April 10th, 1861. On this day in history, if you were a sailor perusing the newspapers of Brooklyn, New York you’d find your next maritime adventure tucked in between advertisements for Shakespearean readings, housekeepers for hire, and rubber teeth dentistry services. There, in a want ad posted in the Brooklyn Evening Sun would be your future for the next several months or possibly years to come. The US Navy was looking for seamen. It would ensure a paycheck, food, medical attention, and a chance to see the world, or at least part of it, via ship. There would also be grog.
Life aboard a 19th-century sailing vessel was not a gourmet affair. Unless you were the captain, sailors could expect to consume a diet heavy in hardtack (a tough, shelf-stable biscuit made of water, salt and flour) along with rations of salted meat, pork and fish, and possibly a vegetable or two like cabbage or turnips. Beverages available were typically three – water, beer and rum, consumed in that order as the length of time on the ship grew. Each stored in wooden barrels, water was a luxury that spoiled quickly and therefore was the first to go rancid due to inadequate refrigeration. Beer was next, oftentimes turning sludgy and sour, weeks into the journey. The only truly shelf-stable beverage was rum.
In today’s post, we are drinking like sailors and embracing a long-standing tradition that is still upheld by seamen around the world. The recipe is Hot Grog, a rum and water toddy of sorts that includes tea, fresh lemon juice and sugar. Back in the Navy during the 1800s, this drink in its simplest form of rum and water was commonplace – an expected part of everyday life aboard ship. Today it’s an ideal restorative for Spring. When temperatures can be cool at night and warm during the day it’s a comforting evening drink, a medicinal miracle worker for allergy season, and a celebratory cocktail served hot or cold depending on your weather and your whereabouts.
Rum and sailors have been companions for centuries. This recipe is definitely no new kid on the block. History states that the average sailor in the Navy during the 1700s -1800s consumed one-half to one pint of straight rum per day which could equal up to 27 gallons per year. A ration available to all men aboard, regardless of the type of sailing vessel, rum was both a highlight and a soothing salve for the spirit to get them through the hard work, the inclement weather, and the lonely atmosphere that surrounded life at sea. Food history also accounts for the fact that rancid water and spoiled beer left but one alternative for hydration. In that regard, rum was both a treat and a life-sustaining source of calories. But most importantly, it was a tradition.
Although there are a few different ways to make grog, today’s recipe featured here comes from The Mystic Seaport Cookbook. Published in 1970, this cookbook celebrates over 300 years of traditional New England fare offering a unique glimpse into maritime life. With a surprisingly extensive beverage section that includes several eggnog recipes, syllabubs, flavored brandy, punches and possets, Hot Grog is one the oldest of them all.
Dating to the 1730s, grog is attributed to British Navy Admiral, Edward Vernon (1684-1757). Nicknamed Old Grog, Edward celebrated a maritime victory over Spain with a round of rum for all the sailors on his ship. Although acknowledging that rum drinking was par for the course in the life of a sailor, Edward thought that more than two cups of rum a day was too much for any man, so he offered his seamen a drink of half water/half rum to toast their victory. This mixture became known as Grog, and as the decades and centuries progressed, the tradition of a daily drink of grog became a highlight of a sailor’s day aboard ship, marking an important place not only in maritime history but food history as well.
Our 1860s sailor up top at the beginning of the post, thumbing through the Brooklyn Evening Star, would have noted that the want ad included the mention of grog specifically. As that meant that this ship upheld tradition and would be more likely to follow through on its promises. In the 1700s and 1800s, many jobs for sailors aboard trading ships and cargo vessels were fraught with injustices that led to unfair working conditions. Partly because of unscrupulous captains, cramped quarters, disease, the danger of the work, and the uncertainty of long weeks or months spent out at sea, the life of a sailor was not an easy one. But certain dependable regularities could make the voyage more bearable – rum being one.
A delight in all ways that tea and rum can be on their own, this seafaring beverage is both visually enticing and physically appealing. Essentially like drinking a good, hot cup of tea, it’s a well-complemented combination of flavors, with no one ingredient overpowering the other. It’s preferable to select a strong type of black tea, but I suspect (although I haven’t tried it yet) that this drink might be equally interesting with an herbal tea like peppermint or ginger as well. I don’t think the sailors would mind if you experimented, just as long as you don’t forget the rum!
Hot Grog – Serves 6
3 large lemons
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup heavy rum
6 cups strong hot tea (lapsang souchong)
While water is boiling for tea, cut six long curls from the lemons using a vegetable peeler. Cut each lemon in half and juice them to make 1/2 cup.
Combine the sugar, lemon juice and rum in a mason jar or small bowl and stir. Divide the mixture among six warmed mugs. Prepare the tea and add it to each mug. Garnish each cup with a lemon rind swirl and serve immediately.
I’ve made this recipe a few times over the past couple of months. The first was at Christmastime when the polar vortex weather encouraged us to try all the ways to keep warm inside and out. I’ve also made it on a grey and rainy end-of-winter night when the air was so damp and heavy, it felt like Spring might never come. And then again just the other day, when the 60-degree day sun was setting and the temperatures started creeping back down into the low 50s. Each time, hot grog warmed the belly and refreshed the spirit.
A comfort in other ways too, grog made its way into sea shanty songs. Sung by sailors for hundreds of years, as they went about their life on the water, songs like Leave Her Johnny Leave Her , Drunken Sailor and the The Wellerman all touch on the challenges faced at sea and the important part that rum played. The Wellerman, in particular, features all three ingredients of hot grog – sugar and tea and rum. It was a popular song among the crews of New Zealand whaling boats in the early 1800s, and then again became a popular song on social media during the pandemic in 2020-2021. If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the song in full… (with a little warning… it’s a bit of an earworm – you might be singing it for days!)…
It’s incredible to think what a far reach this magical combination of ingredients has had in the minds and hearts of sailors (and singers!) for centuries. From the New York waterfront all the way around the globe to the South Island of New Zealand and back again, for whatever occasion, at whatever temperature, and in whichever climate you chose to make a cup of grog, I hope you enjoy it just as much as we did here in the Vintage Kitchen.
Below are a few more want ads for sailors that add dimension and depth and color to this corner of nautical history. Cheers to all the sailors who’ve kept tradition alive via recipe and rum!