Friday, July 31, 2009

This Day in Booze: Black Tot Day

Today is indeed a sad day. It is a dark and dismal, black day. A day that ended a tradition dating back almost 300 years. On July 31st, 1970, the British Royal Navy stopped issuing daily rum rations to it's sailors.

Rum and the Navy go back over 350 years to the mid 1600s. Rum was a harsh, foul, disgusting beverage that only the poorest of man or slaves would drink. But as settlements began to take hold in the Caribbean and the Colonies, sugar production was on the rise. Alcohol on sailing vessels was a necessity. It helped the sailors stay hydrated and provided much needed nutrients. Most importantly, it was sterile. Beer was the seaman's best friend for many years. However, rum was much cheaper than beer, and by 1731 it was officially adopted by the British Navy. It was as common on their ships as beer and brandy. Half a pint of rum was treated as equivalent to the sailor's daily ration of 1 gallon of beer (beer was pretty week back then). Unfortunately, as rum grew in popularity with the Navy, so did drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and good old fashion tom-foolery.

One particular sailor, Admiral Edward Vernon (the same Edward Vernon that Mount Vernon is named after), saw the benefits of rum, but realized it needed taming. In 1740 he issued an order to his sailors that the daily rum rations should be diluted with water. The mixture was "the proportion of a quart of water to every half pint of rum", and it served two purposes. It diluted the rum so that the sailors could take it in at a slower pace and not get plastered. It also helped to disinfect the ship's water supply and make it taste and smell much better. Rations were doled out twice a day, however the sailors could trade up one of their rations for limes and sugar to make what they had more palatable (explains the term 'Limeys' given to British Sailors). His men called the new drink "grog" supposedly after the Admiral's nickname "Old Grog", attributed to the grogram coat he would always wear.

Due to the daily dose of vitamin C, Admiral Edward Vernon's sailors were healthier than the rest of the fleet, something that would not be fully understood until 1747, when James Lind proved that citrus fruit supplemented into the sailors diet could treat and prevent scurvy. The rest of the Royal Navy followed suit, and by 1756 Navy Rum was codified into the Admiralty's naval code.

Over the next 200 years, the world changed, and so did the rum rations. Thanks to the global Temperance Movement, the daily grog allotment was cut in half in 1823, and in half once more in 1850. By 1950 only about one-third of Royal Navy's sailors opted for their daily rations of grog. As the computer age dawned, new technology began being incorporated into everyone's daily lives. One such piece of technology spelled the end for Navy Rum. The British Navy did a study and subjected the sailors to random breathalyzer tests. When the results came back they realized that, at any given moment, half their naval force was legally drunk.

So in 1970, aboard the HMS Fife at 11:00AM, July 31st, the last "tot" of rum rations was doled out to the men, putting an end to a tradition older than the country we call home.

But fret not my children. Wipe away those tears of sorry and replace them with tears of joy, for Navy Rum is back. In 1979, one Charles Tobias obtained the rights to the recipe and began producing Navy Rum once more. The product is called Pusser's Navy Rum, and you can find in on the shelf of any liquor store that's worth it's salt. I picked up a bottle about 4-5 months ago and you can read all about its history and what it tastes like in some of my past posts. I will tell you that the Royal Navy never actually distilled their own rum. The recipe is actually the blending of 5 different West Indian rums (three lighter rums and two dark rums). I definitely recommend trying it. It tastes like no other rum I've ever had, and I've had A LOT of rums. Plus part of the proceeds go to the Royal Navy Sailor's Fund. I for one will be taking a tot of Pusser's this evening to honor one of the greatest miltary traditions of all times.


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