Though we’ve mostly solved the issue of drinking on board ships in modern navies (most of the drinking seems to take place on shore, judging from the stories), this wasn’t always the case. Particularly when ships were still limited to the speed of wind, there was a nasty habit for water to grow algae and for beer to grow intelligent enough cast a vote in ship board matters. So when it came to matters of crossing oceans a solution was needed, since there weren’t any convenient islands to stop at on the open sea. The answer, like so many other poorly thought out decisions in life, was rum.
In addition to being the drink of choice for fashionable pirates, rum was sort of the thing on the alcohol scene in the 1700s. Fermented from sugar cane, rum could thumb its nose with impunity at the sands of time, and it would kick a sailor’s teeth in now or next month no matter when he opened the bottle. So the British Navy adopted a number of shipboard codes that laid out in no uncertain language what a man’s daily allotment of rum was. Of course like most things that seem like a good idea at the time concerning rum, this lead to all sorts of catastrophes that began with sailors getting drunk when they were supposed to be swabbing and rigging. Both tasks that become significantly harder when you’re cross-eyed with rum, which wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for men that would save their daily ration for a week and then go three or more sheets to the wind in the middle of the ocean.
The solution to this problem was to dilute the rum with water. This revolutionary concept of taking the punch out of fermented sugarcane came from Admiral Edward Vernon in the 1740s or 1750s, and it apparently took several years of captains scratching their heads before Vernon just gave them his recipe for old man’s rum. The drink, which was less potent and couldn’t be saved because the water could make it spoil, was named Grog after the unflattering nickname for the Admiral “Old Grog,” a name which came from how fond he was of wearing an old grogram coat.
While drinking a sissified version of spirits is hardly the swashbuckler’s idea of life on the open sea, this drink was adopted and kept for years by both legitimate navies as well as by various pirates who also served grog under their black flags. Despite being a better way to stretch rations and to avoid drunkenness and dehydration on board the ship there were still complaints from the men. Even when citrus was added to the allotment of grog, helping to maintain the health of crews who were too long away from fresh fruit grog was still significantly less fun than when it was base rum. Surprisingly though this medieval mixed drink was still issued onboard ships until 1970, when the ration was officially ended due to (one would assume) the issue of keeping water fresh was no longer an issue.
While it is far from an appetizing concoction, there is no accounting for taste. For those who just have to try sailor’s delight for yourself, a simple recipe is as follows:
– 1 ounce of rum
– Juice of 1/2 lime, lemon or orange depending on your taste
– 1 to 2 tablespoons of cane sugar
– Fill the remainder of a 9 ounce glass with water and mix well
“What is Grog?” By Anonymous at WiseGeek
“What is Grog?” By Una at The Straight Dope
“Grog: The Drink For Pirates and Sea-Goers,” by Anonymous at Gone Ta Pott