if you’re keeping track, a “scuttled butt” is a barrel with one end removed, and you can see how gossip would spread among the men lined up for their daily ration of rum, thus the contemporary meaning of “scuttlebutt.”) Admiral Vernon’s nickname of “Old Grog”, after the waterproof grogram cloak he habitually wore, soon became the name of the watered-down rum with lime juice and sugar. (Adm. Vernon was also the namesake of George Washington’s home Mount Vernon, where Washington distilled rye whiskey. History works in circles.)
After arduous duties or in celebration of a victory, sailors could receive an extra ration of rum. This became known in naval slang as “splicing the mainbrace”; in the days of sail, the mainbrace was a heavy piece of rigging vital to the ship’s steering, and fixing it was a difficult and crucial task. After the mainbrace was spliced, it was customary for captains to order an extra drink for the crew. These days, only the Royal Family or the Admiralty can issue the order to “splice the mainbrace”, generally after a fleet review or another special occasion.
Over the years, the strength and amount of the “tot” of rum was varied by the Admiralty, but enlisted men always got their daily ration. Each day at six bells of the forenoon watch (11:00 am for you landlubbers), the bosun’s mate would pipe “Up Spirits”, and the crew would assemble for their tipple and toasts to the monarch. Until 1970, that is, when concerns over impaired crew operating increasingly sophisticated warships led the House of Commons to abolish the rum ration. This past July 31st was the fortieth anniversary of “Black Tot Day”, the last day rum was routinely served aboard Her Majesty’s warships. In Portsmouth, England, they re-enacted “Up Spirits” on the quayside, but if you’ve got money to burn, you can have a literal taste of history. The remaining stores of official Royal Navy rum sat in wicker-clad stone flagons in a bonded warehouse until last month's release of “Black Tot Rum: The Last Consignment”: a bottle will run you about £600, or more than $900. For the rest of us, though, we can celebrate National Rum Day with a slightly more reasonable tipple and do some mainbrace-splicing of our own.