“Navy Strength” is the term given to describe any spirit with an Alcohol By Volume (ABV) strength of 57% (i.e. it is comprised of 57% alcohol and 43% water). This strength is also described as 114 proof or even 100 English proof. The reason for using “Navy” in the term relates to a history of this strength of alcohol being required by the British Royal Navy for their fleet, and subsequently adopted by other countries Navies too. Often put in barrels for transportation aboard ship “Navy Strength” may also be referred to as “Cask Strength” or because it is stronger than the regular strength of the spirit, the term “Overproof” is often seen (although this may not always be classified as a Navy Strength spirit!).
Most European Gins are made at 37.5% - 45% ABV, and in Northern American they are generally around 40% - 47% ABV. Navy Strength Gin is therefore a Gin that has been made, or finished, to create an offering at the higher strength of 57% ABV. It can be made from a Compound Gin, Distilled Gin, London Gin or even from a geographically designated Gin, such as Plymouth, although London and Plymouth Gins have traditionally been the choices of old. It can therefore look exactly the same as another Gin, and while the stronger alcohol content may not be noticeable in tasting it does tend to be more flavorsome e.g. the botanicals used, especially the juniper berries, are more pronounced.
From the 1400’s, at the beginning of the age of sail, access to fresh water became paramount to any voyage. Ships would carry casks of water on board but across time the water would develop bacterial and algal growths, not to mention the questionable sources of freshwater from any given port you might seek to replenish your water supply from. Disease could be rife on board ships regardless of social rank or position and the British Royal Navy, as they increased their fleet and Empire, had to stay at the forefront of not just technology but healthcare too, in order to gain and maintain this nautical power. Who knew this simple need would turn into a wealth of tradition for sailors and referred to by landlubbers the world over...
Here for the Beer
To manage the water quality issue The British Navy decided it would be more suitable to use beer in place of water. This had already proved to be the safer option in large towns and cities (e.g. London) where water was often contaminated. So sailors aboard Royal Navy vessels were given a large ration of 1 gallon (8 pints or 4.5 liters) of beer per day.
As you might imagine, there were difficulties…some would drink their ration all in one go, the sheer amount needed would take up large volumes of storage space aboard a ship and the beer had a relatively short life span (especially in warm climates where it soured). However, the problems were a better option than the alternative of debilitating water, and the problems were not so bad – being drunk was a flogging offense, the space taken up by beer would be the same volume if water was used and there were substitutes for the beer…
Although not officially condoned at first, Naval captains would have to find substitutes for the beer rations, particularly on longer voyages and where no friendly ports could resupply them. So other types of alcohol were employed and a ration of 1 pint of wine or half a pint of Spirits proved useful (as they could be mixed with water), in place of the beer. In 1655 Sir William Penn, whose son (also called William) went on to establish the city of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania in the USA, led a successful attack on the Island of Jamaica and secured it as a colony of the British Empire (until it became a commonwealth country in 1962). Along with future additions of Trinidad & Tabago and The Virgin Islands, the British now had their own source of sugar and the spirit made from it: Rum.
With Rum becoming the spirit of choice and availability, not to mention sugar plantations being owned by influential British citizens, the British Navy officially recognized the use of spirits (preferably Rum) instead of beer in 1731. Confirmed at a daily rate of half a pint (275 ml), many sailors received their spirit neat and this increased the, potential and actual, incidents of drunkenness aboard ship. Something had to be done…
The "Old Grogram" Cocktail
In the 1740’s Admiral Edward Vernon instigated the diluting of the half pint of spirit with water (around 3 or 4 parts of water) before being issued to sailors, as a quart of liquid. He also split the issuing of it to twice per day, at midday and 6 p.m., rather than the previous once a day at noon. In 1756 the Navy, continuing with their advances in healthcare and to prevent scurvy, set new regulations requiring the addition of Lemon or Lime juice to each sailor’s ration.
Now, Vernon was well known for wearing a Grogram cloak (a fabric made of silk and wool or mohair) and because of this was often referred to as “Old Grogram” by the sailors. It is perhaps no surprise that this cocktail of Rum (or other spirit), water and citrus juice (and sometimes a little sugar too) was nicknamed “Grog”.
Colorful Language & Practices
The Supply Officer, or “Pursers” as they were called, was responsible for each ships purse (i.e. money) to initially fill (and resupply) the vessel with appropriate supplies (or victuals) for the crew and the ship (e.g. drink, food, ammunition, gunpowder, rope, sails etc. Up until 1816 there was no accurate way to test the strength of any given spirit and Pursers would test it by mixing it with gunpowder and then setting light to it. If the gunpowder still ignited and burned with a flame, the spirit was strong enough for issue and conversely, if it failed to ignite (i.e. spluttered and went out or just smoked) then it wasn’t fit and was under strength.
Pursers had to test spirits offered to them in this way to ensure they were not being cheated, and crew members in turn, would use this test to ensure the Purser was not cheating them. It seems no one could be trusted and corruption was commonplace, understandable given how easy it would have been to take a proportion of spirit and replace it with water (with the extracted spirit sold for profit on any black market). This test basically gave people “proof” the spirit was of the correct strength.
Often sited as the real reason for proofing is the possibility of the spirit contaminating the gunpowder (e.g. in a storm, during combat etc.) as they were stored near to each other. At the higher proof the contaminated gunpowder could still be used - a minor detail for a ship of war - but we are not convinced it would still have the all important explosive force required for firing cannons.
Hydrometers have been around for centuries and are used for measuring certain aspects of liquids (e.g. the lactometer for how much cream is in milk etc.). In 1816 Bartholomew Sikes invented one, called an alcoholometer, which measured the amount of alcohol in a liquid. It was quickly put to use by the British customs and excise people and in 1818 was adopted by the British Royal Navy too. Using Sikes’ hydrometer and his scale, the strength of spirit required by the Navy turned out to be 100 (English) proof or the equivalent of 57.15% ABV (114.3 proof) according to modern day scales – hence the “Navy Strength” measurement used by distillers today.
However…the Royal Navy did not take anything at face value and decided to conduct tests on a range of spirits. They discovered the ideal strength at which spirits would still ignite gunpowder was 95.5 English proof (54.5% ABV or 109 proof today) and subsequently changed it. Thus for around the next 150 years Navy Strength spirits were actually issued at 54.5% ABV (and not 57% ABV, even though we generally accept the original higher value as the given).
Nothing Lasts Forever
In 1823 the daily rations were cut in half to a quarter pint of spirits and again in 1850 to an eighth of a pint. The daily ration was abolished for officers in 1881 and for warrant officers in 1918. However, it took until 1970 for the daily ration for all ratings of the British Royal Navy to be abolished – with the actual day it ceased, the 31st July, known as “Black Tot Day.” Today a tot may still be issued but only with direct permission from the monarch and is reserved for special occasions e.g. Royal wedding, a Jubilee etc.
The US Navy ceased this practice of a daily tot for their sailors in 1862, and the Brits were not the last - the Canadian Navy (1972) and the New Zealand Navy (1990) followed them. This did mean the need to produce Navy Strength Gin dwindled after World War II and all but died out.
Fortunately, few of us have to worry about our gunpowder being contaminated by Gin or worry too much about the quality of our water supply so that we drink Gin instead. So what use or function does Navy Strength Gin serve today?
Although there are some who like stronger spirits because they take “effect” quicker, the main reason for Navy Strength Gin is one of flavor. The average strength Gin when added to some cocktails can be lost through the dilution and additional flavors from the other ingredients. A Navy Strength Gin is at least 10% and up to 20% less dilute (or stronger) than a standard Gin, and thus more flavorsome, helping it stand it’s ground in a greater variety of mixed drinks and cocktails. Of course one has to possess a wish for drinks with stronger Gin flavors in the first instance, and interestingly juniper excels in higher levels of alcohol and typically Navy Strength Gins will show this in a more forward or dominant juniper flavor.
With more presence and fuller body, clearly Navy Strength Gin is not for newcomers to the spirit but for the, “juniper heads” or, lovers of Gin. If you like good solid performing London Dry Gins it is almost a given you will like Navy Strength Gins too – just be careful of the number of drinks you have, given the increased alcohol level! A great test is to try a Negroni, Martinez or Pink Gin (all good cocktails for Navy Strength Gins) made with a standard strength Gin side by side with the identical drink made with a 57% ABV Gin of the same recipe/brand – it’s an informative experience!As the availability of Navy Strength Gin has dwindled this has led to some bartenders lamenting its loss and wishing to see it appear again, so that they may continue to produce quality signature drinks of renown. Fortunately their wishes are coming true…
Plymouth Gin was the world leader for Navy Strength Gin, having supplied the British Royal Navy since the early 1800’s until it was no longer required after World War II. Consequently the brand languished and had hit an all time low in the 1970’s when it was being sold at 37.5% ABV and made from a sugar alcohol base. By the 1990’s with new blood at the helm, they had changed the alcohol base back to grain and were producing it at 41.2% ABV (dubbed “Victorian Strength) – with a significantly improved flavor profile. In 1993 Plymouth reintroduced their 57% ABV version and Navy Strength Gin was reborn, although it would take nearly two decades to truly reestablish the brand, their Gins and the Navy Strength Gin Category once more…
Suddenly as if the floodgates had been opened, we saw the arrival of the first American Navy Strength Gin: Perry’s Tot by the New York Distilling Company in 2011. The UK’s Plymouth Navy Strength Gin was launched in the US shortly afterwards in 2012, with the following also appearing around this time, and since:
There are now around 30 Navy Strength Gins on the market and it seems a new one is being added to this list every two months. Many are from the USA and the UK, although Australia and Sweden have been making some inroads themselves plus there are offerings from New Zealand and Holland too. Navy Strength Gins represent less than 2% of all Gin Brands out there, so it is certainly viewed as a niche category. Outside of the US and UK, if you’re looking for a Navy Strength Gin you are likely to be disappointed (unless you can find imported brands), so there is potential for growth in individual countries. Expert bartenders tend to seek out stronger Gins because they know and understand their importance but as more “amateurs” improve their knowledge, they too may seek out this relatively unknown Gin…there is clearly scope for this Gin Category to continue to grow.
While drinking your chosen Navy Strength Gin, sit back and enjoy the riveting boy’s own style nautical saga of Horatio Hornblower - the hero in a series of books by CS Forester. There was an excellent TV Series made and while the books are still better, the visual treats and character representations by the actors are truly amazing.