A Toast to the Naval Rum Ration
On July 31, 1970 a ship of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy passed over the International Date line bisecting the Pacific Ocean and neatly ties up the earths time zones. This was, to be sure well past the Royal Navy’s “east of Suez” days. The maneuver was, more or less, to have one more July 31 that the universe normally allots to mere sailors.
It was Black Tot day and it ended the naval tradition of the rum ration that had been in place since 1655. The original “tot” was a half-pint twice a day. It played havoc with discipline so this was later sorted out as a grog ration, which was 4:1 water to rum ratio with a healthy dose of lime to keep away that pesky scurvy. The admiralty, though, was never quite enthused as the jack tars and by 1850 they’d issued a report finding that the tot should be abolished. They didn’t, but they did halve the amount of rum yet again. It was scrapped for the officers in 1881, and warrant officers in 1914, after the Brits had been given such a scare by the modern, relatively sober German navy.
That shipload of tradition that is the Royal Navy held admirably on until December 17, 1969 when, not having much to do anymore, issued a recommendation that the rum ration be scrapped entirely. Which triggered the “Great Rum Debate” in the House of Commons lead by the fantastically named James Wellbeloved, arguing to keep the naval tradition of rum alive. His thoughts on buggery and the lash remain unrecorded. The rum ration was scuttled.
And so it was that the on July 31, 1970 that the last rum tots were to be issued in the Royal Navy at 6 Bells, on the forenoon watch (11 am to non-sailors) as “up the spirits” was piped. Of course, being Brits, they enshrined the caveat that the Monarch or an Admiral could issue an order to “slice the mainbrace” which, I suppose if you went to the Royal Naval War College in Dartmouth who’d understand meant you could have a snort of the fun stuff.
So what to drink to toast Black Tot Day? Avoid white rums – especially Sammy Hagar’s Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. Our man in Huntsville said it tasted like lighter fluid, and I suppose the name tells you everything that you need to know. Unless you’re getting into a pina colada or some swirly divorcee, let’s just avoid white rum altogether, shall we?
Dark rum has more to it, and it’s how you make that traditional sailing favorite, the Dark and Stormy – which is Gosling’s Dark Rum, ginger beer (not ale) and lime. It’s refreshing as hell, goes down a little too easy and is copyrighted to the point where Gosling’s will fuss at bars for making it with anything but Gosling’s Black Seal. The copyright work around – as pioneered by the Delta Sailing Association of Hernando, Mississippi – is the same thing, use whatever dark rum you can find and call it a Partly cloudy.
For the more traditional (but not that traditional) grog, just have yourself a standard rum and soda, with a big twist of lime.
For the record, the US Navy scrapped the rum ration during the civil war in 1862 - what the Confederacy was calling a navy held onto the tradition, and that tells us something - and went dry in 1914. The Royal Australian Navy was ahead of the Commonwealth curve when it abolished the tot in 1920 – and I’d have bet on them to outlast the Kiwis. The Royal Canadian Navy went dry two years after the Brits, in 1972, and the Royal New Zealand Navy had its Black Tot Day on 28 February 1990. Although, admittedly, the Kiwis don’t really have much of a navy.