How gin’s naval history helped shape today’s boom 

Proudly heralding from Portsmouth, I’m unashamedly interested in all things nautical. My Grandfather was in the Navy and fought in WW2 and for a while I worked for the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. During this time spent pottering around museum galleries, the Mary Rose and exploring the decks of HMS M33, HMS Warrior and HMS Victory, I had started my gin blog and was keen to seek out new stories. The dockyard was rich with boozy tales and it became apparent that there was a lot to learn. With history it can be tricky to get the facts straight, so I’ve scoured through some serious research to bring you the interesting story of gin’s Navy history.

‘Push the boat out’

1: Officers would sit around a table with their bottle held in a wooden, boat shaped base. To push the boat out and forward into the table was the signal that the officers could have some, a very early idea of buying a round 2: Sailors would throw a substantial party before setting sail, known as ‘push the boat out’ 3: Helping a sailor push a boat that is otherwise too heavy, linking it to an act of generosity.

Naval history has a strong sense of tradition, such as the rum tot, or rum ration. Between 1784 and 1970 only one producer had the contract to supply rum to the Navy. As they travelled around the Caribbean, the rum sat in oak barrels and aged in the warmth of the sun. The sailors had the rum ration, while it was the Officers that had a gin ration, however this is not as well documented. 

In 18th Century Britain, the Royal Navy legislated that a certain quantity of gin had to be on board every vessel. Gin was thought to have medicinal properties and newly commissioned ships received a gin commissioning ‘kit’; a wooden box containing glasses and two bottles of ‘Navy’ gin. Being out at sea for long periods of time, it was commonplace for sailors to suffer with scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in Vitamin C. Originally the Navy prescribed lemons for their high Vitamin C content. However, there was a switch made to limes, which although contained less Vitamin C, was still preferable due to investment in Caribbean lime plantations. The Gimlet, a classic cocktail by today’s standards, is said to be invented by an Officer and Surgeon in the Navy, RAdm Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette as a medicinal drink. Gin to “fortify”, and Roses Lime cordial to “immunise” (lime cordial was provided in rations from 1876).

The idea of the medicinal gin drink evolved further. In 1817, Pelletier and Caventou, a pair of French scientists found a method to extract quinine from the bark of cinchona trees, originally from Peru. They established a factory and sold the drug to prevent malaria, which was hugely beneficial for the Navy. However its bitter taste made it nasty to drink. From 1825 onwards, British Officers stationed in India discovered a new way to make their medicine more palatable. By mixing it with soda water, sugar, lime and gin, they essentially created the world’s first gin and tonics. Carbonated tonic water appeared at the end of the 19th Century. Another way for Officers to drink their gin was by mixing it with Angostura bitters, (known to settle the stomach while at sea), and cold water, known as pink gin. Pink gin is currently having a resurgence and companies have picked up on this. Nowadays, there are a number of pink tonics on the market.

‘A Long Ship’

Officers’ slang referring to bad hospitality, or too long a gap between drinks.

Gin aided Officers medicinally, and the Navy’s transportation of gin and spices was a fundamental part of its spread around the world. They had a mutually beneficial relationship. However, there were issues with the strength of the drink as for a long time there was no way of knowing how strong the alcohol content was. As you can imagine, there was always the chance of an opportunist cutting the gin and Officers were concerned about the strength of their drink. The Supply Officers, known as ‘Pussers’, were trying to find a reliable way of testing the strength. At the time the gin was stored close to the gunpowder and before long certain Officers sussed that if gunpowder was wet with gin, it would still burn at 57% ABV (114 proof) or above. They would mix gunpowder with gin, heat it using the sun and a magnifying glass and if caught fire it was 57% or higher. This was the only reliable method and just worked to prove gin was over this strength so 57% became the standard strength for Navy. There is also the aspect that at this strength, if it spilt on gunpowder it would still burn, otherwise the ship would be defenceless, which was particularly important as merchant ships were frequently attacked for their bounty. 

In 1816 the Sikes Hydrometer was invented, which allowed more accurate measurements of alcoholic strength. Although this meant gin didn’t have to be 57% any more, the Navy still purchased it at this strength due to tradition. Although ‘Navy’ gin was a higher percentage than typical gin at 41% ABV, the idea of ‘Navy Strength’ gin was allegedly first used for marketing in 1993 by gin giants, Plymouth, who produced the first commercially available Navy Strength gin. Since then there has been a boom in Navy Strength gins. There is no flavour profile as such, the only stipulation is that the spirit is at 57% or higher. Some companies however, are centred around nautical ideas, sometimes due to a passion for sea, sometimes due to locality.

Isle of Wight Distillery’s HMS Victory Gin has seen an ambitious project, with a limited amount of gin being aged in four bespoke barrels made by (at the time), the country’s only master cooper, Alastair Simms. The barrels incorporate pieces of oak from the prestigious vessel. Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson commanded the entire fleet from HMS Victory during the battle of Trafalgar. Mortally wounded, Nelson lay dying on the orlop deck, holding on long enough to hear that the battle had been won before dying shortly after. There’s a lot of nautical history in those bottles of gin! Part of the sales go towards the continuous restoration of the ship, so not only do you consume history, but you help preserve it too.

‘Nelsons blood’

A slang name for rum, originating from a story about brandy. Nelson’s body was brought home after Trafalgar in a barrel of brandy, to keep him preserved. It is thought that the barrel was tapped by the sentries keeping watch over it. Apparently, a story appeared in a paper at the time and was officially denied.

HMS Spirits has charted its ‘own course’. 

Launching last year, after confirming use of the name with the Navy, it released its gin. HMS Spirits feel associated with the Navy because the Navy encompasses its core beliefs and interests. Although its current gin isn’t Navy Strength (although a little birdy tells me they may be working on one), its whole ethos is centred around the Navy and travel. The corks are imprinted with compass points and it has also launched an advertising campaign encouraging people to take photos of their bottles and corks around the world. 

Then we have the colossus of Navy Strength gin, Plymouth. The city has been a home to the Royal Navy since 1691 and has a long history or merchant trade in spice. Nelson ordered barrels of gin for his Officers. It was home to Francis Drake and the last stop for the Mayflower before embarking on her pilgrim voyage. Black Friars Distillery itself is heralded as the oldest working gin distillery in England. 

Heavyweights in the industry, even the name was protected as a locality, although in recent years it has withdrawn this.

These are just to name but a few. There are lots of other gins appearing around the country that base themselves around a nautical idea and a lot of gin brands have brought ‘Navy Strength’ additions of their own gins.

 It seems a voyage of discovery is on the horizon. Set sail on a juniper journey. The sun is over the yardarm. In Jackspeak that means it’s time for a drink. 


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