Black Tot Day
Goodbye, Dear Friend
On July 31, 1970 at 11am sailors in the British navy gathered for what would be the last distribution of the daily rum ration (the “tot”) thereby ending an unbroken British naval tradition spanning 315 years. Some wore black arm bands to commemorate the unhappy occasion, thereafter referred to as “Black Tot Day.” Sailors aboard the HMS Fife, the last ship to distribute rations due to their proximity at the time to the international date line, even held a mock funeral complete with a twenty-one-gun salute. After draining the last drop of naval rum that would ever be served, the men tossed their glasses and rum barrel overboard thus burying the practice at sea. It is said that many a strong man shed a tear that day.
The Rum Ration
Prior to 1655 ships in the British Navy would have been provisioned most typically with beer—a potable much less susceptible to spoilage than barreled water (which would grow algae quite readily) and an aid to men’s spirits during the nearly unbearable months (or years) at sea. But as the empire began to extend its influence into warmer climates even beer tended to sour quite rapidly. Add to this the mammoth quantities that needed to be stored abroad an already cramped vessel for these particularly long voyages (the beer ration at that time was a gallon per day per man—that’s 8 pints!) and you have an admiralty understandably thirsty for a better option. After successfully wresting Jamaica from the hands of the Spanish, the British navy suddenly had access to a reliable source of higher proof—and therefore considerably more portable—Jamaican rum (soon to be supplemented by an explosion of rum production in other British possessions in the West Indies). Far from going off in the barrel, the new spirit actually improved with each passing day at sea, mellowing and absorbing complementary flavors from the wood. It was a thing of beauty.
The first rations were a half pint of undiluted rum per man per day, given all at once and usually finished shortly thereafter. Admittedly, we don't know the exact alcohol content of the rum they were imbibing but neither did they. The Sikes hydrometer—a device for measuring the alcohol content of liquids—wasn’t invented until 1816. Prior to this alcohol content was estimated by mixing the spirt with a bit of gunpowder and attempting to light it with a magnifying glass. If the gunpowder ignited, it was “proof.” If it did not, it was “underproof.” If it exploded, it was “overproof” and you maybe needed a new guy to do your testing. Naval rum at the time would have typically been “proof” or above which by today’s standards is at least 57.15% ABV (or around 115 proof in the U.S.). This was disco shit. By these calculations sailors at the time were kicking back the alcoholic equivalent of nearly six modern-day cocktails (2 oz of 80 proof spirit in each) every single day and all at once. Add to this the fact that sailors were occasionally rewarded with a double ration after a particularly difficult task or day at sea (this practice became to be known as splicing the main brace—a tedious chore that was almost guaranteed to be awarded with extra rum). British sailors, as one can imagine, quickly formed a reputation.
The good times rolled until 1740, when an Admiral Edward Vernon—tired of the incessant drunkenness of his men—issued new rules concerning the daily allotment of “kill-devil” (as rum at the time was commonly called). He did not take the ration away or even reduce the amount (doing so would have likely caused a mutiny). Instead he declared simply that the ration would be diluted with water at a ratio of four parts water to one part rum and that it would furthermore be split into a twice daily distribution to discourage his charges from getting hammered all at once. The admiral was known among his men as “Old Grogram” (as he was particular fond of wearing cloaks made from a material so named*) and thus the new concoction was coined “grog.” The admiral also made the incredibly inspired decision to allow his men to trade their salt and bread rations for sugar and limes** to "make [grog] more palatable to them.” Well played, sir.
Over the next 200 or so years the ration would be halved and then halved again. By the time Black Tot Day rolled around British enlisted men were only getting an eighth pint of rum per man per day (70ml or just under 2.5 oz if you’re on this side of the pond). A healthy shooter to be sure but it’s not going to carry you into battle.
On December 17th, 1969 the British Admiralty Board issued a statement in which it concluded that “the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual's tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people's lives may depend.” An impassioned argument ensued in the House of Commons, now referred to as “the Great Rum Debate.” Fighting on the side of side of rum was the aptly named James Wellbeloved, MP of Erith and Crayford. Unfortunately, he was overruled and the rest is dismal history.
In 1980 an American entrepreneur purchased the rights to the secret formula for British naval rum and marketed it under the name Pusser’s.***
In honor of Black Tot Day we bring you:
Sailing While Black
2oz Pusser’s rum
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz English Breakfast black tea syrup****
1/8 oz squid ink
5 dashes Angostura bitters
1 egg white
activated charcoal***** (garnish)
Add all ingredients to a shaker and shake without ice (dry shake) for approximately 5 seconds. Add ice and shake again until the shaker is cold to the touch. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a generous dusting of activated charcoal (I loaded up a fine cocktail strainer and gave it a few good taps).
Enjoy and then find a pub to raise a glass or three to this lost tradition and to the generations of brave men and women that found courage and comfort in its embrace.
Maybe we’ll see you there. Cheers.
Editor’s note: Information for this post was gleaned from various sources but we are particularly indebted to Wayne Curtis, author of And A Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in 10 Cocktails (Crown, 2006) for his section on Black Tot Day and (most importantly) for being our guide during our recent sojourn in New Orleans. Thank you for opening up new worlds to us, Wayne. His writing can be found in The Atlantic, Imbibe (where he is a contributing editor), Punch, Men’s Journal, and elsewhere. He can be found at waynecurtis.com. Tell him we say hello.
*A course fabric made of woven silk, mohair, and/or wool and stiffened and weatherproofed with gum. It fell out of favor when people realized that it was the most uncomfortable material ever conceived.
**In 1755, based on the findings of Scottish surgeon James Lind that showed scurvy to be caused by a lack of ascorbic acid, the British navy began including 1/2 oz of lemon or lime juice to sailor’s daily rations to be mixed with grog. Shortly after, British sailors became to be known as “limeys.”
***Sailor slang for “purser” or the officer aboard a ship responsible for managing the ship’s budget and securing and provisioning all rations (including, obviously, rum). He was a generally unpopular character regularly accused of over-dilution, leading to the practice of mixing the ration in full view of the men. Pronounce it as if it only has one “s.”
****Combine 1 part very strong brewed tea (still hot) with 1 part granulated sugar. Still until sugar is completely dissolved. Easy.
*****We are compelled to mention that activated charcoal may have a negative interaction with some medications (including anti-depressants and possibly birth control). These interactions have not been widely studied and in the small amount we are considering here the risk is particularly small. For your own safety however, we recommend not consuming this ingredient within two hours of taking medication as activated charcoal's absorption qualities may reducing the effectiveness of your medication. Again, this is—in our opinion—a generally overblown concern (most typically discussed in forums i.e., the fear multiplier) but do consume at your own risk.