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A Brief History of Food: Grog

Updated: Feb 18

Grog is a term used for a variety of alcoholic beverages. In naval parlance, the word originally referred to rum diluted with water to which, on later long sea voyages, was added lemon or lime juice.


Origin


During the ‘Age of Sail’, a period that lasted from the mid to late-15th to the mid-19th centuries, sailors required significant quantities of fresh water on extended voyages. As desalinating sea water was not a practical option so fresh water had to be carried aboard ship in wooden casks. During long voyages stored water could become brackish and develop algae. So, where possible, stagnant water was sweetened with beer or wine to make it palatable. Yet, this involved carrying more casks that were equally subject to spoilage. Consequently, as longer passages became increasingly common, the storage and preservation of the sailors' substantial daily ration of water plus beer or wine became ever more problematic.


Popularization of rum and invention of grog


After England's conquest of Jamaica in 1655, rum [1] gradually replaced beer and brandy as the sailors’ drink of choice. Eventually each man was issued one-half of an imperial pint (284 ml) of undiluted rum daily which, unsurprisingly, led to additional problems. Some sailors saved their rum ration for several days to drink it all at once and get roaring drunk. To minimise subsequent illness, drunkenness and disciplinary problems, the Navy diluted the rum ration with water. This had a threefold effect: it weakened the intoxicating effects, the added water accelerated its spoilage and thus inhibited the sailors’ hoarding their ration.


Royal Navy grog ration


On July 9th, 1739 during the War of Jenkins' Ear, one Edward Vernon, a Royal Navy officer, was promoted Vice-Admiral. He had prominently spoken in favour of both the war and the Navy and along with his promotion was given the command of a squadron of six ships assigned to the Jamaica Station [2]. The following year, 1740, it was Vernon (pictured right) who first ordered the daily rum issue be mixed with one imperial quart (1,100 ml) of water, a water-to-rum ratio of 4:1. He furthermore established that half the sailors’ daily ration was to be issued before noon and the remainder after the end of the working day. This procedure became part of the official regulations of the Royal Navy in 1756 and continued until 1970.


It was also from Vernon that the term ‘grog’ (see right) entered naval parlance. Because he favoured wearing a cloak of grogram cloth Vernon was nicknamed ‘Old Grog’. So, it is from his attire that the term ‘grog’ is derived, a name that was certainly in use by 1749 during Vernon's lifetime.


Some have said that Vernon was also responsible for adding citrus juice to the sailors’ grog to prevent spoilage and that in due course this was found to prevent scurvy. Such notions, however, are based on a misreading of Vernon's order in which, having instructed his captains to dilute the sailors' daily allowance of rum with water, he goes on to say that those members of the crew ‘which...are good husbandmen may from the saving of their salt provisions and bread, purchase sugar and limes to make it more palatable to them.’ So, Vernon was not responsible for adding lime juice to the sailors’ grog but rather encouraging them to include citrus juice in their diet. Moreover, given that his squadrons operated among islands where there was an abundance of fruit and fresh foodstuffs, adding lime juice would not have been necessary.


Yet, the problem of the Royal Navy’s sailors developing scurvy on long ocean voyages persisted. Unfortunately, the 18th century medical establishment determined (incorrectly) that the disease was the consequence of poor digestion and internal putrefaction. Standard medical remedies focussed on boosting the body through imbibing a variety of fizzy or fermenting drinks. With such ineffective remedies scurvy continued to be a debilitating disease that wrecked sailors’ lives and disabled ships and whole fleets. Ironically, seamen and surgeons knew from practical experience that citrus juice cured scurvy even if they were not aware of the reason (vitamin C was only discovered in 1912). Regardless, in defiance of the prevailing medical opinion, the Admiralty introduced lemon juice and sugar as a regular part of the naval diet in 1795. When a few years later Spain allied itself with France and lemons became unobtainable, West Indian limes were substituted. It was from this time that British obtained the nickname ‘limeys’.


Serving suggestions


This summer Tastes Of History spent time on ‘The Pirate Round’ during which we experimented with making grog. The recipe, as you may have gathered, is quite simple. We chose to dilute one part of rum with one part of water for a slightly more potent mix than Edward Vernon’s original. In different batches, which also increased the amount of water to rum ratio, we added lemon juice and lime juice to produce subtly different characteristics. Because we were also using oranges in another recipe, we also experimented with adding orange juice which we thought worked surprisingly well for a distinctly zesty alternative citrus flavour. Bon appétit!

 

Endnotes:


1. The traditional history of rum claims it was invented in the Caribbean, in the 17th century, by slaves on sugarcane plantations. They discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol, and then distilled. The earliest record, in a 1651 document from Barbados, mentions rum-making and the island of Nevis.


2. The Jamaica Station was a formation or command of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy stationed at Port Royal in Jamaica from 1655 to 1830.

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