Posted: March 18, 2023 in Uncategorized

Starting in the mid 1700’s, sailors in the British Navy were given a daily ration of rum. They called it a “tot,” and the practice of daily “tot” distribution lasted for almost 200 years, until July 31, 1970. When it ended, not only were there many sad British sailors, but there was also a vast amount of leftover rum. Much of it was sold off at high prices because the taste was excellent and the methods of its distillation were no longer used.

It made sense. In the old days, when liquids were stored in wooden barrels aboard ship, water, beer, and wine would go bad very quickly. Only something with a much higher alcohol content wouldn’t spoil. Rum was the answer. And getting the sailors drunk every day kept them from deserting…it was good for morale!

But while the sailors drank rum, Royal Navy officers drank gin. The use of exotic spices in gin was made possible by imports from Africa and Asia. Gin’s prevalence around the world is largely due to the fact that sailors set foot in many new cities on new continents.

And though the British Navy stopped the practice of issuing alcohol to its sailors in 1970, the Royal New Zealand Navy abolished the practice as late as 1990!

Until my recent trip to New Zealand, I was not a huge fan of gin. I liked it. A gin and tonic was a nice refreshing drink on a hot summer’s day. And my fascination with the Vesper martini, a combination of gin and vodka, made me appreciate gin even more.

But it wasn’t until I went to New Zealand, and tasted their magnificent gins, in combination with delicious tonics only available in that country, did I really start to appreciate the subtle differences between them.

The first thing that caught my eye when I was served a sample of Roots gin, distilled in Marlborough, was the label: “Navy strength dry gin.” I asked what that meant. Well, for one thing, it had more alcohol. And the reason for that was surprising. Since gin, like rum, was stored in wooden barrels on ships, very often next to barrels of gunpowder, the gin had to contain enough alcohol so that if it spilled onto the gunpowder, the gunpowder would still ignite! Not enough alcohol in the gin would waterlog the gunpowder and make it useless. So tests were actually done by pouring gin on gunpowder to see what the minimum percentage of alcohol was required to keep the gunpowder burning. The answer was about 57%. Anything below that and the gunpowder would not burn. They coined the term “Navy strength.”

(Although the bottle of Roots gin above weighs in at 54.5%, it’s properly called “Navy strength.” In 1866, to keep sailors from getting completely hammered, the British Royal Navy reduced the alcohol content of the rum they were distributing to 54.5%. Hence, a new “Navy strength.”)

I was allowed to take only 1 bottle home from New Zealand, but, as you can see, it was not Navy strength. Still delicious!

The other advantage to a Navy strength gin is taste. If you’re not diluting it with water, not only are you getting more alcohol, but you’re also getting more of the herbaceous flavor you want in a gin.

Up until my trip to New Zealand, my experience with gin was limited to the usual list of suspects: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, and Hendrick’s. I also more recently discovered Ford’s, a very nice London dry gin I use in my Vesper martinis.

But in New Zealand, many of the gins were floral and herb-forward, and I found that I like that. I like that a lot. For example, Victor, another Marlborough gin, was like “Hendrick’s on steroids.” I said that to my bartender at the Urban Eatery and Oyster Bar in Nelson, NZ, and she agreed. Delicious.

Although gins may vary in alcohol content, rules about serving liquor in New Zealand are very strict, certainly by US standards. For example, a “double” in New Zealand is 30ml. That’s 1 ounce! And that’s a standard pour for a cocktail. You can, I found out, ask for a “double-double.” And in that case, they would serve you a 1-ounce shot on the side with your drink, and you would have to pour it in yourself.

When I told the bartenders in New Zealand that we have 4-ounce martinis at any decent steakhouse in the US, and they realized that was 120 mls, their jaws pretty much dropped and hit the bar. One bartender gasped: “That’s irresponsible!” I told her that two of those drinks is widely considered the “businessman’s lunch” here in the states. She just shook her head.

Much to choose from at Kismet, my favorite bar in Nelson, NZ.

The phrase “proof” also has a very different meaning.

In the states, it’s pretty simple: it’s double the percentage of alcohol. So a bottle that’s 40% alcohol is 80 proof.

But the phrase “proof” comes from there British Royal Navy’s “proof” test. They would take the gin, pour it onto gunpowder, and if it ignited, that would prove there is sufficient alcohol in the gin. They would say that the gin was “gunpowder proof,” and it would be allowed onboard the ship.

So in the UK, a spirit with 57.15% is 100 degrees proof. A spirit with 40% alcohol is 70 degrees proof.

For me, it’s easier to simply remember to check the percentage of alcohol, and go from there.

One of the reasons I fell in love with New Zealand gin was because it was often served with East Imperial tonic, a New Zealand product not available in the United States. When the amount of alcohol you’re allowed in your glass is limited (by our standards, anyway), what fills the rest of it up becomes incredibly important. East Imperial is the best line of tonics I’ve ever tried.

Made in small batches like craft beers, East Imperial tonics make all the difference. The closest thing we have here in the states is the line of Fever Tree products. Before they came along, tonic was tonic, and we were perfectly happy with whatever we found in the supermarket or what came out of a squirt gun at our local bar.

It stands to reason that a great cocktail is the total sum of its parts: great gin, great tonic, great ice.

I was enjoying a few Roots and tonics at the Bamboo Tiger, a bar inside the D’Urville Hotel in Blenheim, NZ, when we felt earthquake tremors. (My first!) It only lasted a few seconds, and when the chandeliers stopped moving, everyone pretty much went right back to business!

  1. Andrea Leiser says:


    Loved this post! Fascinating – Thanks! Hope all is well – ??

    All the best, Andrea

    Please note that we are currently 3 hours behind Eastern this time of year – Andrea Leiser President RSVP Solutions Group 14406 W Morning Star Trail Surprise, AZ 85374 860 712 6996

    Don’t Count the Days, Make the Days Count! – Muhammad Ali


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