How to Get Drunken, Sailor
Five historic drinks that helped seafarers get three sheets to the wind.
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From the drunken sailors of legend to today’s booze cruises, alcohol and the open sea have been firmly linked through the centuries. Naturally, this created an armada of quintessentially marine beverages. Some drinks have origins as obscure as the ocean’s depths, while others just obscure your judgment. To these five ocean-inspired drinks, we say, cheers!
Today “grog” refers to all manner of boozy concoctions, but it originally applied to a specific recipe. In 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon of Britain’s Royal Navy—nicknamed “Old Grog” for his coat made of a coarse fabric known as “grogram”—was concerned that some of his sailors were drinking their entire daily rum allowance of half a pint all at once, causing “many fatal effects to their morals as well as their health.” Vernon ordered his men to dilute their drink rations with four parts water, a rule that soon gained popularity among British admiralty. And since water stored for long periods on ships generally tasted foul, lime juice and sugar were added to the grog recipe. A side benefit: the lime served as an accidental scurvy-preventative at a time when Europeans didn’t know the disease’s cause.
Rum is long-associated with sailors and the sea, a link evident by the use of nautical imagery on many current brands’ labels. Those marketed as “navy-strength,” boast an unusually high alcohol content of more than 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). What’s most interesting about this particular rum is how it’s tied to “proof,” the idiosyncratic metric of alcohol.
The term likely dates back to the 16th century, when English customs officers needed to determine the relative alcohol content of rum in order to calculate the tax. They splashed a sample of rum onto a small amount of gunpowder and if they could (still) ignite the wetted explosive, they rated the rum “above proof,” or higher in alcohol, and taxed it accordingly. Sailors also used this test to prove their rum rations weren’t watered down. The method isn’t particularly precise, but modern re-enactments find that rum-doused gunpowder will ignite at about 57 percent ABV.
India Pale Ale
A staple of North America’s ongoing craft brew explosion, bitter India pale ale (IPA) is another quaffable byproduct of imperialism. This style of beer emerged in the late 18th century, when British brewers were trying to produce ale that could survive the long, warm, and turbulent ocean journey to colonial India. London brewer George Hodgson is usually thought to be the first major player to capitalize on these conditions. Hodgson and his fellow brewers took advantage of the preservative power of hops, developing pale ales with exceptionally high proportions of the plant, and adding even more hops to finished barrels. The result was refreshing, bitter, potent, and, in short order, popular.
Torpedo juice is the sort of hyper-alcoholic phenomenon that could only arise from utter desperation. During the Second World War, parched US submariners found themselves crammed in close quarters with a substantial supply of off-limits alcohol: the ethanol used to propel some underwater missiles. Perhaps inevitably, the seamen discovered they could make the alcohol more palatable if they added fruit juice. In response, the navy started adding croton oil—which causes severe gastrointestinal distress—to the ethanol as a dissuasive measure. Yet ingenuity knows no bounds: allegedly, some sailors contrived methods for separating out the oil, leaving many of them—appropriately—blasted.
Today, some artisanal bartenders vying to create the most curious cocktail recipes are looking to ambergris, an ingredient with decidedly unromantic origins. When a sperm whale dines on squid, the animals’ hard beaks combine with the whale’s digestive juices and gradually coalesce into an indigestible mass in its labyrinthine intestines. At some point, the animal manages to pass the substance, or, failing this, fatally succumbs to the blockage. Once freed, the obstruction floats about on ocean currents, gradually taking on a stone-like appearance. If it eventually washes ashore, its lucky finders can command high prices for the scavenged treasure, which garners US $26 per gram. Long valued for its rarity and enigma, various cultures have used ambergris in everything from perfume and medicine to tea and jewelry. Now, drinks such as ambergris punch can be added to the list, with bartenders infusing their concoctions with the substance’s sweet, woody, and aquatic flavors.