You’ve seen it on shelves, you’ve sipped it in cocktails, but what exactly is Navy Strength gin? Here Jake Burger, co-founder of London’s Portobello Road Gin and renowned gin historian, delves into the storied past of the maritime tot. Anchors away!
Last week, the folks at Portobello Road Gin officially inducted their Navy Strength expression into the fold with a nautical bash at their beloved gin-theme-park-disguised-as-a-hotel, The Ginstitute.
The new edition follows the classic Portobello Road Gin recipe – English wheat distillate redistilled with nine botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, orris, liquorice, orange peel, lemon peel, cassia bark and nutmeg – with the addition of English sea salt, which is added during dilution.
As with all Portobello Road Gin bottlings, it’s made under the supervision of eighth generation distiller Charles Maxwell, whose family have been in the business since 1670, which is “pretty much as long as the Navy have been drinking gin,” Burger says. “As long as England has been drinking gin, really!”
With cocktails flowing and stick-on sailor tattoos dutifully applied, we settled down for a masterclass in Navy Strength sippers. Here’s what we discovered…
Gin was first referenced in Naval documents in the 17th century
It might not be mentioned as frequently as rum or brandy, but it’s there. “There’s a reference to a quantity of ‘Hollands’ being sent to the Cape of Good Hope as far back as 1793,” says Burger, which is an antiquated term for Dutch gin. “It was also referred to by the old Dutch name ‘genever’ in many of the old Naval documents.”
Another document referring to ‘coarse and water’, a slang term for Plymouth gin, dates back to 1799 – one of the its earliest mentions. The Navy were certainly fans of the Plymouth style. “At one time, each Navy ship departing from Plymouth Harbour was said to take on board 200 cases of gin,” says Burger. “It often didn’t even last as far as Gibraltar, which isn’t that far away in terms of a grand voyage!”
Navy rations were abolished on 31 July 1970: Black Tot Day
“This didn’t come about as one might first presume – through Naval cuts,” he says. “Drunkenness aboard the Royal Navy was a serious issue, and it didn’t really sit very comfortably with the Navy’s modern image of computerised warfare.” The figures are telling. Between 1965 and 1966, three sailors died from acute alcohol poisoning. There were 45 serious accidents, four which resulted in accidental death.
The chap responsible for doing away with the rations was Admiral Sir Michael Le Fanu, the First Sea Lord at the time. “He was a popular red-haired chap.” says Burger. “Well, popular until he did away with the ration; I presume less popular thereafter. After the ban he was commonly known as ‘Dry Ginger’.”
Various different ceremonies were held around the world to mark the moment when the last free ration of alcohol was served to Royal Navy sailors. According to Burger, an account from the time read:
‘Costumes were improvised, rum barrels drained and buried at sea, at Portsmouth on the reserve cruiser HMS Belfast, the annual giant Christmas pudding was made three months early so that four bottles of Navy Strength rum could be poured into the mixture. The guided missile destroyer HMS 5 was the very last ship to issue rum at Pearl Harbour in the Pacific, where the time difference meant it was already the 1st August back home in Britain.
‘The story goes that a passing Japanese admiral’s barge observing what appeared to be a funeral taking place on the Destroyer’s helicopter deck felt obliged to stop in the water to pay their respects. Surviving photographs show sailors in a curious array of costumes on board the 5, and it seems unlikely the Japanese were genuinely fooled for long. The mock-ceremony ended in a hula dance and a 21-gun salute.
Thereafter, gin became the go-to tipple for the Naval command
After Black Tot Day, gin “really stopped being the drink of the common sailor, and became the drink of the upper ranks of the Admiralty,” explains Burger. As such, it found its way into other writings and documents of the time.
An opinion piece in The Observer newspaper, for example, criticised “the amount of pink gins* and other refreshments consumed in the officers’ wardroom [like the common room]”. An excerpt from the feature, read aloud by Burger, reads: If their Lordships and the Admiralty thought alcohol and computer gunnery didn’t mix, they should put the officers and petty officers on the wagon first.
This, he says, was a line of criticism that was taken up enthusiastically in the House of Commons as they debated the ban. Labour backbencher Jim Wellbeloved, who had links to the Navy, opened his argument with the following tirade…
”What of the command structure? The ships’ officers? The officers on the bridge? The officers in the other nerve centres of command? What of their operational efficiency? What of the lives that depend upon their judgement? What does the Board have to say about the almost unrestricted availability of strong spirits in the officers’ wardroom? Little wonder that the ordinary serving seaman is outraged by the abolition of the rum issue.”
The Royal Navy still occasionally ‘splices the mainbrace’
A selection of spirits are still carried aboard Navy ships, available for sailors to purchase in the mess. They’re no longer given out as a perk of the job – unless the Navy issues an order to ‘splice the mainbrace’, which entitles every serving sailor to a free ration of spirits.
“It’s reserved for special celebrations these days, and is only rarely given,” explains Burger. “Only members of the Royal Family – particularly the Queen – and the Admiralty Board have got the freedom to issue the command to splice the mainbrace.”
After the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981, and the birth of Prince William in 1982, there was a bit of a mainbrace splicing drought. The most recent occasions? The Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, her fleet review in 2005, and her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012. “You might even say that she’s getting a little bit trigger-happy in recent times,” jokes Burger.
‘Navy Strength’ was commercially coined by Plymouth Gin
Until 1816, there was no official – or accurate – way of measuring the strength of alcohol, explains Burger. Previously, the most widely-used method to test the booziness of any given spirit was to take a small sample of it, mix in some gunpowder and then put a flame to it.
“If the gunpowder burned, that was ‘proof’ the alcohol was of a sufficient strength,” outlines Burger. “That alcohol became known as ‘proof. If the alcohol didn’t burn, it was known as ‘underproof’. And if it went off with a real bang and some smoke, it was known as ‘overproof’.”
Space is at a premium on a ship, says Burger, so it made sense for the Royal Navy to carry its alcohol at a higher strength – you could get more in a smaller space. There’s also an argument that higher strength boozes wouldn’t contaminate the gunpowder store if the barrels were to spill. “That particular reason always sounded a little bit tenuous to me, but there is perhaps some truth in it somewhere along the line,” he says.
In the early 19th century, a far more accurate measure was developed, and the Navy chose to set the strength of their alcohol at 54.5% ABV. Interestingly, the man who invented the equipment “interpreted the data slightly differently and said that it should actually be 57.15%”. To this day, brands continue to bottle Navy Strength gin at 57% ABV or thereabouts.
“For a long time the Navy carried its gin and rum at this strength, but it wasn’t really a consumer product, so it wasn’t really known as ‘Navy Strength gin’,” explains Burger. “It wasn’t really until 1997 when our friends at Plymouth Gin first decided to launch a commercial product at that strength, calling it Navy Strength gin. They were the first ones to coin that term and they really established the category.”
As such, Portobello Road Navy Strength is bottled at 57.1% “as a little nudge and nod and wink to our friends down in Plymouth”.
*A rather robust concoction: 75ml gin, 3 dashes Angostura Bitters, ice. Sorted!