How to Make Grog
It was the go-to for the Royal Navy - but what the hell was it?
In a world before antibiotics, cling wrap or big pharma painkillers, people just rolled all three into one: Booze. Navies around the world were given fairly generous rations of ale – which was about the only generous thing in a sailor’s life. For the British navy, ale rations worked well enough for relatively short jaunts around European waters or even the northern crossing to America, where the entire ocean acted as a refrigerator. Further afield those huge casks of ale became problematic: They took up too much room and without mother nature acting as your cooling system, the ale tended to spoil in the heat.
The issue was partially solved by dramatically upping the hops – a natural preservative – which stopped spoilage and created India Pale Ale in the process. It still took up too much room on long journeys to the far corners of the empire.
Alcoholically speaking, rum takes up a lot less room than beer and doesn’t spoil nearly as easily. Or at all. Hence the British navy’s fabled Rum Ration. Old naval lore is drowning in the stuff – Churchill never made the “Rum, sodomy and the lash” quip, but someone did. The Admirality didn’t officially abolish the sailor’s daily rum ration until 1971.
In a boozy counter-point to American’s failed Whiskey rebellion of 1791-94, Australia’s 1808 Rum Rebellion was more or less successful. The triggering gripe was that the local soldiers didn’t like the governor of New South Wales, one William Bligh, because he cut off their supply of cheap rum. If the name is familiar, it’s the same William Bligh who commanded the HMS Bounty until 1789 when the crew set him and few others adrift in the south Pacific without food, water or topsiders. The salty bastard survived somehow, so naturally he was made governor of a penal colony. In no time the Australians hated him as much as everyone else who’d ever met the guy. It’s worth noting that in the vast annals of business books, there is not one called Management Secrets of Captain Bligh.
You see a lot of “Navy” and “Admiralty” strength rum out there now that everything has gone all craft and authentic. Most of it is fantastically designed bottles that tastes like rum-flavored moonshine with the alcohol content to match. Why, you might well ask, did the Admiralty of the world’s most powerful navy want to get all their sailor’s lit up on a daily basis? The short answer is that they didn’t. Those jack tars weren’t staggering around like Keith Richards with tankards full of 80 proof rum, they were drinking grog.
Like a lot of cocktails invented by the British Military/ Industrial complex, grog was essentially just spiked medicine. The official Royal Navy recipe was simple: half a barrel of water, half a barrel of rum, and a quart of lime juice. The rum “sterilized” the water, provided a mild pain-killer and antibiotic, and helped the average jack-tar to NOT think about his grim lot in life. The quart of lime juice provided much needed Vitamin C that acted as a hedge against scurvy. Thus, extending the sailor’s living misery.
The problem is that, if you haven’t been press-ganged into the navy, grog is actually awful. So how to make a civilian version? The first step is to lighten it up: use soda instead of still water, maybe tweek the ration from 1:1 to two-parts water, one-part rum. Give it a good squeeze of lime, more than a twist. Use dark rum – it’s more interesting. The light stuff has too much of a tikki-torch/ beach party vibe and no sense of adventure.
There are some fine rums out there that aren’t getting the same attention as bourbon, tequila or, more recently, gin. Rhum Barbancourt 15 is regarded as one of the best in the world. Interestingly, as it’s produced in Haiti, a country not known for producing the best of anything. It will set you back about $55. Worth every penny, yes, but too fine for grog. For cocktails, the middle way is best. For my money, Gosling’s Dark Seal Rum works and Mount Gay also makes a great bottle at $24.99.
Around the same price point, I have a soft spot for Flor de Caña, made in Nicaragua. While Managua, I managed to run smack into in what they call “social unrest” down there. The story would be a lot better if I hadn’t been using my father as interpreter – he grounded me from going to the riot with that mind-control voice he’s been using on me since I was a kid. Which is why you should never take your father on assignment. Still, Flora de Caña rum always makes me a tad nostalgic.