From beer to toddy: a history of alcohol at sea

It’s a well-known fact that beer is the water of choice for sailors on the high seas! Until the 17th century, every voyage of more than a week on the seas of Europe was accompanied by a heavy load of beer. Later, grog and toddy became commonplace. What drove that change? What impact did it have on world history?

Looking at the drinking habits of ships, the naval historian comes across a curious phenomenon. Throughout maritime history, alcohol has played an absolutely fundamental role, influencing even naval strategy and world geopolitics. Conversely, inter-colonial wars have had a colossal impact on the evolution of certain alcohols.

Beer and wine: Maritime Fuel of antiquity

The Mediterranean was the Roman mare nostrum, after having been the colonial playground of ancient Greece. Both powers flooded the sea with amphorae of wines, both necessary for hydration on board and for the lucrative export market in the region.

Long before the Romans, the Greeks had perfected the art of navigation and trade. On the other hand, it was the Canaanites, then the Phoenicians, who first exported wine to Europe, as they too were great navigators and excellent traders.

Strangely, naval technology had evolved little from antiquity to the 16th century. Coastal shipping was still the rule for all significant expeditions. So did the ship design. Another thing that was remarkably continuous was the considerable space reserved on ships for guarding alcohol. On the other hand, the Middle Ages saw a transition to beer as the primary hydration tool, with wine becoming more of a luxury product.

The Romans, like the Greeks, famously despised beer. Once the empire collapsed, fermented beverages known to other European cultures simply gained economic and cultural ground, as well as being easier to prepare. And so the new prototype of European beer took shape: gruit, an ale flavored with local herbs. Food, medicine, and morning buzz all rolled into one.

beer at sea Conrad Gessner
Empty beer barrels prove useful during a journey in this woodcut illustration from Conrad Gessner’s work, “Historia animalium.” Thrown overboard, they serve as a diversion to sea monsters.

The beer of the time, though low in alcohol by modern standards, was nevertheless used to poison the bacteria and preserve the beer for the few weeks needed to complete a trade mission. The merchants of the Hanseatic League – a sort of confederation of Frankish cities – standardized this practice by adding large quantities of hops to the barrels, thus creating the (little-known) ancestor of IPAs.

Towards the end of the 17th century, however, the tide turned. Technological advances enabled incredible maritime breakthroughs: huge new ships took off for the four corners of the world, carrying with them a thirst for new territories. At the same time, thanks to alchemists, ancient Arab translators, and European medicine, distillation was transformed from an occult science into a miracle cure for almost everything. Wine began to be distilled throughout Western Europe, particularly in England.

Origins of grog

Indeed, beer had long been the preferred beverage for sailors navigating the high seas. However, the demands of extended sea voyages, coupled with advancements in distillation techniques, gave rise to the exploration of practical and cost-effective alternatives.

In the 17th century, Western Europe threw itself wholeheartedly into spirits, enough to prompt the heralds of the English press to declare that the apocalypse was imminent. England’s elite was panicking at the prospect of the populace falling prey to the mighty gin, the enemy of modern productivity…

However, what caused panic in London proved a golden opportunity for the admiralty. Distillery products (brandy, whisky, scotch, gin, etc.) also offer an incomparable military advantage on the ocean. By 1655, rum rations had mostly replaced beer rations onboard British ships.

From beer to grog : the gin craze in London
Beer Street And Gin Lane Beer Street, by William Hogard 1751

Unlike small beer, spirits don’t sour. Simply pour a little into a portion of water to kill pathogens. But that’s not all: Spirits take up far less space than beer kegs. For the same quantity of alcohol, spirits take up much less space than beer, thus achieving economies of scale. The transition to hard liquor freed up space for precious, valuable cargo while also increasing morale and hygiene. (Don’t get me wrong though: being on a ship at the time was still pretty unsanitary by modern standards).

Enter the age of exploration, during which colonial powers stumbled upon newfound sources of sugar that would not only revolutionize dietary habits but also transform the entire alcohol market. Sugar cane from the Caribbean islands played a pivotal role in ushering in a new era of affordable, easily storable spirits, primarily harvested by enslaved individuals.

This period of history marked a darker chapter known as the triangular trade, where sugar cane and molasses harvested by enslaved laborers were traded to slave traders in Africa in exchange for more enslaved individuals, who would then participate in the production of sugar-rich commodities. Initially, rum may have been harsh and less palatable than beer, but its practicality and affordability made it a popular choice. Perhaps most importantly, rum had a longer shelf life compared to beer, which typically had lower alcohol content than the modern-day beer we’re accustomed to.

At first, when the British started to adopt the rum ration, rum was given undiluted, which created a number of issues, not the least of which was the problem of rampant drunkenness. It was Vice-Admiral Edouard Vernon who introduced the magic formula by which the fort would definitively replace small beer as the drink of choice for the British navy, a practice that would later be adopted by the other great powers of the day, before disappearing in the twilight of the 20th century. Vernon, a fair and respected officer, introduced the cocktail to his crew on a voyage to the West Indies in 1740. The grog was 50% rum, and 50% water, with a dash of sugar and lemon juice (when possible) to combat scurvy.

The servicing of alcohol was highly organized and tightly monitored, manu military. Sailors were given exactly 71 ml (or one eight of an imperial pint) of rum at 54.6% ABV, given out between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. Sailors under 20 were not permitted to receive the rations, while abstainers could opt for a financial substitute.

Another historical detail: it’s the British navy that drinks the grog, not its sworn enemy, the pirate of the West Indies! The majority of successful pirates who took refuge in the Caribbean and plundered Spanish galleons and English frigates made a point of not drinking the cursed cocktail of the British flag!

Grog, toddy, and other fun drinks

Toddy, a traditional alcoholic beverage, has its origins in India and is closely tied to maritime developments and geopolitics. It is primarily made from the sap of coconut palms or other palm trees. The historical roots of toddy production can be traced back to ancient India, where it was known as “toddi” or “taadi.”

Maritime developments played a significant role in the spread of toddy production. Coastal regions of India, with their abundant palm trees, became key centers for toddy tapping and production. The palm sap was collected in clay pots, and its fermentation process turned it into a toddy. This coastal trade flourished due to India’s extensive coastline, allowing the easy transport of toddy to various regions.

Recognizing the potential benefits of toddy, British naval officers began to incorporate it into the sailors’ rations. Toddy was seen as a relatively safe and inexpensive source of alcohol that could help combat scurvy (due to its vitamin C content) and boost morale during extended sea journeys.

Black Tot Day: The end of alcohol rations

By the end of World War two, navy ships had developed into complex systems operated by even more complex machinery. Authorities decided it might not be a great idea to have inebriated sailors chasing submarines and launching ballistic missiles. On July 31, 1970, British sailors enjoyed the very last alcohol ration on the ship. Thus “Black Tot Day” marked the end of an age-old era.

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