What exactly is a Navy Strength Gin?
With the recent release of our 2020 Juniper Freak Navy Gin, we thought we would take a step back through time and answer some of the more common questions about Navy Strength gins. What the hell is a Navy Strength Gin? Why is it called Navy Strength? Is the poop-deck really what I think it is? (maybe not so much that last one).
Navy Strength gin is big, bold and beautiful. It is higher in alcohol, certainly, but also often leans into more robust and earthy botanicals to create a flavour punch you won’t forget in a hurry.
But where does the term come from?
Despite the Village People making it sound so appealing, life in the Navy has never been easy. Long stretches at sea, squalid conditions, frequent bouts of illness and the occasional battle thrown in for good measure – it’s no wonder that sailors needed something to take the edge off.
While it was British soldiers fighting in the 30 Year War who fell in love with Genever (the Dutch forerunner to gin) and brought it back to English shores, it was the Navy that helped spread the love of gin all over the world. In the 18th century, it was legislated that each naval vessel had to have a certain quantity of gin onboard – each newly commissioned ship received a ‘gin commissioning kit’ containing bottles of ‘navy strength’ gin and glasses. Plymouth supplied these kits, and the Navy’s affection for this distillery was such that when the Nazis had the audacity to bomb it there was a system-wide announcement, and one sailor’s response was purported ‘well, Hitler just lost the war’!
The botanical make-up of gin means that it was long considered to have medicinal properties, and it gradually became one of the Navy’s primary therapeutic weapons – mixed with citrus to combat scurvy, quinine tonic to combat malaria or Angostura bitters to soothe the stomach, you can imagine that they were buying a fair amount of the stuff as they sailed the seven seas.
So, where does ‘Navy Strength’ come in? Well, the story goes that naval officers were wary of getting varying quality of spirit from different distilleries – they had a sneaking suspicion that some of them were watering down the gin they were selling. There was also a worry that if there was a leak and some of this watered-down gin got into the stores of gunpowder, it wouldn’t light. A test was devised – mix some spirit and gunpowder, and if the mixture burns with a clear flame then this is ‘proof’ that it is the correct strength (57% ABV). Failure to light or a smoky flame meant there was trickery afoot and, one would assume, a distillery under siege from the Navy.
While there are certainly elements of truth to this story (OK, we made up the siege part) the term ‘Navy Strength’ didn’t start appearing on bottles until the 1990s – but why wouldn’t clever marketing teams highlight this long and loving relationship between the British Navy and that nation’s favourite spirit? The trend has spread and now many distilleries worldwide make their own higher-proof gins, either dialing up the alcohol from their signature or crafting an entirely new botanical profile. It’s a whack of flavour and texture not for the fainthearted, but we don’t expect that many of you are…