Rum at Sea

While tales of Rum being guzzled by seafaring Caribbean pirates are legion, historical record points out that the British Royal Navy did its own share of serious imbibing with Rum. With clean, fresh water being scarce on extended voyages and, consequently, diseases like scurvy being rampant and deadly, the British admiralty decided in the 1650s to ration Rum to sailors on a daily basis.

After Spain’s ejection from the island of Jamaica, a major source of sugar and hence Rum, the ability of the British Royal Navy to regularly supply Rum rations became more sustainable. In 1730, the order went out to ration precisely 288 milliliters per day, or approximately one-half pint, to every sailor. The unofficial moniker for Navy rations, grog, developed likely in reference to Admiral Edward Vernon, whose nickname amongst sailors was Old Grog. Vernon was indeed the trendsetter who first instituted daily Rum rations. Kill Devil was another humorous nickname for poorly made Rum.

Grog, Kill Devil and Nelson’s Blood

Following the institution of the rations program, each ration proved to be a stiff drink, seeing that Rum was undiluted at that time, so the average tot of Rum was in the lofty neighborhood of 70 to 80-percent alcohol, a level of strength that could easily soothe the rigors of sailing. To avoid too much inebriation, British Royal Navy Rum was eventually diluted by adding four parts of water and citrus fruits, when they were available. Citrus fruits were added to help combat scurvy.

Perhaps the most fabled story of Rum and the British Royal Navy involved Admiral Nelson, who upon being mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar, the legend goes, had his body placed in a Rum-filled casket for the return trip to England. It is said that occasionally sailors would furtively dip into the casket for a quick hit on the voyage home. That’s why British Royal Navy Rum became known as Nelson’s Blood.