From the earliest days of sail, men needed liquid during voyages. The most readily available liquids were water and beer. As there was no method of distillation or preservation, water was taken on board and stored in casks, replaced at the end of the voyage or at ports of call. Beer was also stored in casks and the ration. Water quickly developed algae and turned slimy, and beer turned sour, so the custom was to drink the beer before it soured and then turn to water. Stale water was sweetened to make it more palatable, and was often sweetened with beer or wine. The original ration of beer for seamen was a gallon a day, a significant amount to store over a long voyage. As the British Empire grew and longer voyages became more common, the problem of spoilage and shortages increased.
The origin of grog lies with Vice-Admiral William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania. In 1655, during Penn's campaign for Cromwell in the Indies, Penn arrived in Barbados and captured Jamaica. Unfortunately Jamaica had few stores of beer or wine. Jamaica did, however, have rum. Penn, therefore, began the use of rum as a ration.
In the seventeenth century, an early form of rum was known as "rumbustion." In Elizabeth I's time, privateers and pirates traded in rum, and it was a liquor well-known to sailors. After 1655, as the Indies became an increasingly popular port, the use of rum increased. Although it became common, rum was not part of the "Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea" until 1731 at which time a half a pint of rum was made equal to the provision of a gallon of beer. In the early days this was specific only to ships in the West Indies, and rum was not diluted.(1)
Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon is known as the father of grog. Vernon was a noted seaman, and victorious at Porto Bello. He was also a constant critic of the Admiralty and a supporter of better conditions aboard ships. He derided pressment and advocated better treatment of sailors. His sailors gave him the name of "Old Grog" because of a waterproof boat cloak he wore. The boat cloak was made of grogam, a thick material which was a combination of silk, mohair and wool. Grogam was often stiffened with gum.
By Vernon's time straight rum was commonly issued to sailors aboard ship - and drunkenness and lack of discipline were common problems. On August 21, 1740, Vernon issued an order that rum would thereafter be mixed with water. A quart of water was mixed with a half-pint of rum on deck and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch. Sailors were given two servings a day; one between 10 and 12 AM and the other between 4 and 6 PM. To make it more palatable it was suggested sugar and lime be added. In 1756 the mixture of water and rum became part of the regulations, and the call to "Up Spirits" sounded aboard Royal Navy ships for more than two centuries thereafter.
If the use of grog was common practice, the mixture was anything but standard. Vernon ordered a quarter of water to a half a pint of rum (four to one), others ordered three to one, and Admiral Keith later issued grog at five to one. The mixture seamen used for grog was named by compass points. Due North was pure rum and due West water alone. WNW would therefore be one third rum and two thirds water, NW half and half, etc. If a seaman had two "nor-westers," he'd had two glasses of half rum and half water.(2)
Rum aquired the nickname "Nelson's Blood" after Trafalgar (1805). Lord Nelson's body was placed in a barrel of rum for preservation. Legend has it that when the sailor's learned of this, they drank the rum. From that time on, grog was also known as "Nelson's Blood."
Dilution of rum into grog did not solve the problem of lack of discipline. In 1823 the Admiralty conducted an experiment cutting the daily rum ration in half, to one quarter pint (gill). In compensation they issued tea and cocoa, increased pay two shillings a month. In 1824 the experiment became permanent with the added bonus of an increased meat ration. However, as a gill at that time was equal to four double whiskies today, it was still a very strong mix.(3)
In 1850 the Admiralty's Grog Committee, which had been appointed to investigate problems associated with the ration, released a report which confirmed the relationship between drunkenness and discipline problems, and recommended the ration be eliminated altogether. As before, they recommended giving seamen compensation by way of of increased pay. However, Effective January 1, 1851, the Admiralty rather than ending the rum ration, merely decreased it. The rum ration became one half gill, or one eighth of a pint. Because of the decrease in amount, an effort was made to improve the quality. Rum brokers experimented with blending and blending formulas eventually became closely guarded secrets.(4)
Although the American Navy ended the rum ration on September 1, 1862, the ration continued in the Royal Navy. Toward the end of the nineteenth century temperance movements began to change the attitude toward drink. The days of grog slowly came to an end. On January 28, 1970 the "Great Rum Debate" took place in the House of Commons, and July 30, 1970 became "Black Tot Day," the last pipe of "Up Spirits" in the Royal Navy.(5)
The history of grog does not end there, however. An American purchased the rights to the forumula for grog and royalties from the sale of grog are donated to the Royal Navy's Sailor's Fund.
James Pack, Nelson's Blood: The Story of Naval Rum
Naval Institute Press, 1982.