Navy strength gin might seem like a high-alcohol oddity distilleries make just for a bit of variation. In reality, this style of gin comes from the deep seas of naval history and does more than just make your G&T a bit stronger.
Typically, you’ll find gin for sale at about 40%ABV. Navy strength must be at least 57%ABV, so it’s quite a bit stronger than your ordinary.
But why is it so much stronger? And why 57%?
None of this is random, and 57% is not an arbitrary number.
It goes back to when rum and gin rations were a big deal in the British Royal Navy right back the age of tall ships and scurvy.
There are two origin theories about navy strength spirit and its potency.
Most popular is the worry that officers had about liquids being stored next to the gunpowder. At 57%ABV alcohol ignites, so if gin or rum got into the powder, the cannons would still fire.
Another version is that officers were concerned that they were being sold watered-down gin. Setting fire to the gin was ‘proof’ that it hadn’t been fiddled with. In fact, the measurement of alcohol in % proof is said to come from this test and why 57%ABV is also 100% proof.
Confusingly, the USA has a different system that would mean 57%ABV is 114% proof.
How to drink navy strength gin
Distillers who make navy strength gin do so for a couple of reasons.
This is a distinct style of gin that has its own nuances that a lower ABV misses out on. Botanicals react and taste differently in stronger alcohol, and the texture of the gin is richer and warmer too.
Quite often, navy strength gin is ‘dryer’ as well, so if you’re a martini fan, this style will really suit you.
Navy strength gin also fits a negroni perfectly.
But as Nick and Ally Ayres - distiller-owners of Karu Distillery, NSW explain, adding just a few drops of water to their navy strength Lightning Gin opens up the spirit the same way you'd drink a fine whisky.
Many Australian craft distilleries like Nick and Ally’s have a navy strength gin in their repertoire - unlike almost all large international distilleries, which rarely go above 45%. It’s another reason why buying Aussie craft gin is so much better.
Whatever did they do with the drunken sailor?
Rum has been a sailor’s staple for centuries, so much so that the two are almost synonymous. But while the crew were given rum, gin was only for the officers.
And there are records of gin in the navy going back to 1790s. Barrels of gin were called ‘Hollands’ in reference to Dutch genever, where gin evolved from.
But although these barrels were full of 100% proof, it’s unlikely the sailors were drinking their spirits neat. They probably added water to their ration, making it go further and also allowing them to carry on working!
The rum-water mix was known as grog, which is still common in Australian slang today and where the word ‘groggy’ comes from too.
Officers however added quinine to their gin, giving it a rosy hue, and so starting the trend of the gin and tonic - and perhaps even the classic pink gin cocktail too.