Benjamin Franklin: an ode to punch

During his long life Benjamin Franklin  (Boston, 1706 – Philadelphia, 1790) was a leading author and wrote books and articles on an incredible variety of topics, including science, politics and history. He probably was the man who best embodied and represented the spirit of this new Nation, that was going to become the United States of America. In his publications he often criticized the excessive alcohol consumption of his fellow countrymen, but not many people know that he also wrote an ode to punch and to the joyful ritual its preparation:

Boy, bring a bowl of China here,

Fill it with water cool and clear:

Decanter with Jamaica right

And spoon of silver, clean and bright.

Sugar twice-fin’d in piece cut,

Knife, sieve and glass in order put,

Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then,

We’re happy till the clock strikes ten.”

Claudio Pierini

The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: A New Quest

The readers of GOT RUM may remember that in the past I published a series of articles titled “The Origins of Rum: A Quest” At the end of my research I reached the conclusion that, as far as I knew, the Origins of Rum in the West were to be found in Brazil in the first half of the XVII century. (See the last article of that series  in GOT RUM?  August 2015)

When studying the origins of rum, I had to deal with the origin of alcoholic distillation in general and this issue fascinated me. So, after concluding my research on American Rum, I decided to take up a new Quest, this time about the Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West.

“Distillation is an art and even an ancient one. It is strange to find that the history of this oldest and still most important method of producing chemically pure substances has never been written. … a proper history of the art from its origin up to the present time was lacking.”

With these words R. J. Forbes  begins his Short History of the Art of Distillation”, written in Amsterdam in 1944 and published in 1948. A valuable book, available today only thanks to the American Distilling Institute that has republished it.  The subject of Forbes’ book is distillation in general (perfumes, metals, dyes etc), not only alcoholic distillation, which is what interests us. In any case, Forbes is necessarily our starting point. It is an interesting, learned book, brimming with information, but not easy to read. Besides, it is inevitably dated, since the sources available at the time were scanty. In particular, hardly any of the many Arabic works on the subject were accessible. Yet, this is the only organic text on the history of distillation the general public has at their disposal, which means that if you visit and digit “history of distillation”, only this title will come up.

This does not mean that no new texts have been written on the subject since 1944. The world is full of Universities and research bodies and undoubtedly there are many other studies and academic papers  on alcoholic distillation. But they have remained largely confined to comparatively limited circles (scientific journals, academic conferences and such like) without reaching the large public of aficionados. Then, naturally, there are plenty of texts written to enhance the marketing of this or that company, this or that product. They are easy to find, but usually rough-and-ready and unreliable. Anyway, as far as I know, no one else, after Forbes, has published an organic history of alcoholic distillation.

Well, so this is our starting point, the awareness that about this theme – the Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West – very little is known and we are, so to speak, sailing in the open sea. We have to search ourselves for little-known sources and documents and reflect on the historical context, in the hope of reaching valuable conclusions. With little help from secondary literature. It was the same with the Quest into the Origins of Rum. It is laborious and errors cannot be ruled out, but it is also thrilling, true historical research.

But before continuing, it is a good idea to clarify the purpose and the scope of this New Quest.

Since I began my studies into the origins of rum,  I have learned that at the beginning, maybe in the XI century, alcohol was produced by distilling wine, which makes sense, as wine was by far the most popular alcoholic drink. Distillation was a complex procedure, difficult and costly, done by pharmacists and alchemists. After great effort, toil and expenditure, they managed to obtain small quantities of a strange, colorless, burning liquid that today we call alcohol, but to which they gave the Medieval Latin name “Aqua”, that is “water”. Later, fascinated by  this prodigious liquid, someone called it “Aqua Vitae”, “Water of life”, and the name stuck.

For a long time alcohol was used only as a medicinal drug, or in scientific and alchemic experiments. According to some scholars the shift of alcohol from a drug to a common beverage for pleasure consumption occurred only in the first half of the XVII century. When, two years ago, I wrote my book “American Rum” I put the date backward to XVI century Holland.

But historic research is a work in progress and now I think that in the West, commercial production of alcohol on a large scale was, almost certainly, an Italian invention and  it happened as early as the XIV century. I hope I will be able to explain and support this conclusion in the next articles.

For the sake of clarity I will repeat it: commercial production of alcohol on a large scale in the West. Yet again, as was the case with rum, we are not looking for attempts which were not followed through, or experiments, even intriguing ones, which remained isolated. We are not interested here in the discoveries of some individual apothecary, doctor, alchemist, monk, craftsman etc. which died with them or with their close disciples, without yielding long-lasting fruit. We want to find out when, where and how selling and consuming Spirit Drinks became an ordinary thing.

We want to discover the moment, the place and perhaps even the people that gifted to us the decisive passage of alcohol from an apothecary’s laboratory to the tables of a tavern, paving the way which leads to us.

This is all for now, see you again in the next article.

Marco Pierini

PS: I wrote “almost certainly” for a reason. We shall return to it at the end.

PPS: i published this article a few months ago on the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit


In the previous articles, we tried to tell how Rum conquered the British mind and market in the 1700s, one of the greatest and most successful marketing campaigns of known History. We saw how it was the result of a real lobbying effort made by the West Indies’ interests with the help of Science, Fashion and the Royal Navy. According to S.W. Mintz in “Sweetness and Power” it was an example of “much-needed creeping socialism for an infant industry”.

To complete the frame of this public effort to promote Rum consumption, we now want to tell about the diffusion of Rum in the British Army in the 1700s and early 1800s, which R.N. Buckley in “The British Army in the West Indies” called  “state-sponsored alcoholism”.

Traditionally, English soldiers had beer, and sometimes wine, as customary ration. The Army did not have the problem of the Navy to maintain water and beer drinkable during the long oceanic voyages, so it did not need to introduce spirits  so soon.

Large distribution of Rum to soldiers began round the mid of the 1700s  in the West Indies and North America, and increased rapidly during the century. Yet during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763) Rum was distributed only on special occasions, for instance when men had to deal with bad weather and/or fatigue, but it was not a daily allowance. Only during the American  Revolution (1775 – 1783) do we know about a regular allowance of Rum: a gill daily, which amounts to a gallon per month.

But in America, Rum was cheap and easy to buy in large quantities. Licensed sutlers, unlicensed ones, soldiers’ wives, planters, and often the  officers themselves sold cheap Rum to the soldiers. And soldiers bought and drank it in huge quantities with uncontrollable frenzy. They drank such quantities that probably they spent most of the time in a state of near inebriation.

Why? The 1700s in Britain was an age of hard drinking, see the so-called  “Gin Craze”. Moreover, a soldier’s life was both brutal and boring. Fatal diseases scourged them. Short periods of battle with its exertion and bloodshed , were succeeded by long periods of emptiness and idleness. Getting drunk was often the only escape available. Wine and brandy were expensive, too much for  ordinary soldiers, while Rum was affordable, and in great quantity. Rum, therefore, was their usual drink, their cheap Stairway to Heaven.

Drunkenness worsened the already poor health of the soldiers, with negative consequences on the efficiency of the Army. It also undermined discipline and strained the relations with civilians, with discontent, floggings and court- martials. Many officers and military surgeons were well aware of the dangers of this situation, but they were not able to stop it.

The fact was, soldiers wanted to drink. Better, they wanted to get drunk in the quickest and cheapest way  possible. Therefore, to distribute Rum was the easiest and cheapest way to have their allegiance and diligence. The officers knew that to try cutting or also just  limiting  Rum allowances could bring troubles and also open mutiny. Then, alcohol had deep roots in military culture.

Medicine was also ambivalent: many doctors condemned the abuse of alcohol, but others considered it useful to preserve men’s health in both cold or hot weather and  “as a precaution against the noxious air”. Last, when out of duty, troops usually did not live in military barracks, but were billeted in taverns and civilians’ houses where control was impossible and Rum easily available.

So, drunkenness was common in the British Army well into the 1800s. What kind of Rum did they drink, though? Let’s see.

John Bell served as a military surgeon in Jamaica. Back to England, in 1791 he published An Inquiry into the causes which produce, and the means of preventing diseases among British Officers, Soldiers, and others in the West Indies. Containing observations on the action of spirituous liquors on the Human body. As many, Bell was shocked by the mortality rate “in some of those regiments, two thirds, and in others upward of a half, died, or were rendered unfit for service before they had been a year, or at most a year and a half, in the island of Jamaica.”  Actually, in the West Indies  the diseases – the “fevers” – killed many more soldiers than the enemy’s weapons.

Like many doctors of the time, Bell underestimated the role of infectious diseases and thought that climate, diet and life-style were the main factors  warranting good health. In his opinion, the excessive daily consumption of Rum was the primary cause of illness and death among the soldiers. The daily allowance was half a pint and was usually diluted with water, we do not know in what ratio. But soldiers bought much more undiluted Rum, “large quantities of which of the most execrable quality” from private sellers at a cheap price.

Bell didn’t approve of the addition of water to Rum. “In this mode of using it, Rum is perhaps more injurious to the body than any other, because it makes only a simple uncompounded impression, which becomes weaker by a frequent repetition of its cause: and therefore, after some time, an increase of the quantity of spirit becomes necessary.” In other words, the daily allowance of Army diluted Rum paved the way for alcoholism.

This is not all. Distillation is an art, but a dangerous one, even today. Two centuries ago, in the West Indies, planters and distillers produced for the soldiers a kind of Rum that only needed to be strong and cheap. It was fermented and distilled very quickly, saving on costs, without any aging or regard for quality. As far as we know, the heads and the tails were not removed and in all likelihood in Rum there was methanol, fused oils and bad congeners. And lead powder too. Yes, because at the time lead and pewter were largely used in sugar and Rum-making machinery.

We know of soldiers who died immediately after they had drunk. Or who fell to the ground in a state of torpor. Of hardy young men who declined rapidly. Of excruciating pains, ulcerated organs, illnesses … . The reports of the military surgeons of the time, and the first scientific post-mortems, tell us a terrifying story.

To sum up, it seems that soldiers’ Rum was not only the “hot, hellish and terrible  liquor”  described by Richard  Ligon in the 1650s,  it was often  actually a toxic beverage.

Marco Pierini


“Boy, bring a bowl of China here,

Fill it with water cool and clear:

Decanter with Jamaica right

And spoon of silver, clean and bright.

Sugar twice-fin’d in piece cut,

Knife, sieve and glass in order put,

Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then,

We’re happy till the clock strikes ten”

This ode to Punch was written by Benjamin Franklin in 1737, when he was a loyal subject of the British Empire yet, and it is a beautiful example of the culture and the joy of Punch in XVIII century.

It seems that the word Punch first appeared in a letter written in 1632 by a soldier of the East India Company to a factor of the same Company. Soon afterwards, in other letters written by employees of the Company, it is explained that Punch is made from 5 main ingredients: water, spirit, citrus fruits, sugar and spices. And to this day this has remained its basic composition.

There are no consensus, though, as to who actually invented it. Some authors maintain that it was a traditional Indian drink, which the English then made their own. Others, on the contrary, believe that it was invented by a factor, that is, commission agents of the East India Company in order to better bear the boredom, the loneliness, the overbearing presence of a vast, alien world.One of the greatest experts on the subject, on the other hand, has put forward the hypothesis that it was first concocted by British sailors in the East.

Anyway, it arrived in Great Britain an conquered it. In the British social life of the XVIII Century Punch is a constant presence. The literature of the time is full of references to it. For instance, Henry Fielding has a prison chaplain say “ If we must drink, let us have a Bowl of Punch – a Liquor I rather prefer, as it is nowhere spoken against in Scripture.” And Ned Ward opined that Punch “ if composed of good ingredients, and prepared with true judgment, exceeds all the simple, potable products in the universe”

To make Punch, in India they used mostly Arrak, a spirit largely drunk all over Asia, distilled from different raw materials, including sugarcane. In Britain they first used Brandy, but soon Rum became the spirit most often used in the concoction of Punch, maybe because from that time they realized that rum is excellent for any kind of mixology.

Anyway, its massive use to make Punch improved greatly the image of rum in Britain among consumers. The point is, Punch was expensive.

In XVIII Century Britain, citrus fruits were not easy to find, they were often rotten and anyway they were always expensive. Just as expensive were spices, among which nutmeg was the most highly valued. And then, Punch had to be prepared every time in great quantity, so as to allow a large group of people attending a social gathering to enjoy it. Eventually the very vessel, the bowl, became more and more elaborately decorated, embellished with precious metals and decorative motifs. And precisely because it was expensive, Punch was largely consumed by the upper classes.

Often a group of friends, sometimes organized in a Club, gathered for a long night of revels around the Flowing Bowl, as it was called by its devotees. A real culture of Punch developed, which brought together a great number of gentlemen, adult and well-off. And women? Well, respectable ladies were debarred from it. Only non-respectable women were sometimes admitted.

This kind of party was immortalized by the great satirist (and much more) William Hogarth in his wonderful “A Modern Midnight Conversation” that illustrates this article.

But Punch was consumed in great quantities also in every kind of respectable social. It was drunk at balls and wedding, at parties etc. and in these contexts also the women drunk punch. It could be both cold or hot, made with any kind of citrus, spices and whatever else caught the fancy of those making it.

Rum, which was used to prepare Punch, lost therefore part of its bad reputation as a spirit of low quality, suitable only for soldiers, sailors and people of low class, and started to be appreciated by “the better sort”, that is, good society too.

Marco Pierini


One of the most common mistakes among contemporaries is the deep, often unconscious belief that the world has started today, or yesterday at the latest. What I mean is, the belief that many of the phenomena we see in our world are completely new, never seen before. That is the case, for example, in the modern obsession with wellness, body care, health etc. We think this is something new, a mania of our rich and affluent society, unknown in the past, which was poorer, rougher and only mindful of the basic things of life. Well, this is not true.

XVIII century Britain was rich and powerful. No important political or economic perils threatened it. And, like today, good society was very worried about wellness and health, both of body and mind. Modern scientific medicine was only beginning and the air, the climate, food, drinks, habits were being studied with great commitment to protect and improve people’s health and well-being. For example, it is in this century that spa treatments and the use of sea bathing for therapeutic purposes became widespread.

The first Italian distillers of the XIII century called the spirit they produced aqua vitae, water of life, beca

use they believed it was a panacea for many ills and since then the links between spirits and wealth in European culture have always been

strong. I don’t know much about the history of medicine, but I think that their belief had a real basis. As we know, alcohol is an antisepti

c and it is reasonable to think that the sick people to whom aqua vitae was administered had health benefits, even though at the time the existence of microbes was unknown. For centuries, in Europe and then in the American colonies there was a widespread persuasion that distilled beverages were nourishing and healthy.

In  the XVIII century  the surge of  new, scientific medicine started to undermine the confidence in the health-giving properties of alcohol and some doctors began to advise against the perils of spirits abuse. The temperance movement moved its first steps.

Therefore, in order to spur the consumption of rum, it was necessary to present it as something healthy and useful for the well-being of the people. Even better if  it was possible to ease the burden of the new-found diffidence towards spirits o

n its competitors which, in the Great Britain of the time, were mainly two: brandy among the upper classes, and gin among the lower ones. And both of them were targeted.

As early as 1690 a Dalby Thomas, an advocate for British Caribbean sugar interests, writes: “ [Rum is] wholesomer for the Body, which is observed by the long living of those in the Collonies that are great Drinkers of Rum, which is the Spirits we made of Molasses, and the short living of those that are great Drinkers of Brandy in those parts.”

And even in 1770 when rum imports had been surpassing brandy ones for decades, a Robert Dossie, physician, wrote: “

The drinking of Rum in moderation is more salutary, and in excess much less hurtful, than the drinking of Brandy” Pages and pages of medical evidence, chemical dissertations, pseudo-scientific experiments followed.

Gin was an easier target. It was a dangerous competitor for bread in the use of the precious grain and its huge diffusion among the poor was a major social problem of the time, to the point that towards the end of the century Parliament intervened with prohibitions and limitations that greatly reduced both production and consumption. But to rum advocates it was not enough. It was necessary to reaffirm that gin was hurtful to the health and at the same time persuade English people with “scientific” arguments that rum was not harmful, quite the contrary, it could be beneficial to hu

man health. So, in 1760 an anonymous wrote:

“Since the Suppression of Gin the Consumption of Rum has been greatly increased, and yet Dram Drunkenness, with all its dreadful Effects, has entirely ceased.” And later he goes on: “Gin is vastly more destructive to the Human Frame than the Sugar Spirit.”

Then, our author  prescribes rum as a cure for lack of appetite and other illnesses, maintaining that rum is highly recommended for “weak and depraved appetites and Digestions, an

d in many other Distempers of the declining sort” and, after citing long recommendations of authoritative doctors, he concludes: “Gin is a Spirit too fiery, acrid, and inflameing for inward Use – But … Rum is a Spirit so mild, balsamic, and benign, that it its properly used and attempered it may be made highly useful, both for the Relief and Regalement of Human Nature.”

So, with a little help from its friends, rum began to conquer the minds and the throats of British people.


Between 1689 (beginning of the so-called King William’s War) and 1815 (final defeat of Napoleonic France), England / Great Britain and France fought each other in a long series of wars which, according to some historians, were merely phases of one long conflict for supremacy in Europe and all over the world. In this context, the foreign policy of Great Britain had two fundamental objectives: to defend and expand its colonial and commercial empire and to maintain the balance of power among the many States of Europe, so that none of them could be strong enough to dominate the whole continent.

It became therefore increasingly intolerable for the British to finance France, and its ally, Spain, through the massive imports of wine and brandy. Regarding wine, an alternative was quickly found. Trade agreements were signed with Portugal, and Portuguese wine replaced French wine to a large extent, thanks also to the British fondness for sweet wines. But brandy was a hard nut to crack. The English upper classes loved it and didn’t want to do without it.

And then rum arrived. It was entirely produced in the British colonies by British labor and capital, and transported to the Mother Country by British ships, so the wealth spent to buy it stayed at home. It was therefore the perfect beverage to replace brandy. But the English upper classes, the better sort, were not acquainted with it, and its consumption, at the beginning of the century, was still almost non-existent, to the point that Daniel Defoe, in his Moll Flanders published in London as late as 1722, when relating an episode in the life of his heroine, feels obliged to explain to his English readers what rum is: “However, I called a servant, and got him a little glass of rum (which is the usual dram of that country), for he was just fainting away”

Moreover, the upper classes did not consider it suitable for themselves: it was rough, not refined enough and anyway it was too cheap. It was necessary to get the people used to drinking rum, and, at the same time, to improve its image in order to make it worthy of the upper classes. It did not seem an easy undertaking, but the lobby of the West Indies planters, the Parliament, the Government and British officials in general joined forces to devise what today we would call a massive promotional campaign to boost rum consumption. And they were extremely successful.

Here are some figures:

in 1697 England and Wales imported (legally) only 22 gallons of rum. In 1710 the gallons were already 22.000 and in 1733 500.000! As of 1741, rum imports regularly overtook those of brandy.

How did they do that?


AMERICAN RUM – Introduction


For some years I have been studying the history of rum, and in particular its origins. The results of this research are to be found in my articles published in “Got Rum?” magazine, and in some websites about rum. Many articles were about Great Britain and the British Empire, owing to the early, massive diffusion of rum among British people. The very word Rum is generally held to be English, even though its origins are uncertain.

But, around 2014, while I was studying the history of British rum, I came to realize with astonishment the enormous importance that rum had in Early America. More, the very birth of the new American Republic was dripping in rum. As a matter of fact, colonials drank a lot. And they drank mainly rum. Rum was not only a very popular commodity, but a lubricant of social life. Taverns were the focus of political and social life and in taverns most people drank, first of all, rum. And rum was present in all the rituals which mark life: births, weddings, all kinds of festivals and celebrations, funerals. North American colonists imported great quantities of rum from the West Indies, but I discovered that they were also great producers of it.

In the British Colonies of North America, rum was so important that, as money was scarce, rum often replaced it as currency and the real indicator of the value of goods. Rum is also generally thought to have played a pivotal role in the infamous slave trade which enriched the new nation and in the subjugation and destruction of American Indians. And above all sugar, molasses and rum are largely considered among the real reasons of the rebellion of the American colonists against their homeland. Therefore it is not without a reason that it has often been written that rum is the real Spirit of 1776. All this, I was saying, kindled my interest in the role that rum played in the birth of the United States.

At the same time, I had become aware that something extremely interesting was happening in the US around rum.

First of all, for some years rum had been produced again in the US, after a long period of neglect. There were already hundreds of rum distilleries in the US. They were usually small craft enterprises, with a strong territorial bond, which often used locally grown sugar cane. New ones were starting, month after month. Each of them produced small quantities, but all together they already represented a considerable, and ever growing, proportion of rum consumption in the US. It was also evident that there was a substantial growth in the sales of quality rums, with higher prices, the so called Premium Sector, and I think the two things are connected.

This in itself is of great interest to the rum enthusiast. But as a historian I am truly impressed also by the political demands of many of these small producers. To put it simply, and I apologize to them and to the readers for this oversimplification, American small producers of rum come up against the great multinationals and ask for lower taxation and greater freedom of enterprise. And their pressure is growing. And all these trends are increasing day by day.

In short, prompted by the importance that rum had in the past, and the renewed importance it has in the present, I became convinced that the history of rum in early America, from the first settlers until the decline of rum and the surge of whiskey around 1830 in the United States, deserved a book. So, I decided to write that book.

A warning. As my readers will see, I have devoted many pages to Boston and New England, both for the unquestionable importance of Boston in the history of American rum and for the quantity, the quality and the availability of the sources. If, by reading this book and finding the gaps in its scope, others will be encouraged to carry out more extensive research about the history of rum in the other Colonies, I will be extremely happy.

Marco Pierini


In April 1731 the British brig Rebecca was sailing, probably not far from La Havana, when a Spanish guardacostas stopped and boarded it looking for smuggled goods. It is not clear what really happened on board and at the moment it seemed a trifling event. But seven years later, in 1738, the Rebecca’s Captain Robert Jenkins exhibited to a committee of the House of Commons his own left ear, cut off by the Spanish that – he said – also pillaged the ship and insulted the British King. British public opinion was already angry with Spain for other “outrages” on British ships and war began in October 1739, later called “War of Jenkins’ ear”.

The Taking of Porto Bello, Samuel Scott 1741

A large British fleet set sail for the West Indies under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who became a national hero thanks to the conquest of the important Spanish town of Portobello, on the Atlantic coast of what is now Panama. Later on things didn’t go so well for him, but this is a matter of no interest to us now. For every rum enthusiast, his lasting fame is due to the invention of Grog.

At that time, in the West Indies a daily distribution of rum as an alternative to beer was already quite normal. Sailors usually drank it pure, all the allowance down in one gulp. It was a very dangerous practice, the cause of many accidents in the rigging at sea and also of many problems of discipline. We must not forget that at that time the alcoholic strength of rum was probably much higher than what we are used to today. In any case on board British warships accidents, disease and harsh punishments, also caused by rum, ravaged the crews, often more harshly than enemy weapons.

Worried about the health of the sailors and the efficiency of the fleet, Vernon tackled the problem head on. First of all he consulted the captains and the surgeons of his fleet, then on August 21st, 1740, he signed a General Order that deserves to be widely quoted:

Whereas it manifestly appears … to be the unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons, that the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well to their health, which are visibly impaired thereby, and many of their lives shortened by it, besides the ill consequences arising from stupefying their rational qualities, which makes them heedlessly slaves to every passion;

[ I order the Captains]

to take particular care that rum be no more served in specie to any of the ship’s company under your command, but the respective daily allowance of half a pint a man for all your officers and ship’s company, be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to every half pint of rum, to be mixed in scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum, and when so mixed it is to be served to them in two servings in the day, the one between the hours of 10 and 12 in the morning, and the other between 4 and 6 in the afternoon.”

Praise be given to those who invented the metric system. The history of systems of measurements before it was adopted, and in Britain and the US even afterwards, is a real quagmire. With the added complexity that in the past units of measures often changed  name and dimensions depending on the content (for example, liquids or grain), the Country and the years. In addition to that,  pre-industrial production techniques were not able to manufacture standard barrels, always of the same dimensions.

Luckily, it is enough for us to know that  “a quart” was the fourth part of a gallon, roughly 1 liter, and half a pint was about a quarter of a liter. Therefore, the new beverage had roughly 1 part of rum for 4 parts of water. Sailors did not like such a novelty, they wanted to get drunk with real rum, not to drink it watered. But discipline was cast-iron and they had to accept it. Drunkenness on board did not disappear, but it decreased significantly and so did accidents and punishments. In summary, the innovation was a success.

At the beginning the order applied only to the fleet commanded by Vernon, but after a while the Admiralty extended the same rules to the whole Navy. Then, over time the allowance decreased and was distributed only once a day, creating  one of the most impressive, enduring, typical, and frankly astounding, rituals of the Royal Navy. Usually called Up Spirits and also simply Tot, it lasted for 200 years, as we will see in future articles.

The new beverage had no name, but with their traditional flair for names, sailors soon gave it one. Vernon’s nickname was “Old Grogram” from a waterproof cloak he usually wore, made of a fabric called Grogram.

So his drink was called “Grog”.






On a cold 26 December 1654 a big fleet left England: 37 men-of-war under the command of Vice-Admiral William Penn and with General Robert Venable in charge of an army of 3.000 soldiers.

The orders were clear:  to attack and conquer the large  Spanish island of Hispaniola, present-day Santo Domingo and Haiti. It was an entirely new enterprise for England: it was not another privateer enterprise, like Francis Drake’s ones and similar, but something different and much more ambitious. For the first time England attempted to conquer and hold the colony of one of its European rivals; Oliver Crowell’s ambitious “Western Design” was on the move.   

After a one month’s voyage, in late January 1655 the fleet arrived at Barbados, at that time the most important British colony in the Caribbean. After a short stay to embark provisions and more troops, among them many indentured servants that wanted to flee the island, it moved to Hispaniola. There the fleet landed the army ashore to attack the town of Santo Domingo. The attack was ill prepared and worse carried out,  and the reaction of the Spanish cavalry was strong and effective. After a crushing ground defeat, the English troops retired in disarray and had to re-embark quickly. Maybe only the absence of a Spanish fleet avoid a complete disaster.

After this crushing defeat, Vice-Admiral Penn was very worried. To return home defeated and with empty hands could be very dangerous. So, in May 1655 Penn decided to attack Jamaica, at that time a small, poor Spanish island, sparsely populated and virtually undefended. This time the amphibious attack war prepared with care and it was success, Britain took possession of Jamaica. But this did not appease Cromwell that was devastated by the Hispaniola disaster to the point he fells ill and sent Penn and Venable to the Tower.

C.Sheldon 1907

And it was in Jamaica in 1655 that rum was for the first time distributed on board the ships of the English Navy. The thing happened quite unofficially and we don’t have many details about it. But we know that rum was distributed to the crews instead of the customary daily allowance of beer.

When abroad the captains were allowed to buy wine, and sometimes also brandy. But they were expensive and often produced by enemies. And in the Caribbean they were difficult to find on a regular basis and in the quantity needed by thousands of men.

On the contrary, in Barbados and the West Indies a new, strong beverage was cheap and easily available in huge quantity: Rum. With its alcoholic strength it occupied relatively less space in the hold than beer and moreover it was produced by English subjects. But, maybe more importantly, rum did not deteriorate when stored on board, on the contrary, it improved. Finally, if mixed with rum the same water stored on board was drinkable for long periods.

So rum began to be part of the ordinary daily rations of British sailors and soldiers in the West Indies. But for decades its diffusion relied on the personal decisions of captains and officers on the ground, without any standard rules for the whole Navy.

Only in 1731 did the “Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea” state: “Of the Provisions. In case it should be thought for the Service … in ships employed on foreign voyages, it is to be observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer

Navy Rum was born.