The shocking origin of the term ‘stiff drink’

by Rick Roberts
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After a long hard day at work, there is nothing better than when your colleague turns to you and says “will we go for a stiff drink?”. When he says that he means a relaxing drink after a long hard day, he means the chance to unwind and let loose a little by drinking a sharp strong liquor. However, that is not exactly where the term originated. So why is it called a stiff drink?

The term stiff drink has two similar yet different origins stories. One dates back all the way to 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar. There, Admiral Nelson fought valiantly but died. As he was a war hero his battalion wanted to bring him home for a hero’s burial. However, as it was 1805 they had no way of burying him. They decided to put him in a large cask of brandy which would keep his body from decomposing until they got home and also hide the unpleasant odor. When they got back to Britain and opened the cask, all the brandy was gone. Everyone was shocked. They tried to figure out if his body had soaked up the alcohol but upon close inspection, they found some holes in the cask. The sailors had been drinking the brandy, not realizing that it had a dead body inside!

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Today there are a number of terms named after the event. Brandy is commonly referred to as Nelson’s blood in the UK and tapping the admiral is a term used for drinking from a cask with a straw. As the sailors who drank from the cask likely did so after a tough day of work, the term stiff drink has become associated with a post-work drink to distract your mind. Little do most people know the word stiff refers to a dead body.

In America, a similar story is told but without the great British war hero. In the 1820s in Europe, there was systems in place that would allow medical staff to use corpses for research whenever possible. Any unclaimed corpse was donated to medical science. This rule did not exist in the U.S so they had to think of an alternative way to find bodies. Gravedigging became a common profession and most people in cemeteries and the police force knew it was happening but ignored it (most likely for money not for a love of science). 

The railroads were being built in America at the time and it allowed gravediggers to transport bodies all over the country to different medical institutions. One of the most common places for grave digging is supposed to have been Baltimore as the ground was suitable for digging and there were a number of medical universities in the city. To send the bodies all over the world they were packed in barrels with alcohol again used to preserve them. When discussions were ongoing about sales prices and transport the item that was always referred to was, of course, a ‘stiff drink’. 

While you may feel bad for the families of all the deceased you must take into account how much these gravediggers did for us. Today we can achieve incredible feats on the surgeon’s table and it is all thanks to the amazing work that was done long ago on stolen corpses. 

Thankfully today there is no need to steal from graves anymore. Many people donate organs to science when they die and some donate their entire body. If you want to donate your body it is not as simple as ticking a box on your driver’s license you have to book an appointment with a GP. If you are interested, talk to your local doctor. We recommend having a stiff drink right after.

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