Episode 114 - Maritime Cocktails

Episode 114 - Maritime Cocktails Banner - Title.jpg

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome to Episode 114 of The Modern Bar Cart Podast!

In this episode, we’ll cover a bit of the history, lore, and logistical realities associated with making and consuming cocktails on the water. But first, I’ve got one quick announcement.

Vote for Element [Shrub]!

Our friends at Element [Shrub] have been nominated as one of USAToday’s 10Best cocktail mixers. This is a crowd-sourced competition where you can vote for your favorite mixers brand, so please do head over to the Show Notes page, click the link, and place a vote for our friend Charlie Berkinshaw and his excellent line of Shrubs. You can place one vote per day PER IP address and internet browser, so that means you can place multiple votes on your computer and on your phone, every day.

This contest runs through September 23rd, 2019, and to sweeten the deal, if you send a screenshot of yourself voting to podcast@modernbarcart.com, we’ll send you a custom coupon code for 20% off your next order from our eCommerce store.

Big congratulations to Element [Shrub] for this huge honor, and now, let’s do this. Let’s give you the chance to make yourself a drink before we hop on the boat.

Featured Cocktail: Navy Grog

This episode’s nautical featured cocktail is Navy Grog, which is an early proto-cocktail with a fascinating history.

Sailors receiving navy grog

Sailors receiving navy grog

You could say that Grog is the grandfather of both the classic highball and the daiquiri - which is weird because those two drinks really aren’t very similar. Let me explain.

Initially, Grog was just water and rum diluted at a ratio of anywhere between 3:1 and 6:1. That’s 3-6 parts water and 1 part rum. This served a couple purposes - first, it masked the taste of stagnant water and helped kill certain microbes that you didn’t want, and second, it allowed sailors to stay on their feet without getting completely hammered. This would be the uncarbonated, unchilled highball variant of navy grog.

Now, there are some open questions about when and how sweetening and souring agents got added into the mix. Most people think this happened in the late 18th century when the British Navy mandated a citrus juice ration to combat scurvy, but it’s entirely likely that individual sailors had been doping in sugar and citrus juice independently for quite a while before that. Think about it - if you’ve got something on hand to make your drink tastier and break up the boredom of the open ocean, you’re probably gonna go for it.

Once the sweet and the sour get added to the mix, we’ve got our proto-daiquiri.

If you fast forward to the 20th century and beyond, most Navy Grogs are going to be made in the tiki tradition, which adds extra ingredients and ice to the equation.

The following is a recipe taken from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s blog - and he’s a pretty reliable resource on this subject because he’s published more on tiki than pretty much anybody, alive or dead.

His recipe for the Navy Grog is as follows:

  • ¾ oz each of white grapefruit juice, lime juice, and club soda

  • 1 oz each of white, jamaican, and demerara rum

  • 1 oz of a 1:1 honey syrup

Combine these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well, and then strain into your rocks glass over an ICE CONE. That’s right - not a cube - a cone.

This is a little ice innovation pioneered by Don the Beachcomber using crushed ice packed inside a pilsner glass, and then perfected by a chain called Kon Tiki during the mid-late 20th century. They actually developed a special metal cone for freezing these conical ice pieces that would wedge neatly inside a rocks glass.

Admittedly, this last step is a bit tricky to execute at home, which is why it’s one of life’s great pleasures to enjoy a navy grog at a good tiki bar - but the tiki police probably aren’t gonna break down your door and arrest you if you serve this cocktail over a single large rock. 

So, now that you’ve received your grog ration, let’s set sail on the high seas and talk a little bit about the history and culture of cocktails on boats.

The History of Drinking on Boats

Before the age of widespread transcontinental sea voyages, seaborne vessels called triremes were one of the primary trade vehicles throughout the Mediterranean. These ships filled with rowers traversed inland seas carrying wine, beer, food, spices, and other goods. And we know this because numerous wrecks have been found containing amphorae - which are those tall clay vessels that greeks and romans loved to draw on.

Ironically, these ancient mariners had it easy compared to the galleons and frigates of the age of exploration because they could generally carry enough food and water to get them from port to port without having to worry about spoiling. Of course, this isn’t to say that ancient sailors didn’t drink on boats, but the two key things to keep in mind are: A.) they didn’t have to, and B.) they didn’t have access to distilled spirits. So in the ancient world, there really wasn’t a whole lot of cocktail cruising going on.

Obviously, this changed with the opening of trans-atlantic and global trade routes in the 15th through 19th centuries. During this several hundred year stretch of history, a lot of work was done in the proto-cocktail space. 

The Rise of Punch

You just heard about Grog - initially the simplest of what we might call the great early boat cocktails. But as European influence spread to places like Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, another proto-cocktail became ascendant: punch.

Even though we haven’t given traditional punch its own podcast episode yet, we’ve talked about it a decent amount - so I won’t bore our regular listeners with repetitive stuff. Instead, here are a few key takeaways:

  • Punch is reportedly a derivative of the Sanskrit pañc - meaning “five.” This corresponds with the five ingredients in a classic punch: water, spirits, citrus, sugar, and spice.

  • If grog was primarily a utilitarian drink, punch was an epicurean one. In other words, flavor and balance were the keys to a good punch. Recipes cropped up during a 200 year span with ingredients from the four corners of the earth, and everyone had their favorite.

  • If you’re curious about what Punch has to do with boats - it’s all about access to ingredients. The reason why punch was such a popular drink during this time period is because all of the sudden, Europeans and people in the Americas had access to a profusion of new ingredients in the sugar, spice, and citrus category. 

If you want to walk through that math backwards, you take punch, subtract sugar, spice, and citrus, and come out with grog. So the evidence is pretty compelling: as naval technology improved and trade proliferated, drinking on boats (and subsequently on land) got more interesting and complex - heading in the ultimate direction of the cocktail.

Pisco Punch

Now, let’s fast forward to the gilded age - the mid-late 19th century - contemporaneous with events like Jerry Thomas’s publication of the first bartending guide, the outbreak of the American Civil War, and the development of legendary pre-prohibition cocktails like the Martinez, Manhattan, and Martini.

At this point in time, boats probably don’t seem that important to drinking culture. Yes, they’re bringing a steady stream of immigrants to the United States from around the globe, and yes, Mark Twain is writing about paddle boats on the Mississippi, but besides that - our historical consciousness is pretty much landlocked, at least here in the U.S.

In this moment, I want to zoom in on one of San Francisco’s famous cocktails: the Pisco punch. Because the Panama Canal was still decades away when the city boomed during and after the gold rush, the good people of the Golden State were pretty much relegated to foreign ingredients that could be sourced from the Pacific. And this meant that they had a pretty much exclusive line on Pisco, the Bolivian and/or Peruvian brandy. And so, like New Orleans has the Sazerac, and Cuba has the Daiquri, San Francisco has an exclusive claim to the Pisco Punch.

I bring this up because even during times when it seems like all the cocktail action is taking place on dry land, maritime vessels and the resources they carry still have a massive impact on who’s drinking what.

Rum Runners and Prohibition

And perhaps no time in our drinking history underscores this point more effectively than Prohibition, when rum runners ruled the waves and the imagination. Now, obviously, rum deserve their own episode. They really do. But here are a few facts about how and why certain enterprising individuals became infamous and illegal importers of the strong stuff.

  • The first thing you should know is that early in the 20th century, 3 nautical miles offshore constituted international waters, so this was where a number of rum runners set up shop to avoid apprehension and prosecution.

  • The most famous of these rum runners was Bill McCoy - and if you’ve ever heard the term “The Real McCoy” - well, it refers to him. He smuggled rum from the Bahamas up to a zone called “rum row,” where it could be picked up by enterprising ships and float planes.

  • Bill’s reputation for quality spirits is what earned him his nickname - and to this day it indicates a genuine article - not a knock-off.

  • Our rum running hero is also partially responsible for the influx of quality European spirits into the U.S., when he pioneered the use of several small islands off the coast of Newfoundland as holding bases from which the whiskey, Champagne, and gin could be smuggled quickly into the U.S.

Needless to say, naval influence played a huge part in the history of the cocktail straight through Prohibition, but when commercial air travel boomed in the mid 20th century, ships and their captains and crew were no longer the stars of the show. They became just another cog in the capitalist machine that continues to move bottles and ingredients across the globe.

Tips for a Great Cocktail Cruise

In this video, Eric gives you his top five tips for creating great cocktails out on the water. In the end, most of it boils down to planning and preparedness…but there are some beached speed boats and scuba barbie dolls we meet along the way. Check it out!