Plymouth Gin pop-up
Naval History

Gin: From Mother's Ruin To Staple Of The Royal Navy

Gin was believed to be the cure for various illnesses, and became famous after the Royal Navy's global deployment.

Plymouth Gin pop-up

Gin and the Royal Navy, a relationship that has lasted for centuries.

It was because of the global deployment of the British Navy that gin became famous worldwide. 

In the 18th century, it was believed to be the cure for various illnesses, and a legislation was passed requiring every vessel to take on board a certain quantity of this spirit.

For almost 200 years, all newly commissioned ships received a 'Gin Commissioning Kit', a wooden box containing two bottles of 'Navy Strength' gin and glassware.

While this tradition has now vanished, this spirit still has a special relationship with the Royal Navy.

The gin cure

Historically, it was believed that gin would be able to fight off diseases like malaria and scurvy.

In 1867, to fight the lack of vitamin C, Parliament mandated "lime or lemon juice and other anti-scorbutics to be provided and kept on board certain ships".

Royal Navy's doctor RAdm Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette then came up with the idea of mixing Navy Strength gin, to "fortify", and Rose's Lime cordial, to "immunise".

The cocktail became famous later on with the name 'gimlet'.

While in India, the Royal Navy also started to combine a medication used to treat malaria with their gin. 

This medicine was quinine, the basis of tonic water, and the mixture is nowadays known as 'gin tonic'.

But gin caused also great social problems, being nicknamed 'mother's ruin' in the 1700.

Sailors can be seen crowded round the wooden and brass barrel awaiting the daily issue of rum during the 'up spirits' ceremony. A Royal marine and Petty Officer of the day stands observing the process. Note the crane in the background.
Gin was mainly for officers, while sailors were given rum. Here they can be seen crowded round the wooden and brass barrel awaiting their daily issue during the 'up spirits' ceremony.

Why is it called 'Navy Strength' gin?

Navy Strength gin is typically stronger (57% ABV) than the original mixture (41.2% ABV). 

Prior to 1816, there was no way to measure the strength of a spirit. The Royal Navy Supply Offices, known as ’Pussers’, needed to find a way to check that they were receiving what was ordered.

They started to add grains of their gunpowder to their gin to test its alcoholic strength.

By heating the mixture using the sun's rays and a magnifying glass, they would find out whether the mixture was or wasn't 'proof'. 

If the gunpowder failed to light, it was diluted gin. Only if the gin was at least 114 proof (or as we know it today, 57% ABV), the gunpowder would still light.

The gin became famous as 'Navy Strength', and the technique would protect the Navy from being overcharged for watered gin and made sure that all ships were safe.

Photo courtesy of Lt R G G Coote, Royal Navy official photographer