Examining the History of Drinking Culture on Ships Through Colonial-Era Grog and Madeira
by Renee Barouxis, former staff member
There is a long tradition of drinking on ships. Drinking alcohol on board became commonplace for a variety of reasons: it was more palatable than algae-filled water or sour beer, it served as a form of entertainment, it was a welcome distraction from plain and heavily salted meal rations, and certain drinks even helped stave off scurvy. The image of a drunken sailor persists in pop culture to this day.
In fact, the centuries-long tradition of providing sailors with a daily serving, or “dram” of liquor, lingered until quite recently. The British Royal Navy, for example, provided daily drams of liquor to sailors aboard its ships until July 31, 1970. On that day, sailors ceremoniously dumped the last few barrels into the ocean in tribute to that long tradition.
While the British provided a daily “tot,” or portion of rum, the Dutch navy provided gin to its sailors and the French gave wine. The American Continental Navy, established to fight in the War of Independence, established in its charter that a half pint of rum should be issued daily to every man aboard, “with more doled out for extra duty and during military engagement” (Curtis). The Daily Beast’s Wayne Curtis put it well when he said, “military forces were once, essentially, alcohol-powered fighting machines.”
It makes sense that alcohol was the drink of choice on ships. Water in casks would often develop algae and taste putrid and sour. Beer was even rationed for centuries, despite the fact that it typically did not hold up well in the humid heat. Higher proof spirits were always preferable because they retained their flavor much longer, and sometimes even improving in taste with time. In 1712, Woodes Rogers, an English privateer and later governor of the Bahamas, said, “Good liquor to sailors is preferable to clothing” (Curtis).
But what liquor? According to author Corin Hirsch, “While poorer New Englanders were swilling rum mixed with water— grogs, slings, toddies, flips, and Mimbos—gentlemen of means took their rum and Madeira blended with lemons, limes, and oranges; with milk and tea; and with cinnamon and nutmeg” (Hirsch 167). The same class differences hold true on ships! Sailors enjoyed grog, while captains enjoyed Madeira.
Sailor’s Life for Me: Rum & Grog
As previously mentioned, rum was the drink of choice by the Royal British Navy.
Sailors were given straight rum until 1740. When Admiral Sir Edward Vernon observed that it was responsible for “stupefying [his sailors’] rational qualities,” and resulted in “fatal effects to their moral as well as their [physical] health,” he immediately initiated changes to the Navy’s rum policy (Curtis). First, he called for rum to be distributed twice daily instead of once daily in an effort to curb “guzzling.” Second, he proposed a bigger policy change: he wanted the rum to be watered down to one part rum, four parts water (Curtis). These rules were formerly incorporated into naval regulations in 1756 (Curtis).
This diluted rum allowance brought about the creation of grog, a drink containing rum, water, and citrus juice. It is typically made with lime juice and it sometimes contained sugar too. It was a simple cocktail recipe for a British sailor to follow at sea! Grog came with other benefits for sea life as well: the U.S. Navy eventually adopted it as a way to make stagnant water more palatable and to fight scurvy (U.S. Naval Institute). Grog is usually thought of as a sailor’s drink, and rightfully so, but it should be noted that colonists stateside also enjoyed the drink in bars called “grogshops” (Hirsch 195). Its popularity is to thank for the term “groggy”!
Grog was named after Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, better known as “Old Grogram” because of his preference for water-resistant grogram cloth (Curtis). “Old Grogram” began the Royal British Navy’s 260-year history of watering down its rum rations. Vernon’s proposed rum ration was cut in half in 1823, was halved again in 1850, and was eventually discontinued in 1970 after years of increased regulations surrounding its consumption around heavy machinery (Curtis). Still, you can enjoy grog at events like our recent Dine Like a Captain / Eat Like a Sailor, or you can follow this recipe to make your own at home!
Traditional Recipe: Grog
2 ounces rum
4 ounces water
½ teaspoon superfine sugar
½ ounce lime juice
In a tumbler, stir rum, water, and sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Add ice and a spritz of lime juice and stir to combine (Hirsch161).
Captain’s Life for Me: Madeira
Madeira was in heavy demand in the 1700s, especially in colonial New England.
French Clarets and Spanish Cabernet and Rioja wines did not fare well during hot, turbulent transatlantic trips. Usually, the wines either diminished in flavor or outright spoiled (Hirsh 84-85). Because few barrels escaped that fate, and since the ones that did were heavily taxed by British authorities, French and Spanish wines were prohibitively expensive. Local wines were not a viable alternative; native grapes produced “barely drinkable plonk” (Hirsch 84). Fortunately, though, Madeira wine was more affordable and its flavor surprisingly improved as a result of the constant roiling below deck and the steamy sea voyage.
It is believed that Madiera wine (as we know it today) came to be by a happy accident. The story goes that a forgotten barrel of the wine was meant to be delivered to a colonial British outpost in India, but was overlooked during delivery (Hirsch 86). When the left behind Madeira wine was discovered upon the ship’s return to its homeport, after a round trip, it tasted noticeably richer. The extra time with the heat in the ship’s hold and the lengthened exposure to roiling motion revealed complex caramel, stewed fruit, and walnut flavors (Hirsch 86).
Once the Madeiran winemakers realized that this wine aged well in steamy ocean trips, they started intentionally shipping it around the world to gain the unique flavors. These wines became known as vinho de Roda, or “wines of the round routes.” It is unusual that Madeira wine thrives during heating and oxidation because those processes typically ruin a wine. Known for its nutty and rich flavor, Madeira is produced on the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal using up to four different grapes: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. It’s also quite a strong drink– typically about 20 percent alcohol. This is because, by the mid-1700s, Madeiran winemakers began adding a small dose of brandy before fermentation was complete in order to fortify the wine against spoilage (Hirsch 87). This helped make Madeira even more flavorful and a great value.
While Madeira was popular in the Colonies because of its luscious flavor, it was also popular for another notable reason: so long as it arrived by a Dutch, Spanish, or Portuguese ship, it was not subject to tax by British authorities (U.S. Naval Institute). Unsurprisingly, Madeira became a very desirable drink for furious colonists looking to avoid paying taxes to the Crown. Patriots (like Boston’s John Hancock) also took to smuggling Madeira (Hirsch 87).
Madeira was also a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Records show that Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington all enjoyed Madeira. George Washington drank a pint of Madeira every evening with dinner. A bottle of Madeira was used by visiting Captain James Server to christen USS Constitution in 1797. Madeira was also used to toast the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (Robinson 416-419). In a 1773 letter to a French scientist, Franklin wrote, “I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!” (Hirsch 88-89)
Get in the mindset of a ship captain or a Founding Father by trying Madeira! At Old North’s next wine and chocolate pairing, guests may sample some Rainwater Madeira along with a treat by Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop. If you did not get the chance to try Chef Jim Solomon’s Madeira-heavy sangaree cocktail at Old North’s recent Dine Like a Captain / Eat Like a Sailor event, make your own at home by following this recipe. Enjoy getting in the mindset of a ship captain or Founding Father!
Traditional Recipe: Port Sangaree
4 ounces ruby port
2 thin lemon wheels
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Scrape of nutmeg
Shake the first three ingredients well with cracked ice and then pour unstrained into a tumbler or coupe glass and grate a little nutmeg on top (Hirsch 175).
Hirsch, Corin. Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel & Spruce Beer. 2014. iBooks. https://itun.es/us/UEQE7.l
Curtis, Wayne. Daily Beast. “How the Rum-Soaked Royal Navy Sobered Up.” 29 July 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-rum-soaked-royal-navy-sobered-up
U.S. Naval Institute Staff. U.S. Naval Institute News. “A Hundred Years Dry: The U.S. Navy’s End of Alcohol at Sea.” 1 July 2014. https://news.usni.org/2014/07/01/hundred-years-dry-u-s-navys-end-alcohol-sea
Robinson, J., ed. (2006), The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third ed.), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-860990-6. Pages 416-419.