Imagine being a sailor during the heyday of exploration, colonization, and ship travel: months-long journeys with nothing but open water, a ship full of fellow sailors, and preserved food that left a lot to be desired. It’s not hard to see why booze played a huge role in the lives of seamen. Not only was alcohol a small luxury, but it was a necessity; sailors needed a way to stay hydrated, but attempts to store fresh water onboard a ship failed as it would quickly spoil. Beer, wine, and spirits contained water but wouldn’t spoil as quickly and therefore were consumed on a daily basis.
While it may not be advisable to substitute alcohol for water today, be thankful that booze was integrated so closely into life at sea, for some of our favorite boozy treats wouldn’t exist without this sailing tradition. These three beverages owe their origins to the Age of Exploration and the years that followed, so think like a sailor and drink up!
Fortified wines likely would not exist without the tradition of sea transport. Sailors embarking on long voyages would stop in port cities to pick up provisions for the journey: food, supplies, and, of course, wine. However, wine would often spoil on these long trips, so winemakers began adding a small amount of neutral spirit to quite literally fortify the wine to withstand the journey. Port, Sherry, and Marsala all exist in their current iterations because of this practice beginning during the Age of Exploration.
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There is one wine, however, that not only became fortified as a result of sea voyages, but actually developed its distinctive style because of these sailing trips as well. Madeira, the “zombie wine” from the Portuguese island of the same name, owes its flavor profile to a method of aging that actually developed quite by accident on ships. When sailors were traveling to the East Indies, they would typically stop in the port of Madeira and pick up barrels of local wine. Though the wine was fortified, it was still subjected to intense heat as the ships crossed the equator. The more noble Port wine received the cooler storage areas, so the wine was essentially cooked by this unintentional process of heating during the day and cooling at night. Upon arriving in the East Indies, the wine was completely changed – but surprisingly, wine drinkers preferred this style of cooked, oxidized wine!
For a time after this discovery, producers would purposefully age their Madeira wines in the holds of ships, labeling and selling the wine according to the journey that it had made. The coveted vinho da roda often fetched the highest prices, as it was a wine that had made a “round trip” past the equator. This process was extremely costly, however, so winemakers began mimicking the process in the winery instead, taking advantage of Madeira’s tropical location and placing barrels in attic rooms called estufas to heat and oxidize. Today this practice continues for the best wines, all thanks to a simple ship storage accident.
India Pale Ale
While the India Pale Ale, or IPA, has taken the modern American craft beer industry by storm, its origins actually lie in England, where the style was created as a result of British sailing voyages. In the mid-to-late 1700s, British sailors were making regular trips to India, as England had large colonies there. Not only were British ships responsible for bringing exports – beer among them – to the colonies in India, but back then, sailors were drinking large quantities of beer as a way to stay hydrated. However, with a trip that long that required crossing the equator, the standard British ale would eventually spoil as well.
These beers needed a preservative, and brewers found one in the plant that defines the IPA style: hops. India-bound ales received a very high addition of hops and eventually were made in a higher-alcohol style as well – another way of helping the beer reach its destination without spoiling. This resulted in a stronger, bitterer beer. Ironically, the colonists it was intended for despised the style. It stuck at home, though, and brewers began making more IPAs for English drinkers in the 1800s. But it all started because of a necessary voyage halfway around the world.
The invention of the daiquiri, a classic cocktail made with white rum, lime, simple syrup, and ice, is a bit contested, but the origins of the cocktail have ties to the sea. A predecessor of the daiquiri is thought to be grog, a cocktail of sorts that was consumed by the British Royal Navy in the late 1700s. Water, somewhat ironically, was a constant problem faced on ships before modern technology came into the picture. Sailors needed a large source of fresh water, but it would quickly spoil as it sat on the ship. Instead, members of the British Royal Navy were given beer rations as a means of hydration. However, with a ration of a gallon of beer per sailor per day, this amount of liquid was impractical to maintain; on very long trips, there simply wasn’t enough room to store that much beer.
In the late 1600s, however, a solution appeared: Great Britain colonized Jamaica and had access to a plentiful supply of rum. Thus, the beer ration was changed to a smaller rum ration: a half-pint per sailor per day. The problem with this new system was that sailors began hoarding their rations, saving the rum for several days and getting good and drunk by consuming it all at once. So the Navy ordered the rum to be diluted with water, which made it spoil faster, and doled it out twice per day, cutting both the taste and the sailors’ fun.
One gentleman, British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, offered a suggestion to his squadron in 1740. Sailors could trade some salt provisions for sugar and limes in order to make the watered-down rum more palatable. This was the birth of grog, and by 1795, it was part of the official Royal Navy rations, the designated recipe containing rum, water, lemon or lime juice, and sugar (the citrus, they discovered, had the bonus effect of curing scurvy). This isn’t too far off from the classic daiquiri recipe as we know it today; the water, of course, is now substituted with ice.