Gin and The Navy

Have you ever noticed that there are lots of gins out there with a distinctly naval theme?

There’s Nelson’s from this month’s Gin Explorer, of course, and Plymouth Gin, one of the oldest gin brands in the world. Then there’s the amazing gins coming out of West Winds down in Australia, London’s own Half Hitch (with tea in it don’t you know), Gin Sea from Spain and VL92 (which was named for a ship that used to transport gin). And that’s not even getting into Navy Strength gins (gins with a strength of 57% of greater) like Perry’s Tot (named for a famous American sailor).

Nelson's Gin

So, why does naval history loom so large in the minds of gin makers? Well, it all has to do with class distinctions, gunpowder and, most importantly, scurvy.

Scurvy is a frightful disease with symptoms that, well, you may want to brace yourself with  stiff libation Gin Explorers, include  fatigue, loss of teeth, horrible sores and eventually death! Blimey. It’s caused simply by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, something all humans need in order to process collagen. For most people it’s easy to get enough vitamin C in the diet but that’s not the case for the brave explorers of yesteryear, sailors, who routinely had to spend months at sea without any sources of fresh fruit or vegetables. For sailors, scurvy was a mysterious and terrifying horror. Nobody knew what caused it or how to cure it but it was everywhere and deadly.  During the 18th century, scurvy killed more British sailors than enemy action.

Tragically, the cure for scurvy was discovered as early as 1747 by a clever chap named James Lind  in what was one of the world’s first clinical trials. But the conservative opinion of the naval medical establishment was hard to change. They considered scurvy a disease caused by bad digestion and hard life at sea. It wasn’t until 1794, when HMS Suffolk and two sloops under Commodore Peter Rainier sailed east supplied with lemon juice and sugar instead of the ‘elixir’ traditionally drunk at the time. Suffolk arrived in India after a four-month voyage without a trace of scurvy. The effect was immediate. Within 6 years, lemon juice and sugar was a daily ration on all British warships.

This remained the case until 1845, when lemons were swapped for limes that were easier to obtain from Britain’s colonies in the West Indies. This again was changed in 1867 to the newly invented Rose’s Lime Cordial, yes the same one you can pick up in a supermarket today. It kept better than real lime juice and was soon supplied as standard on all Navy ships.

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Although lemon juice and sugar might be hard to swallow, neat lime cordial is even trickier, and you have to drink a lot more of it than lemon juice too to get the same effect.The lemon-to-lime switch led to the development of the much beloved tot, or rum ration, a measure of spirits that was awarded to each sailor, every day to make their daily lime juice more palatable. This was normally rum, which was cheap and came in on the same ships that the limes did, but could also be the domestically produced, and newly fashionable, gin.

This was particularly the case for officers. Toward the end of the 19th century, American-style mixed drinks, cocktail if you’re fancy, became fashionable in England. But, while Americans would use whisky or brandy, the English opted for gin. Cheap, sweetened gin was swilled by the masses, but the new middle class, including Royal Naval officers, liked a gin cocktail. The men (or ‘ratings’) on a ship got their spirits served pre-mixed with lime juice and water. The officers could take their spirit ration neat and mix it to their liking in their quarters.

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From the combination of lime juice, gin and fashion was born ‘The Gimlet’, a classic gin cocktail consisting of 2 parts gin to 1 part Rose’s Lime Cordial. Sharp, sweet, bitter and delicious, it is as piercing as the tool it is named after.

So where does Navy Strength gin come into it?

Well, gin would be kept in barrels on the ship often close to the gunpowder. However, if the barrel spilt then it could make the gunpowder damp and useless. Very dangerous for a ship that needed working cannons to defend itself! But, at 57% ABV, gunpowder will still fire even if it is soaked in gin. Therefore naval admirals ordered that all spirits on board be at least 57% ABV as a safety measure. Navy Strength gin was born and persists through to today.

Nowadays the tot is sadly gone for good. But, for more than a century, gin and juice kept our sailors healthy and fueled the British Empire. We think that’s definitely worth drinking to!

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