By Augustus Iyengar
Updated:Jul 07, 2023
It was Old Grog himself, after the capture of Porto Bello, who introduced the concept of watered rum to these sailors, accustomed to a daily pint of the potent spirit. The wily Admiral, harboring a deep aversion to strong drink in all its forms and bemoaning its ill effects on the morals of his men, sought to curtail its consumption.
Mount Vernon, oh what a storied place! An American landmark of grandeur, a former plantation once graced by the presence of none other than George Washington himself, the esteemed Founding Father, commander of the Continental Army, and the very first president of the United States. Situated on the picturesque banks of the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, it basks in the glory of its southern proximity to Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia, while gazing across the river towards Prince George’s County, Maryland.
The Washington family, as it happens, had a long history with the land. In the year 1674, they set their sights upon the area, acquiring a generous land grant of 5,000 acres from none other than Lord Thomas Culpeper, courtesy of a special dispensation from the one and only King Charles II of England. A peninsula in the majestic Potomac River was bestowed upon John Washington and his dear friend Nicholas Spencer. And although the grant called for an equal division of the land, fate had other plans, for this very land would one day become the splendid Mount Vernon we know today, in the hands of George Washington himself.
But where did the name Mount Vernon come from, you may ask? Ah, an intriguing tale it is! George Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, inherited the Little Hunting Creek Plantation from their father back in 1743. Lawrence, ever the enthusiast of British naval affairs, decided to honor his former commander, Admiral Edward Vernon, by bestowing upon the estate the name of Mount Vernon. It was a gesture of respect and admiration for the man with whom he had served during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741, amidst the turmoil of the War of Jenkins’ Ear.Vice Admiral Vernon, a true force to be reckoned with, possessed a formidable reputation. Respected not only for his extraordinary valor in the heat of battle, but also for his unwavering support of his fellow sailors. His nickname, Old Grog, stemmed from his distinctive attire—a waterproof cloak crafted from grogram, a robust blend of silk, mohair, and wool. Such was the man known as Old Grog, a living testament to resilience and strength.
You see, it was Old Grog himself, after the capture of Porto Bello, who introduced the concept of watered rum to these sailors, accustomed to a daily pint of the potent spirit. The wily Admiral, harboring a deep aversion to strong drink in all its forms and bemoaning its ill effects on the morals of his men, sought to curtail its consumption. His intention, though reluctantly so, was to diminish the prevalence of fevers that had plagued previous Caribbean expeditions. But the doughty sailors, flushed with victory and warmed by the rum coursing through their veins, chose to view it quite differently. They raised their cups in a toast to Old Grog himself, and thus, the name “grog” became synonymous with this newfangled concoction.
Old Grog, that wily Admiral, forever etched his name in the annals of history. Surprising all, including those Spaniards at Porto Bello, he caught them unawares, leading to their surrender after a mere two days of fierce battle. When news of this triumph reached London, Admiral Vernon became the hero of the hour, a title he would hold for years to come. Yet, among the sailors of his valiant squadron, opinions on Old Grog were divided—some saw him as a hero, while others deemed him a blue-nosed cheat. The reason for this division? None other than their preference for rum, either neat or diluted with water.
You see, dear reader, after the capture of Porto Bello, Old Grog introduced watered rum to the men, much to their surprise and chagrin. Those sailors, accustomed to a daily pint of straight spirits, found themselves facing a diluted alternative. This was all part of Old Grog’s grand plan, for he abhorred strong drink in any form and cursed its ill effects on his men’s morals. Although he would have preferred to banish it entirely, he reluctantly acquiesced to the weaker concoction, hoping it would serve as a preventative measure against the fevers that had plagued previous expeditions to the Caribbean.
But the hearty sailors aboard his flagship, HMS Burjord, had a different perspective. Filled with the exhilaration of victory and warmed by the rum coursing through their veins, they raised their cups in a toast to Old Grog. And so, the peculiar name stuck, becoming synonymous with the newfound drink as well.
Before long, Grog’s popularity spread throughout the Royal Navy, evolving into not just a tradition but a matter of law. Over the years, the quantity of the rum ration, as well as the ratio of rum to water in the mixture, gradually diminished. Presently, all men over the age of twenty are entitled to a daily tot of one-eighth of an imperial pint of rum, or approximately ounces. Petty officers may savor theirs neat, while other ratings receive it as grog, mixed with two parts of water to one of rum. Regardless of the variation, the ration must be consumed on the spot and may not be saved for a later indulgence. Those who opt not to partake may receive a pay compensation of three pence per day. Furthermore, it is strictly prohibited to sell or bestow one’s ration upon another.
The customary daily ceremony for the distribution of grog commences with the resonant call of “Up Spirits” on the boatswain’s pipe at six bells in the forenoon. At this signal, the Officer of the Day, the Master-at-Arms, the Supply Petty Officer, and the Butcher assemble at the entrance of the Spirit Room. The Master-at-Arms deftly unlocks the heavy padlocks, granting entry to the dimly lit room adorned with casks, carefully stowed “bung up and bilge free.” The Butcher, skilled in the ways of the trade, taps a barrel, inserts a siphon pump into the bung hole, and meticulously draws off the day’s total ration for the ship’s company. Neat tots are then issued to the Petty Officers, while the remaining grog is transferred to a small cask known as a barrico (pronounced breaker). The barrico, firmly padlocked, is then entrusted to the watchful eye of a sentry, prominently placed by the grand oaken rum tub, its brass hoops gleaming and bearing the inscription, “The Queen—God bless her.”
As the bugle sounds the Rum Call, five minutes before “Hands to Dinner” at noon, representatives from each Mess, armed with jugs or “fannies,” approach the rum tub. Under the watchful gaze of the Officer of the Day, a ceremonial ritual unfolds. The requisite volume of water is precisely measured, ensuring its taste remains untainted by salt. With utmost care, it is poured into the rum tub. The barrico is then unlocked, and the rum is gently emptied into the tub. In a display befitting their roles, the Supply Petty Officer, bare to the elbow, stands opposite the Master-at-Arms and the Petty Officer of the Day. Each messman steps forward in turn, proudly declaring his mess number.
The Petty Officer of the Day, consulting his ledger, proclaims the number of tots to which the represented mess is entitled. With practiced grace, the Supply Petty Officer fills the appropriate measure with grog, pouring it into the mess fanny. One by one, the messmen receive their portions and return to their respective messes, serving it out to those deserving souls. Once all the messes have been served, any remnants in the rum tub are poured down the scuppers, much to the lamentation of the Officer of the Day.
As for the officers, who enjoy their own wine messes, they are not entitled to this daily ration, save for special occasions when “Splice the Main Brace” is ordered. This salty expression harkens back to the days of sailing ships, when the arduous and perilous task of splicing a new main yardarm brace—a weighty piece of rigging—merited the reward of a special issue of spirits. Today, “Splice the Main Brace” is signaled only by direct order of the reigning monarch, during visits to navy ships or stations, or to commemorate great victories, as was done on VE Day and VJ Day.
And so, dear reader, the tradition of grog lives on, its rich history interwoven with the customs and regulations of the Royal Navy. Let us raise a glass, filled with grog or any preferred libation, and toast to Old Grog, the eccentric Admiral who unwittingly sparked a lasting tradition, forever entwined with the seafaring souls who sail the vast and unpredictable seas.