Commemorate Black Tot Day with Vizcaya VXOP

This Saturday, rum lovers across the globe will raise a glass of their favorite spirit in tribute to a sober anniversary: Black Tot Day.

It was 40 years ago, on July 31st, 1970, that the British Royal Navy discontinued its centuries-old policy of issuing a daily rum ration to sailors. The practice of handing out rum to naval crewmembers was first begun in 1655, becoming standard practice by 1731. Originally, beer was the ration of choice—a gallon a day, according to historical records—but cargo and spoilage issues soon made this impractical on increasingly long voyages. After the British conquest of Jamaica, sailors were given a “gill” or quarter-pint of straight rum, twice a day, in the afternoon and evening, in order to buoy their moods on the long, disheartening journeys.

Canny sailors, however, began to save up their rations, or “tots,” as they were called, in order to drink them all at once and feel the intoxicating effects. In response, Admiral Edward Vernon, who was known by the nickname “Old Grog” because he wore a grogram cloak, ordered in 1740 that the ration be diluted—four parts water to one part alcohol. Sugar and lime were added to improve the flavor, and the resultant mixture soon became known as “grog” as a backhanded tribute to the admiral.

The tot was valued on board ships not only for its own sake, but because it could be bartered or given to other sailors, operating as a form of currency. In fact, the tot was probably more valuable than money, as there was nowhere on ship to spend real currency, while tots were always useful. In true military spirit, a solemn and elaborate ritual sprang up around the issuing of tots. The boatswain’s mate whistled “Up spirits” at 11:00am, after which a procession consisting of the petty officer, the cooper and a detachment of Royal Marines escorted the delivery of the keg of rum to the quarterdeck. There, it was mixed with the water and flavorings before being doled out at noon, when the mate piped “Muster for rum.”

Rum was named the official beverage of the Navy in 1831. Although the portions of the tot varied, the tradition continued for over a century, until the House of Commons ruled in 1970 that the ration was interfering with sailors’ ability to operate the increasingly technological and complex equipment on board ship. Officially abolished in 1970, the tot has nevertheless been celebrated and commemorated by rum enthusiasts and former sailors the world over, typically on July 31st. It is said that on the original Black Tot Day, some ships conducted ceremonies to say farewell to the ration, including one held on the HMS Dolphin that included a coffin and a funereal march; others threw their final ration overboard, either in protest or as an offering to the sea.

Whether you want to protest the discontinuance of the charming, cheerful ritual that accompanied the daily tot, or you would rather see Black Tot Day as a time to salute the generations of rum drinkers who have enjoyed this noble spirit both at sea and on land, do raise your glass of Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21 rum this Saturday. Be it in commemoration or celebration—cheers.

Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 9:59 AM  Leave a Comment  
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