The expression, “drunk as a sailor” has an interesting history. Back in the late 1600’s and the early 1700’s, it was well known that alcoholic beverages of different types were dispensed aboard the ships that traveled the oceans. This was mainly because it was easier to keep alcoholic beverages than water. Water kept in barrels would go rancid rather quickly, where alcoholic beverages would keep better. The men aboard were first given ale, wine, cognac and or rum rations some were given as much as four pints of ale or one bottle of wine daily. Or does it just refer to a sailor’s habit of over-drinking once they get to a seaport and find the nearest bar? Actually, the truth was both. Months aboard on the sea back in the days of sailing ships led to boredom, which also leads to drinking, there were many factors, but they all yielded the same result, a “Drunken Sailor”.
The beer and wine proved to be to susceptible to spoilage, but by increasing the amount of alcohol and the volume of hops in the ale, they would last longer. It was discovered that rum would improves with the more time it stayed in the barrel, so rum became a natural choice. Rum was also available at many different islands throughout the Caribbean. The majority of the rum that the sailors received was about 55 to 60% ABV. The way it was tested for “proof” was to pour some on gun powder and lit. If the gunpowder burned that was “proof” that it was strong enough, actually by today’s proof standards about 109 proof. In 1850, the British Navy decreased its traditional daily ration of rum of ¼ Imperial pint to a "tot", which was one-eighth of an imperial pint or 70 ml of rum at 95.5 proof (54.6% ABV), given out to every sailor at midday in 1850. It’s amazing that more sailors weren’t too drunk to complete their duties.
Too often the fresh water became filled with bacteria and, kill the bacteria, they took to mixing rum with the water. This was a common practice even on land, rum was the cheapest alcoholic beverage around and did a great job of purifying the drinking water. The rum could then be diluted by adding water, sugar, lime juice and spices, which got to be known as “Grog”. This allowed the rum to purify the water as well as provide a “feel good” drink for the sailors and reduce the drunkenness.