Today ‘grog’ can be used to describe all sorts of alcoholic drinks - including whisky, mulled wine, mulled cider, and even powdered cava root mixed with water - but the term originally referred to a mixture of water and rum.
From the 17th Century onwards, sailors in England’s Royal Navy were given a daily ration of a half pint of rum. However, some sailors would hoard their rum ration for several days and then binge drink the lot – with predictable results!
Another challenge on long sea voyages was providing the sailors with fresh water. Ships would start their journeys with barrels full of drinkable water, but over time it became slimy with algae. To disguise the taste of the stagnant water, wine or beer would be added, but these extra barrels took up a lot of space on board and the wine and beer could also spoil.
In 1740, Royal Navy Vice Admiral Edward Vernon found a way to kill two birds with one stone. By adding water to the daily rum ration (4 parts water, 1 part rum) of his West Indies-based squadron, Vernon found a way to sweeten the stagnant water and prevent drunkenness on board. With water added, rum would spoil more quickly so sailors were less likely to hoard their daily ration and then drink several days’ worth of rum in one go. This innovation also meant that ships didn’t have to carry dozens of barrels of wine and beer to disguise the water’s taste. Vernon’s new idea became part of the official regulations of the Royal Navy in 1756.
Where did the name ‘grog’ come from?
It’s hard to know for sure, but the widely-accepted explanation is that water and rum became known as 'grog' because Vice Admiral Vernon wore a grogram coat, and was nicknamed ‘Old Grog’ by his men. Grogram is a coarse, ribbed fabric made of silk.
The daily rum ration continued to be given to sailors in the Royal Navy until 31 July 1970 – a date now referred to as ‘Black Tot Day’.