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Watered-down rum

By Debra Dobbins

In modern parlance, “grog” is a synonym for any alcoholic beverage, but its original meaning has been watered down over time. Perhaps a certain English military man, were he alive today, would be happy about that.

Admiral Edward Vernon was a long-time naval officer in England in the mid-1700s. At least one of the men he commanded respected him highly — none other than the half-brother of President George Washington. According to Wikipedia, Lawrence Washington named the family estate, Mount Vernon, after the admiral.

Alas and alack, this staid historical tidbit about Vernon seems to have been surpassed by notoriety related to what the admiral wore and an order he issued.

Vernon apparently was fond of wearing a grogram cloak. Grogram was “a coarse fabric … made of silk, worsted, and mohair, often stiffened with gum,” according to Webster’s. As a result, he was nicknamed “Old Grog.”

“In 1740,” writes Albert Jack in Red Herrings and White Elephants, “Admiral Vernon, the commander in chief of the West Indies, replaced the neat rum which was then issued to all sailors twice daily, with a watered-down version.” Other sources claim Vernon had the rum diluted with lemon juice or lime juice — a practice that actually improved the health of his sailors by reducing the chances of scurvy.

At any rate, his order went straight to the heart of many a sailor. Given the conditions of sailing ships in those days, it is not too far-fetched to think that the rum rations were the highlights of a sailor’s day.

Sailors began calling the new concoction “grog” after the admiral’s nickname. Many, I suspect, did not consider the term complimentary.

Jack mentions that one sailor, Thomas Trotter, who was aboard the Berwick, enshrined Vernon’s mandate into history in this manner:

“A mighty bowl on deck he drew
And filled it to the brink
Such drank the Burford’s* gallant crew
And such the gods shall drink
The sacred robe which Vernon wore
Was drenched within the same
And hence his virtues guard our shore
And Grog drives its name”

*The Burford was Vernon’s flagship from 1739 to 1742.

Portrait of Admiral Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough
Photo of painting courtesy of Wikipedia

Royal Navy grog issue
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia

 

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