Tapping The Admiral

In the early years of the 19th century, the expression “to tap the Admiral” had become popular with sailors in the Royal Navy, and it meant to get a free drink from a commanding officer, sometimes by what can only be described as surreptitious means.


According to tradition, the first Admiral to be “tapped” by his subordinates was Horatio, Lord Nelson, the Naval hero who was killed by a French sniper at the Battle of Trafalgar, at which the British Fleet was ultimately victorious over that of the French.

Nelson’s body, the story goes, was placed in a cask of brandy or rum, to preserve it on the long voyage back to England.

However, his ship, HMS Victory, put in at Gibraltar in order that the damage sustained during the battle could be repaired, and here a disturbing discovery was made.

Orders were given to replace the original pickling agent with wine spirit, which was believed to be a superior preservative. On opening the cask, it was discovered that the brandy or rum had been drained by the sailors, who had drilled a hole in its bottom and had gulped down the entire contents.


The story is probably apocryphal, but it was a good yarn nonetheless, and it was certainly widely believed, with the result that “Nelson’s blood”, had soon become the slang term for brandy and rum, whereas “to tap the Admiral” became a colloquialism with sailors to describe the practice of furtively sucking liquor from a cask through a straw, although whether this actually does refer to the Nelson full bodied beverage is debatable, as evidence suggests the expression predates the death of Nelson by many decades.


By the time of Nelson’s demise the practice was also commonly referred to as “sucking the monkey“, and there are several contemporary newspaper accounts of Jolly Jack Tars indulging in the practice.

On Monday the 25th of February 1805, for example, The Public Ledger and Commercial And General Advertiser reported on a case in the Court of Common Pleas whereby a Mr. Denny had sued a Captain Dowson to recover the value of 80 Gallons of Hollands, which, so the article informed its readers:-

“the defendant, a ship owner, had negligently suffered to leak out of the cask, while conveying it from London, in his vessel, to the place of destination.

The liquor was sent in casks, supposed to be sound, from Mr. Gray’s distillery in Leadenhall Street, to the defendant’s ship, and, in the voyage to Woodbridge, the whole leaked out except one pint, which was attributed either to the Captain’s inattention in not seeing the cask properly stowed; or what is termed sucking the monkey, a peculiar mode practiced by seamen of drinking liquor out of casks in a ship’s hold.”


Quite how the expression, “sucking the monkey” came about is uncertain.

One explanation attributes its origins to sailors who, having put ashore in the East And West Indies, enjoyed drinking rum through a straw from a coconut shell.

Since the three dots on the coconut shell were thought to resemble a monkey’s face, drinking from it became known as sucking the monkey.

But that is mere speculation.

All we do know is, that by the 1830s the expression to “suck the monkey” had joined to “tap the admiral” in the common and everyday parlance of the seafaring community.