A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What is grog?

July 6, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

I just finished watching the movie Master and Commander. What, pray tell, is the alcoholic substance called "grog" that ships reputedly rationed out to sailors? How did they brew or prepare it? If it's remotely palatable, got any recipes? (Sounds like a fun theme party drink, although my university days are on the "far side of the world"...;)

That thing at the end, Tim--is that a smiley or have you just got a twitch? These days one can never be sure. 

Grog commonly refers to a mixture of plain water and rum, but has also been generically applied to a mixture of water and any strong alcoholic spirit. Stories of it being made from rum and seawater are likely apocryphal, the result of hyperbole about the harsh treatment of sailors in some navies, but given human nature I imagine someone's tried it at some juncture. 

Grog was reputedly created in 1740 when the naval rum ration was watered down by order of British Admiral Sir Edward Vernon (1684-1757), commander-in-chief of the West Indies. His men, accustomed to having their rum straight, were understandably upset. Although mutiny would have been understandable, their response instead was to name the new drink "grog" after the admiral, who had picked up the nickname "Old Grog" from the grogram coat he always wore. In answer to your next question, "grogram" is a fabric made from silk and wool, or silk and mohair, which is stiffened with gum. I've never seen or felt it, but references describe it as coarse, which seems only fitting.

A contemporary ditty tells us about the naming of grog:

"A mighty bowl on deck he drew.
And filled it to the brink;
Such drank the Burford's gallant crew,
And such the gods shall drink,
The sacred robe which Vernon wore
Was drenched within the same;
And hence his virtues guard our shore,
And Grog derives its name.

(Thomas Trotter, "Written on board the Berwick," in Notes & Queries, Series 1, 1781)

According to Brewer's (no pun intended), grog was "originally issued twice daily, as a quarter of a pint of rum with a pint of water." As time passed, even that none too generous quantity was reduced: "The ration was cut to one issue in 1824 and reduced to a half-gill in 1850. The issue to officers was stopped in 1881 and to warrant officers in 1918. Grog ration to all ratings ended on 31 July 1970."

To make authentic grog for a party, I recommend the original ratio of one part rum to four parts tap water. Make certain you serve it at room temperature, as there would likely have been no ice on board for cooling. My guess is that the Royal Navy 250 years ago wasn't serving the best quality rum, so buy the cheapest, nastiest, sandpaper-harsh drain cleaner rum you can find. Or use a spiced rum like Captain Morgan if you want to make your grog seem at least "movie-authentic" and keep your friends awhile longer. References:

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, Millennium Edition, revised by Adrian Room, 2001. .

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, edited by Judy Pearsall, Oxford Reference Online, 2001. 

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by T. F. Hoad, Oxford Reference Online, 1996.

The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English, Oxford Reference Online, 1999. 

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