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Why British Royal Navy Sailors Preferred Their Booze on Fire?

4 min read

If today a flaming alcoholic drink is either the work of a skilled barman or a terrible mistake, just two centuries ago this ritual was commonplace among members of the British Royal Navy. Setting fire to rum helped sailors regulate their spirits, and perhaps, find a little sense of control amidst an otherwise chaotic life at sea. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the life aboard any Royal Navy ship signified brutal battles, unavoidable disease, and, to survive to it all, an inordinate amount of alcohol. To keep the seamen fed, hydrated, and in high spirits, the Victualing Board ensured that the fleet was supplied with an appropriate amount of salted meats, cheese, biscuits, and, of course, booze.

Initially, beer was the British Navy’s favourite drink, so sailors were allotted a whopping gallon of the fresh beverage each day. The Victualing Board owned its own breweries, and experimented a few different beers, including stronger that could be diluted at sea, and spruce beer, believed to help ward off scurvy. But even beer didn’t hold up so well in the high temperatures: after sitting in the hot bowels of the ship, the wooden kegs would product mold, and of course rancid beer. The Navy needed a more resilient spirit, one that could withstand time and temperature, and also boost the bravery of the sailors. Rum wasn’t the immediate first choice. The Royal Navy experimented brandy and arak that was a particularly strong distilled drink from the Middle East, introduced by the East India Company. But the Triangular Trade and slave labor in the Caribbean made rum more accessible, and an important British business interest. For this reason, it became the beverage of choice among the fleet.

Sailors received an amount of rum, approximately to half of a pint, each day: it could be drained, taken with lemon or lime juice, or used to settle debts between sailors. Rum was even prescribed to treat various problems, for example scorpion and spider bites. Even if used also for its supposed medicinal properties, it frequently led to intoxications, alcohol poisoning, and death. A naval doctor named William Warner, observed in his medical notes that “drunkenness nowadays in the navy kills more men than the sword.” Despite the sea dangers, sailors were more concerned about not being enough drunk! Worry that the ship’s provider might be serving watered-down rum, the sailors needed a quick, simple system to test the booze. So, inspired to a 16th-century system used by British tax collectors for calculate liquor tariffs based on alcohol content, the sailors, quite literally, brought the fire. First, a few grains of gunpowder were mixed with a small sample of rum, and then set to a flame. If the liquid caught fire, the flame was the evidence that it wasn’t lot diluted. If there was no reaction, the provider would face the wrath of the crew.

It was 1740 when an admiral, Sir Edmond Vernon saw the constant drunkenness of his crew as a little problem. In an attempt to sober up the unruly troops, he established a new rule: from then on, the provider of each ship was required to dilute the rum with water, which was doled out in two daily servings. Even if diluted, the new drink hasn’t exactly made the British Navy immediately sober. The invention of the hydrometer in 1816 dispelled the need for such a flaming proof method, and at the end, the temperance movement of the 19th century began reducing the sailors’ rum consumption. By the 1950s, the development of technology and advanced weaponry forced the Royal Navy to prioritize mental precision over drunken valor. On July 31, 1970, Black Tot Day signed the official eradication of rum from the British Navy, much to the regret of the cheerful sailors.

Despite the gradual disappearance of the “fire-tests” and perennial drunkeness aboard Great Britain’s naval ships, much from the old maritime proof system still exists today. In England, booze comprised of more than 57% alcohol (the lowest concentration that would catch fire) are considered to be “naval strength,” or overproof. Also the United States, uses something similar, with different words from the British vocabulary: a drink that contains 50% alcohol is considered “100 proof.” Also the word “groggy”, used still today, come from to the disoriented feeling one might get from drinking too much grog, watered-down rum, which, any 18th-century sailor know, is an unsettling mood to be in when dealing with flaming drinks!

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