On 31st July 1970 the Royal Navy gave out the last ‘grog’ ration on HMS Endymion, a tradition that had become part of Royal Navy life. It was quite rightly thought that it was not conducive to concentrating on the job at hand. Happily it is a drink that continues to be popular in leisure time throughout society as a whole nowadays.
Rum was standard issue
Sailors in the tropics used to toast the setting sun with glass in hand. It marked the end of the day. Grog became a Royal Navy tradition by coincidence. The setting is the Caribbean, the region where it was produced. It was an area of intense marine activity in the days of exploration, slavery, treasure and pirates. ‘Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of ….’ from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island relates to one of the Virgin Islands and a sailor’s love for drink.
Although below deck every luxury was provided for officers and guests, on deck things were different. The food on the royal fighting ships, which remained at sea for long periods, was awful. In the 18th Century each sailor was given a ration of wine or beer to take their minds off the conditions under which they lived. On long trips in tropical regions wine soon turned to vinegar.
The demand in Europe for sugar increased its production in the Eastern Caribbean and a bi-product of sugar, molasses, was distilled into a clear spirit though its export was forbidden by European Monarchies. The result was too much spirit for local consumption. The solution for the plantation owners was to sell it to the Royal Navy rather than leave it lying around for pirates and locals to get drunk and cause problems.
A tradition is born
It was a much more attractive alternative to the down trodden deckhand than wine. The daily ration became a pint. There was competition amongst the plantation owners to get the Royal Navy to buy; it was the only real market at that time. To avoid trouble, the Royal Navy bought from a number of sources and blended the supplies. It was 140 proof coming out of the distilleries so it had to be appreciably watered down to avoid drunkenness and unconsciousness. This was the middle of the 17th Century and a tradition began that was to last three hundred years through war and peace.
Over the years it was used as a means of celebration and reward though the daily allowance was drastically reduced. The tradition finally died but this blended spirit is still often carried on boats of all kinds to celebrate the end of the day.
Rum remains one of the popular spirits, drunk by itself or in a variety of mixes. Its flavour makes it an excellent alternative in bars and restaurants to whisky, gin and brandy, the big four. You do not have to have a love of the sea to enjoy it but it may inspire you to think of faraway places that were its origins.