Mixopedia: Black Tot Day Marks the End of a British Rum Tradition - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Mixopedia: Black Tot Day Marks the End of a British Rum Tradition

Rum set on the British Empire 51 years ago this month, on the date known ever since as Black Tot Day.

Rum had been part of British Naval tradition informally since 1655, having arisen out of concerns over sailors’ health—strong drink was considered medicine, after all. It was also a practical solution for a common problem, as keeping beverages aboard ships when traversing the oceans blue was tricky at best. Water in casks became fouled with an algal funk; beer went skunky in the tropics. But thanks to the magic of barrels and high-proof alcohol, spirits only improved with heat and time.

It also offered a palliative for flagging morale and the sheer boredom of life aboard a ship for
months on end. Days were filled with tarring lines, patching jibs, and scrubbing foredecks. Evenings brought little relief, with off-duty sailors stacked three high in hammocks hung in cramped, fetid spaces enlivened only by the sounds of creaking wood and gastro-intestinal unease.

Living under such persistent squalor, the enchantment of being served a daily cup of rum is hard to overstate.

On many ships, the serving of the “rum issue” was performed with a small ceremony. At the proper bell, rum would be decanted from a cask in the hold into a puncheon, which was brought on deck. Here it would be proofed—that is, checked to ensure a corrupt purser hadn’t drawn down a cask for his own profit, replacing his spoils with water. Once approved, the rum was doled out to the salts.

Eighteenth-century sailors were guaranteed eight ounces of rum daily, half at noon and half in the evening. The allotment was cut back to two ounces in the 19th century. Not all sailors claimed their tot—by the turn of the 20th century, the temperance movement had found adherents even amidships—and the navy paid a small sum to those who passed on the rum. “An ever-increasing number of men [are] commuting the half gill of rum per day into the coin of the realm,” noted an account in 1901. When the rum issue was phased out in 1970, about 6,000 sailors out of 35,000 who qualified opted for pelf over drams.

Living under such persistent squalor, the enchantment of being served a daily cup of rum is hard to overstate.

As rations of rum were cut back, its quality rose. Early captains would have provisioned whatever rum they could find in whatever port they sailed into. But by the 19 century, navy procurement officers were sourcing and blending their own stocks of rum, which contained aged rums from no fewer than two and as many as four locations (Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad). The rum was shipped to England, then blended and maintained in vast portside holding tanks. The spirit would then be decanted into casks and loaded on ships for outbound voyages.

Not until 1969 did the British Admiralty Board take up the issue of rum rations. The following year it determined “the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency.” The final rum, they decreed, would be served on the last day of July.

July 31, 1970, dawned with a global rolling curtain call for the daily tot. At Earl’s Court in London, a cadre of sailors dressed in period uniforms reenacted the last appearance of the cask, rolling it out on a draped gun carriage repurposed as a bier. Aboard a frigate in the Persian Gulf, a barrel was consigned to the briny deep, with the ship’s chaplain presiding over the committal.

In Jamaica, a ship’s crew performed an elaborate funeral drill, with an officer in top hat and tails leading a cortege with the cask. The ceremony was designed to have the gravitas “slightly above that for the State funeral of Sir Winston Churchill,” according to James Pack in Nelson’s Blood: The Story of Naval Rum.

The last of the last ceremonies took place on the HMS Fife, a destroyer that happened to be in Pearl Harbor, and thus the closest vessel to the international date line. At noon, bagpipers played a lament. The intercom blared, “Hands to dinner. Rum issue now taking place on the flight deck.” Sailors lined up for their final dram, downed it, then pitched their cups into the harbor. The rum cask was brought to the fantail, and a 21-gun salute sounded. Then the cask was tossed overboard.

And deep in the briny waters around the world, jack-tars and sea dogs spun in their canvas-shrouded graves.

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