Yesterday, the auction company Sotheby’s sold a small chest for a big price: £68,750, which comes out to a little more than $95,000. Lined with plush purple velvet, it contains a set of glasses, beakers, and flasks, all empty of what they used to hold: grog. And not just any grog, but grog that belonged to the British naval hero, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.
The larger-than-life Nelson died in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Killed by a sharpshooter while leading his men to victory against French and Spanish fleets, the one-armed, one-eyed Vice-Admiral became an iconic symbol of British bravery. According to Sotheby’s, Nelson’s grog chest was in his cabin on the HMS Victory at the time of his death. It’s one of several items belonging to Nelson that Sotheby’s auctioned. Also on the block: part of the Union Jack flag that the Victory flew during the final battle and Nelson’s love letters to Emma Hamilton, his equally famous mistress.
But what exactly was this grog that Nelson drank? Despite its fancy carrying case, grog was an essential libation for every member of the British navy. Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, a British sea captain from the generation previous to Nelson, inspired the name. Vernon’s men nicknamed him “Old Grog” due to his distinctive coat made of grogram fabric. In 1740, he ordered that the navy’s rum provisions be mixed with water. (Giving sailors lots of undiluted rum every day led to understandable issues.)
Adding rum to long-stored water made it safer to drink as well, and the resulting “grog” became the drink of choice during the Age of Sail. And not just for the British navy—pirates also developed a taste for grog. Sailors sometimes added lemon juice and sugar, and some bars, especially those of the tiki variety, still serve it. Now, somewhere in the world, there’s a lucky buyer who can drink grog from Nelson’s own glass.
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