What Really Happens at a Army Ball


Coffee grounds. Everclear. Blue Gatorade. Spurs. No, this isn’t the beginning of a crude joke! These are all things you may find in the traditional army grog bowl. Intrigued? Here’s a bit more.

The Navy lays claim to the grog, which originally referred to a drink of water and rum. It was introduced to a naval squadron commanded by British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon in 1740. Today, the grog takes on many forms and is used in many ways. While not required at formal events, the grog ceremony is often embraced by those attending.

The components of the drink are left to the imagination of those planning the event, but often have loose ties to the military unit’s history. The alcohol and other items that are poured into the grog have significance to that particular unit. Sometimes it is alcohol from a foreign country, where the unit served in World War II, or Kentucky bourbon from when the unit was stationed at Fort Campbell. Sometimes it is inedible objects like pantyhose, “for the women in the Army,” or even an old boot sock.

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When my husband’s unit recreated the grog ceremony in 2014, the commander felt very strongly that the final drink should (a) be blue for the military intelligence corps and (b) taste good. Everything that went in it had to be edible. It was easy enough to find alcohols from the various places that aligned with unit history until it came to southern Arizona. The installation here has an historic cavalry unit, so horse poop-shaped fudge was determined to be the perfect addition!

Now, the classier events may provide you with table wine and glasses, but most of the time you are responsible for bringing your own drinking device to the grog. In cavalry units that often means people are drinking from their Stetsons. Sometimes it’s as low-key as their military-issued canteen, and other times it’s as eccentric as the shell casing of an armor-piercing tank round when the tank company commander visits the grog.


Drinking from the grog is known as “visiting the grog bowl.” It can be voluntary, but it is also a punishment for those who have broken the ceremonial rules of the event, like smoking before the smoking lamp is lit, or having an appearance unbecoming. Like all military traditions, visiting the grog involves strict procedure. They are simple steps, though, so as not to confuse anyone as the night goes on:

  1. Arrive at the grog bowl and salute the President of the Mess (the commanding officer)
  2. Fill the cup.
  3. Say something amazing.
  4. Drink everything in one gulp, then put the cup upside down on your head to prove your drank it all.
  5. Salute the President of the Mess again and sit back down.

While drinking from the grog is encouraged, there is usually a non-alcoholic alternative for those who are driving or who chose not to drink. Either grog can be used to fulfill the punishment of breaking a rule.

We all know that when alcohol joins the party, things can become very amusing for everyone else. While the military certainly doesn’t promote getting drunk at a party, they want everyone to have a good time. If you aren’t driving home, a few visits to the grog is par for the course. Formal events are a great time to bond before a deployment, celebrate a return from deployment, and be with friends.

The first time I saw a grog ceremony, my husband got in line patiently, toasted the mess, chugged his drink and triumphantly put the empty cup upside down over this head. He and his coworkers kept looking for excuses to go back up, because the grog combination tasted pretty good. My girlfriends and I decided to brave it, and I remember putting way too much in my glass and being worried I wouldn’t be able to drink it in one go. It was a fun experience and a great way to celebrate with our Army family.

Another wife had an altogether different experience. “It was my first exposure to Army traditions, and I remember a horseshoe being tossed in the grog bowl, and a handful of oats to remember the cavalry horses, as well as a dirty sock to remember the foot soldiers,” she said. Another recalled a grog being stirred using a saber. I think I also remember pantyhose from somewhere, which was also helpful to “filter” out the various things floating around in there! I recall Everclear, dirt from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Fort Irwin, rags used in the shops, as well as various forms of alcohol and juices. I think I only sipped once!

There are always great stories from the grog, and while military spouses would love to share, it’s one of those things we just want you to experience on your own. Find a military friend and have them invite you to a formal sometime soon. You wont regret it!