The Drunken Sailor: History of Rum and The Royal Navy

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The history and cultural influences associated with many alcoholic drinks for me is almost as interesting as the processes behind producing them. In fact, very often these are intangibly linked. Rum is one such example, with a rich history associated with sailors and navies around the world.

The association of rum and the high sea arose from practicality. Water supplies often turned rancid on long voyages at sea, no doubt water from the river thames had some influence. Originally, beer was used as a ration due to it’s longer shelf life, but it too spoiled at sea. Then, in 1655, Britain’s Royal Navy captured the island of Jamaica. Now equipped with domestically produced rum, the daily ration given to seamen changed to rum, due to it’s easier storage and ability to not rot inside barrels.

Life at sea in the age of sail was challenging. Sailors looked forward to the daily ration of rum. At around noon each day, a call of ‘up spirits!’ would be piped. Then the men gathered on the deck received their ‘daily tot’ of rum. The legend involving Horatio Nelson says that following his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of rum for transportation back to England. Upon arrival, the cask was opened and found to be empty of rum. The body was removed and, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, hence the term “Nelson’s blood” being used to describe rum.

Rum today can be seen frequently marked as ‘Navy Strength’ or 57% alcohol by volume (ABV). The reason for this dates before strength could be quantified with hydrometers, where gunpowder was used. Gunpowder was soaked in a spirit, if the gunpowder could still burn, and the spirit was rated above proof and considered ‘Navy Strength’.

As technology has become more integral to the modern Royal Navy, the tradition of the casual day drink has ended. The last ‘up spirits’ was called on July 31st 1970, but the culture and history lives on with many known brands of rum exploiting the nautical connections for use in branding. Whether you have enjoyed this story involving sailors and their rum or you wish to produce your very own rum, contact us today to start a conversation.

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