Drinkers with a sailing problem…or is it the other way around?

We’re taking a journey back to the days of wooden ships and iron men.  Back in those days, fresh water was stored in wooden casks before the introduction of iron tanks.  These casks often became slimy with algae which befouled the water and made it fairly unpalatable.  Despite attempts to develop purification methods, it was still necessary to economize on potable water.  At some point in time, it was decided to add rum to the water in order to make it more drinkable.

What is grog?

In lieu of drinking the filthy water, rum was used because it was readily available from the mid-1600s onward after the Royal Navy began operating in the West Indies.  In the Royal Navy prior to 1740, rum was served to sailors neat, and the daily ration was a half-pint twice a day.  Sailors would check to see if their alcohol had not been watered down by pouring some onto gunpowder and checking to see if the powder still burned.  This is reportedly where the term “proof” originated (Colls, 2010).  According to Roy and Lesley Adkins (2008), grog was originally devised by Admiral Edward Vernon in 1740 in an effort to reduce drunkenness and combat scurvy by adding lemon juice.  Reportedly, the word “grog” comes from Vernon’s nickname of ‘Old Grogram’ due to his habitual wearing of a waterproof cloak made from grogram fabric (a mix of wool, mohair, and silk, stiffened with gum) (p. 97).  On 21 August 1740, Admiral Vernon issued the following order:

To Captains of the Squadron! Whereas the Pernicious Custom of the Seamen drinking their Allowance of Rum in Drams, and often at once, is attended by many fatal Effects to their Morals as well as their Health, the daily allowance of half a pint a man is to be mixed with a quart of water, to be mixed in one Scuttled Butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon Deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to see that the men are not defrauded of their allowance of Rum; it is to be served in two servings, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The men that are good Husbands may from the savings of their Salt Provisions and Bread purchase Sugar and Limes to make the water more palatable to them.

as cited in Jeans, 2007, p. 101-102

Rum is a byproduct of the manufacture of sugar (Paine, 2013, p. 477).  The original recipe for grog was one part rum to four parts water with the addition of lemon juice and brown sugar (Adkins, 2008, p. 97).  In other words, grog is essentially watery booze.

In 1789, when the Bounty mutineers set Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift in a 7-meter-long boat, they were able to make their 3,600-mile journey without losing a single man, perhaps due to Bligh issuing a teaspoonful of grog with every ration for the men.  The mutineers at least gave them a gallon of rum along with other provisions (Paine, 2013, p. 477).  Who would’ve known that alcohol might actually have saved some lives?

I’ll spare everyone the much-overused, “Why is the rum gone?” jokes.  #CaptainJackSparrow.

Sailors were given a twice-daily ration of grog during lunch and dinner.  By the time of Nelson’s navy, the rum allowance was a half-pint a day, given a quarter of a pint at a time.  This used an older measuring system and is roughly equivalent to a modern US half-pint.  Each serving would be filled with three-quarters of a pint of water to make a full pint.  If the sailor was being punished, the pint might be watered down further or even withheld (Adkins, 2008, p. 97).

Seaman Robert Wilson explained the ration as:

In our naval service, each man is allowed a quart [two pints] of grog a day if grog is served out twice in the course of the day; if not, 1/2 pint of wine and one pint of grog.  Now it is mixed thus: 3 gills of water to 1 gill of rum or brandy, which is called 3-water grog and is very good, but when a fourth gill of water is added, it is insipid.

Note: 1 gill is equal to 4 fluid ounces.  Thus, a 4th gill of water would make 4-water grog and could be given as punishment. (as cited in Adkins, 2008, p. 97)

Therefore, for those Americans out there who want to drink like a sailor…or a pirate.  Mix one and a half cups of water with four fluid ounces of rum.  Add lemon juice and sugar.  Drink responsibly, you bilge rats!  Don’t blame me if you get flogged by the Boatswain with the cat-o-nine tails.

Every sailor, even the boys, was given the same allowance.  Naturally, they quickly developed a habit.  The term ‘groggy’ naturally comes from the word grog and originally meant to be in a state of drunkenness.  Payment could also be received in lieu of taking the full amount.  However, grog itself was also a type of currency according to Archibald Sinclair:

The standard of value, the medium of circulation on board a man-of-war, was a ‘glass of grog.’  If any one had propounded the question, ‘What is a glass of grog?’ sailors would have been as much puzzled to define what constituted the exact quantity or quality as the financiers to determine the value of a pound of sterling.  On Saturday night, each sailor that looked after a midshipman’s hammock was considered entitled, by the usages of the service…to a glass of grog…the climax as to the uncertainty of the currency question was, when an old salt, who had really been attentive, smoothed your pillow, and made your bed without failing during the week.  As you presented him with an empty measure, and began to pour into it the much coveted spirit, ‘Say when,’ is all that passes; but an air of abstraction comes over his old weatherbeaten face; no notice is taken till it comes to be within a thimbleful of running over – ‘Stop, sir, a little water.’  The thimbleful of water is added, which converts it from a dram into a glass of grog, and the currency question is settled for a week. (as cited in Adkins, 2008, p. 99)

While grog is the most well-known of sailor’s drinks, beer was actually more common.  Around the year 1650, brandy was usually substituted for beer, and by 1687, brandy had been replaced by rum following the British takeover of Jamaica (Royal Navy, 2007, September 27).  It’s been noted that beer was usually drunk first because it didn’t keep as well, and it could only be brewed and carried during the winter since it soured quickly during the summer.  It wasn’t until the 18th century that brewers began increasing the number of hops to create a more stable beer with higher alcohol content (Paine, 2013, p. 477).  Only when the beer ran out was grog given out.  Sailors were allotted a ‘wine measure’ gallon per day (equal to a modern US gallon).  The beer was apparently fairly weak and brewed by the Admiralty.  In contrast, in the Mediterranean, one pint of red wine was often given out in place of beer or grog.  Red wine was called ‘blackstrap’ by the sailors and was of poor quality with lots of sediment (Adkins, 2008, p. 98).  If the sailors didn’t like it, then any sommelier would probably find it offensive.

George Watson noted:

The wine generally drank by seafaring people at Gibraltar, is Malaga, a sweet port-coloured liquor, and another species by the tars called “black strap” rough unpalatable heady stuff; these cost about fourpence a quart, and the best not more than a shilling. (as cited in Adkins, 2008, p. 98)

Hence, to be stationed in the Mediterranean was commonly known as being “blackstrapped.”


Sailors in the age of sail didn’t enjoy a well-balanced diet.  The salted meat, hardtack, bad water, alcohol, and lack of fresh vegetables (not to mention citrus fruits) often led to men dying of malnutrition.  Scurvy is a disease that results from vitamin C deficiency.  Common symptoms early on include lethargy, weakness, and sore or stiff joints.  As the disease worsens, wounds have trouble healing, old wounds can reopen, gums swell and become sore, and skin hemorrhages appear.  Eventually, death can result from bleeding or infection.  Sadly, scurvy is one of the easiest diseases to not only cure but prevent.

James Lind, a Scottish physician, is thought to have discovered that citrus juices combat scurvy in 1753, but his writings suggest that he was unsure of the cause of the disease or that ascorbic acid was indeed the cure (Paine, 2013, p. 76). There are suggestions that Lind discovered the cure earlier in 1744, but his method of preserving the juice involved heating it which destroyed its medicinal properties and was too expensive for sea voyages (as cited in Bown, 2012, p. 199). It wasn’t until 1795 that physician Gilbert Blane ordered that lemon juice be issued daily and mixed with rum, sugar, and water (Adkins, 2008, 314-315). Although the Royal Navy ordered that ships carry antiscorbutics in 1796, the merchant marine did not adopt the practice for another fifty years (Paine, 2013, p. 476).

“Splice the mainbrace!”

Braces are lines that control the angle of the yards with the mainbrace being the largest and heaviest of them at around 5 inches in diameter on a first-rate man-of-war.  If the mainbrace was damaged or shot away in battle, it would severely hinder a ship’s maneuverability and would need to be repaired.  The problem is that the braces run through blocks (pulleys), so simply tying two lines together in a knot wouldn’t fix the problem because the knots wouldn’t go through the block.  The ends of the mainbrace would need to be unraveled and a large hemp line would need to be spliced into it.  Therefore, splicing the mainbrace was a very difficult and strenuous task that was supervised by the Boatswain and done by the most experienced Able Seamen.  As a reward, these men would be allowed an extra ration of rum.  Eventually, the saying, “splice the mainbrace” came to refer to a crew receiving an extra ration for special occasions such as a job well done, fleet inspection, a royal birth, a royal wedding, or a change of monarch (National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, n.d.).  A tot of rum (1/8th of a pint) would be issued to each member of the ship’s company and could only be authorized by the Sovereign, a member of the royal family, or the Admiralty (Royal Navy, 2007, September 27).  That’s right, motivating a sailor is not hard if alcohol is involved.

End of the Rum Ration

The practice of issuing a daily rum ration of course spread to other navies, and the United States Navy was no exception.  The law abolishing the rum ration in the U.S. Navy took effect on 1 September 1862.  Casper Scheck (1862) published the following ditty:

Come, messmates, pass the bottle ‘round
Our time is short, remember,
For our grog must stop and our spirits drop
On the first day of September.

Jack’s happy days will soon be gone,
To return again oh! Never,
For they’ve raised his pay five cents a day
But stopped his grog forever.

Farewell, old rye, ‘tis a sad, sad word,
But alas! It must be spoken,
The ruby cup must be given up
And the demijohn be broken.

Yet memory oft will backward turn
And dwell with fondness partial,
On the days when gin was not a sin
Nor cocktails brought courts martial.

All hands to splice the main brace call,
But splice it now in sorrow,.
For the spirit-room key will be laid away
Forever on to-morrow.

The British Royal Navy did not abolish their daily rum ration until 31 July 1970, also known as Black Tot Day.  The reason for ending the practice was due to fears of inebriated men operating complex and heavy machinery aboard the ship.  The decision to abolish the sailor’s tot was not a popular one.  “Black arm-bands were worn as the Queen was toasted. Tots were buried at sea and in one navy training camp, sailors paraded a black coffin flanked by drummers and a piper” (Colls, 2010).  While rum is no longer served to sailors on the daily, there are still occasions when an exemplary crew will be awarded a tot of the nasty brown liquid.

Perhaps rum and grog will forever be known as the preferred drink of sailors and pirates, but as we can see, its history is filled with anecdotes of wild times and inebriated stupor.  It’s probably best that we don’t allow modern Navy men a ration of hard alcohol, but that doesn’t stop many a sailor from hitting the nearest and dingiest bar every time their ship pulls into port.


Adkins, R. (2008) Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy. Little, Brown.

Bown, S.R. (2012). The Great Trade Routes: A History of Cargoes and Commerce Over Land and Sea (P. Parker, Ed.). Naval Institute Press.

Colls, T. (2010, July 30). What did they do with the drunken sailor? BBC News.

Jeans, P.D. (2007). Seafaring Lore & Legend: A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable, and Fact. Marine International/McGraw-Hill.

National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (n.d.) Splice the Mainbrace.

Paine, L. (2013). The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. Alfred A. Knopf.

Royal Navy (2007, September 27). Splicing the Mainbrace.

Schenck, C. (1862, August 31). Farewell to Grog. Naval History and Heritage Command.