Black Tot Day - 31 July

On 31 July 1970, the final day of the rum ration, it was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of 'up spirits'. Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were 'buried at sea' and in one navy training camp there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.

'Are the men in good spirits?'

If the last fifty years have been dry (relatively speaking) the previous three centuries were anything but. Since the reign of Henry VIII sailors had been issued with regular tots of spirits - sometimes gin but usually brandy. Mind you, the term 'tot' with its implications of a small measure is misleading. In the 17th and 18th centuries the daily ration was half a pint - a quarter at noon and the other quarter at sunset. To celebrate special occasions or after a victory, the captain might order 'splice the mainbrace' which meant double rations - pints all round. Puts a whole new perspective on the terms 'Merry England' and 'Jolly Sailor', doesn't it?

Oh island in the sun

The problem was: while gin was produced locally - we'd learnt the knack from the Dutch (hence Dutch courage) - brandy meant dealing with the French, a nation with whom we were not always on the best of terms. However in 1655 Britain captured Jamaica, an island rich in sugar plantations. And the conquerors suddenly found themselves practically awash with rum. It was the start of a much-loved tradition.

'Don't drink the water'

Undoubtedly a generous measure of 100% proof alcohol would ease some of the misery of life aboard a warship, but the admiralty at the time were not known for their consideration of the men's happiness. The practical advantage of alcohol is that it keeps well. Typically a ship would carry barrels of water, beer, wine and rum. The water would become brackish and slimy within days, so they switched to the beer. When that started to go off, they moved on to the wine and finally the rum. If this makes a long voyage sound like an extended binge-drinking session, at least the navy imposed rationing.

A party...or a mutiny?

For privateers and pirates, sailing the Spanish Maine really could turn into a booze cruise. While the Royal Navy had a clear chain of command, iron-hard discipline and certain retribution for miscreants, a buccaneer captain had no such support. Pirate ships were run on far more democratic principles - as sort of free-booting collectives. Decisions were frequently put to the vote with the threat of mutiny never far away. So if the men decided on a drinking spree, that's what they had - and many were taken prisoner while blind drunk.

A rum reputation

The chosen tipple of gallant sailors, cut-throats and brigands, rum has always had a slightly louche, devil-may-care reputation. And that stems from its origins. While the production of brandy, Scotch, Irish whiskey and gin is regulated and governed on an international level, rum is something of a loose cannon. Rules specifying how it's distilled and for how long it's aged depend on where it's made. And locations range from the West Indies and countries around the Caribbean to India, Japan and (even more surprisingly), Austria. Did Mozart wind down after a hard day's composing with a glass or two of premium dark rum? We'll never know.

Take more water with it!

What's not in doubt is the role played by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. Concerned about the fighting efficiency of seamen who were over-refreshed, he ordered the rum ration to be diluted - two parts water to one part rum. This weaker but still potent mixture became known as grog. Why? Probably because Vernon was nicknamed Old Grog - on account of the grogham cloth coat he wore - although this view is by no means universal.

What's in a name?

That's the thing about rum. It's a free spirit. Hard to tie down. Even the origin of the name is argued about. It may come from the last syllable of saccharum the Latin word for sugar, or the Romany rum meaning strong or potent. Then again it could be a truncated version of rumbullion or rumbustion - both meaning tumult or uproar. If you think of a gun deck packed with fighting men each with a pint of rum inside them, this last definition sounds the most likely.

But now the sun's just dipping below the yardarm. Time to pour a generous measure of golden nectar. And sip, savour and salute a splendid tradition. Cheers!