Black Tot Day was a necessary action but, was it all bad?
By Amit Sood
The original Navy rum ration began unofficially in 1655 when the daily liquor ration for serving sailors was switched from brandy to rum. The change was officially recognised in Naval regulations in 1731, and in 1750 Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon of the West Indies fleet issued General Order establishing the daily rum ration.
It was Vernon who insisted that the rum should be watered down and served with lime, the resultant brew being called ‘grog’ after Vernon’s nickname, Old Grog, which derived from the heavy grogram-cloth overcoat he wore.
However, by the 1950s, concerns were being raised about the rum ration’s suitability for the complex equipment on modern warships. The writing was on the wall for the daily tot and in 1970 on 31st July the curtain fell on this centuries-old tradition and Black Tot Day was born.
Whilst a 300-year-old tradition was ended there were some benefits to the Navy that I have learnt of. A colleague of mine from the drinks industry, Jamie Stephenson, recently uncovered a hidden gem in the form of a copy of the actual letter that Admiralty Board sent to all the Navy fleet. Dated from December 1969, it acutely presents the reasons for the withdrawal of the ration and the way the compensation would work for the benefit of the entire Navy. See it below and look at the actual breakdown of the letter and decide thereafter if it was a good deal for the Navy.
My personal view is that the sheer levels of money used to support the age old tradition were no longer justifiable. This cost coupled with the fact that of technical machinery needed to be operated by sailors carefully and efficiently put an end to the ration. Performing such duties under the influence of intoxicating liquor was ultimately too important to ignore.
Things had to change. On the mainland in the UK in 1967 the drink driving law had been established. That is thought to have been a contributing factor to changing the Government’s stance in regards to the role of the Rum ration. How hypocritical would it have been to have the Royal Navy under the influence of alcohol in charge of a fleet worth millions of pounds and on land have the population be prosecuted for driving a car whilst under the influence?
Having read and digested this letter I also feel the diversion of the money spent on the Rum ration and subsequent creation of the fund for social and recreational and purposes that was to support past and present naval ratings was a particular good benefit for all concerned.
Black Tot day on 31st July 1970 is a popular date in the Rum enthusiast’s diary. Many choose to gather and celebrate annually. Whilst it is an important date in the history of Rum to be recognised to never forget, I think the right decision was made. No one likes change. But this was a necessary one that served the future of fleet well. Subsequently the Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy from New Zealand and Australia also followed Britain’s new stance about the ration by taking their own rations away. As Rum has evolved from its dark times in the 1900’s where it was not such a popular global spirit, its rich history has given many a bartender so many things to look to celebrate. Rum to me is the people spirit and we all need to continue to support its growth. So, next Black Tot day do something about it and join others for a celebration of this historic day.