Tapping  the Admiral


I know it is not Halloween and this story would be perfect for inclusion in the Loafer during that season, but I heard this story for the first time a couple of weeks ago while listening to Lynn Rosetto Kasper on the radio show I have recommended to my readers, “Splendid Table”.  This show airs at noon on Sundays on the local Public Broadcast station, WETS-FM. I get quite a few ideas for these columns from the show as she usually has someone on the show talking about wine.

Did you ever hear the expression “tapping the Admiral”? While I was eating my lunch and listening to the show, Lynn interjected the story of how when Lord Nelson the famous English Admiral was killed in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the crew wishing to return the body of the famous Admiral to England for proper ceremony and burial immersed his body in a keg of rum for the lengthy transport to England.  It seems the lowly sailors even though they were issued a daily ration of Rum, had a habit of scrumptiously sneaking sips of rum form the stored casks by use of hollow straws inserted into a small opening in the barrels.   Well, as the legend goes, when the cask arrived in England it was found the barrel had been emptied.  Thus the expression “tapping the Admiral” was invented.  I wonder if we have any folks who come to our monthly tastings who might have at some time been guilty of ‘tapping the Admiral”.  While living in Florida as a bachelor back in the old days when I worked at Cape Canaveral, I had a maid who came in weekly to clean the place up. After every visit, the maid had obviously been “tapping the Admiral” as my stock of bottles of Scotch, Gin, etc. were always at a bit lower level than they had been the night before she arrived.

To check on this story told on the “Splendid Table” I went to the trusty on-line sources and found that while the story is based on fact, there had been some embellishment over the years turning it into an urban legend. Apparently there have been many such legends handed down from back hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

As one of my sources stated: “The most famous of these legends seems to be the preservation by immersion in alcohol of the remains of Lord Nelson.  It is in fact true -- Nelson was, in effect, pickled to get as much of him home in as decent a state as possible. But not in rum, as would later be claimed in lore. No, Nelson had been immersed in Brandy for shipment home. At Gibraltar, the fluid was replaced with wine.  (Wonder why they did that?) (And was the cask found to be full or partially empty?) In one reference they stated it was wine spirits, which would have meant distilled spirits possibly of higher alcoholic content than the original Brandy.

“According to baseless hearsay, when the barrel was opened in England, it was considerably less than full. (In reality, Nelson arrived fairly topped up.) This gave rise to the story that sailors aboard the Victory had been unwilling to let a little thing like a decomposing dead Admiral get between them and their daily swigging and thus had been siphoning off generous helpings, eventually draining the funerary cask dry. Thanks to this bit of lore, the British Navy has come to use the term "tapping the Admiral" for getting an unauthorized drink of rum via a surreptitious straw.”  I wonder if this could be the source of the term “wine thief” for the glass tube used to sample contents of wine barrels during the ageing process?

The reference goes on the state: “Nelson wasn't the only famous Brit whose remains were casked in booze to get them home. When Prince Henry of Battenberg died from malaria on a British expeditionary force to West Africa in 1895, his body was transported back to England for a royal burial in an improvised tank made from biscuit tins and filled with navy rum.”

“The remains of less-famous personages have also been transported in this manner. In 1857, Nancy Martin of Wilmington, North Carolina, was on a yearlong cruise with her father and brother when she died at sea. The men folk put her body into a large cask after first tying it to a chair and nailing the chair to the bottom of the barrel to prevent her from floating or sloshing. Whiskey, rum, and wine were poured in, and then the barrel was sealed and stored below decks. Upon return to dry land, Nancy was buried -- still in her booze-filled cask -- in Oakdale Cemetery.”

While doing this bit of research, I came across some other colorful terminology from old time sailing ships relating to consumption of alcoholic beverages. Might as well share them with you too. Again from on-line sources:

MONKEY  The container which holds the full allowance of grog (strong drink usually Rum) for a Mess

MONKEY.  To “Suck the Monkey” is to suck liquor from a cask through a straw. This is done to avoid broaching the cask, yet still get a drink from the cargo without the Captain knowing. Also, when the milk has been taken from a coconut and rum substituted, drinking this is called ‘Sucking the monkey.’

‘THREE SHEETS IN THE WIND’  To be ‘Three sheets in the wind’ is to be very drunk. The ‘sheet’ is the rope used for trimming sail: if the sheet if free, it is said to be ‘in the wind’, making the progress of the ship difficult. To have all three sheets of the sail ‘in the wind’ makes progress impossible.

I promise next week no more macabre stories. In fact, I am going to ask Christine who wrote an article for you a few weeks ago on home wine making to report on our tasting of South African wines at the January 28th tasting party. The story of wine production in South Africa is an interesting story. I hope she comes through for you.