Cutty Sark: Whiskey, Witches and Tea

Cutty Sark from below at Greenwich

Anyone for tea?

I love my coffee as most Americans do, but we also love tea! I've discovered such distinct flavor injections from sipping a steadfast Bergamot-laden English Breakfast to Green Tea variants containing popcorn and toasted rice, strawberries and other dried fruit. Becoming a tea dabbler eventually led to a recently purchased electric tea kettle with temperature adjustments. Let the snobbery begin!

Two years ago, I returned to London, where I'd spent nearly 3 years living and working. As part of the cast of Bob Fosse's Dancin', our All-American troupe was the first to perform on the West End.

Bob Fosse's Dancin' London Cast. I'm in the middle in the attitude split.

London is where I had a beautiful English boyfriend, met the Queen, and was kissed on the cheek by Gene Kelly ... other stories I will venture into ... but not now. This time, three decades later, I would be navigating uncharted waters as a tourist with a capital "T"!

If I said planning this trip was easy ... everything about traveling abroad seemed now to be so complicated and fraught with warnings of theft from your person, your credit or debit cards ... and the phone thing? Well, of course, the telco thATT will remain nameless wanted to sell me an absurdly overpriced plan for the ease of service we're accustomed to, but I opted to use an unlocked phone with a purchased sim card and minutes once I got there. It all seemed simple, until my unlocked phone, (an old Blackberry trackball), decided to eject its trackball in the store AFTER I'd paid for the plan. No refunds. So now I had a phone that wasn't going to get the job done. No matter. I had my camera and my adventurous spirit. I'd make the rest of it work!

Oyster card: check! Ready for the Underground ... but what had happened with this easy sleepy experience from my memories? Did the Oyster reference hint that a rider emerges from the experience having weathered the voyage glistening like a prized pearl? Or rather that the pearl has come about in true fashion, as an irritant inside its traveling oyster container?

The cars were packed and the cards had all kinds of rules with varying costs depending on where and when you intended to travel. And there were other frustrating options, targeting and confusing tourists (me) with saving money. Don't get me started on the money ... I paid £4 simply to enter a lovely old church and an extra £1 to take photographs once inside. The long and short of it? Everything I wanted to do had a price and it felt hefty as an American visitor converting lowly dollars to pounds ... not a feeling I was comfortable with ... recalling how I'd lived and worked here when the US dollar had been King. So in the beginning, the big planner in me struggled to accept this inequity, until finding the mindset I needed to get on with it ... Heather, you are on vacation! Spend the money on yourself and your experiences.

OK back to the train ... I rode the thing from Chiswick to Greenwich, a total of 12.5 miles as the crow flies ... a fitting phrase as some writings state it was a navigational tactic used by British coastal vessels. According to some of my research, the ships would carry a cage of crows and release them as a directional signal when traveling in fog or looking for the nearest land. Why? Apparently crows don't care for large expanses of water and consequently fly directly toward land. And get this ... in Scotland, crow road is a well-known term to indicate the most direct route. 

Whatever the origin of the phrase, many agree it refers to traveling in a direct route, although crows don't necessarily fly in straight lines; they often circle. And that crow's nest on ships? It was named accordingly, because it resembled a nest and was a great lookout perch ... perhaps for those released crows. Neat, huh?


Once off the train, I followed the crowd and a feeling I was heading toward water. I didn't see any signs for several hundred feet, but I did see a tourists' shop and popped in there for some Brit Kitsch ... little things like lighters and magnets with iconic images of Britain ... the Union Jack, red phone booths, Big Ben, and hello, a small replica of the Cutty Sark! I had to be close! "She's just down the road," the shop owner said.

Cutty Sark is a clipper ship built in 1869 and one of 3 remaining with a wooden hull on an iron frame. Late to the party (the one-liner I secretly retain to describe this newfound blogging effort), she was one of the last tea clippers constructed and historically one of the fastest, eventually giving way to the advent of steam propulsion in the shipping industry. The Suez Canal opened that same year, offering a shorter route to China for steam vessels traveling to China for tea. And now we're back to TEA! 

Consequently, the Cutty Sark moved from transporting tea to wool and held the record time from Australia to Britain for a decade. Eventually, she was used as a naval training ship until being permanently dry docked at Greenwich.

Cutty Sark in dry dock at Greenwich 

The museum that is the ship was closed when I was there, but looking inside the 360-degree glass perch made for amazing photos that sparked a feeling I was submerged while looking up at her.

Gazing at the Cutty Sark from below

Witches & Whisky

Although she was a British speedster, the Cutty Sark was built in Scotland for the Jock Willis shipping company. It might seem counter-intuitive to don the ship with a figurehead from literature who would not cross water, but some think the inference might have been that the Cutty Sark was so fast, she never touched the water, gliding instead like a gull in the wind over the surface of it. The story goes something like this:

Cutty-sark was the nickname of Nannie Dee, a witch in a Robert Burns’ poem entitled, Tam o’ Shanter. The ship’s figurehead is a carving of her holding a grey horse’s tail in her outstretched arm and hand.

Cutty Sark's figurehead, Nannie Dee

In Burns’ poem, Tam o' Shanter, a farmer with a habit of imbibing with friends after the market is pressed by the late hour to return home to his wife. On this stormy night, he encounters a coven of witches cavorting with the devil who's playing the bagpipes. The witches are hags, except for Nannie, who wore a linen sark, a short chemise or undergarment. The garment was cutty, or short, in other words way too short for her and quite revealing. A bit over-excited at the sight of her, Tam cries out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark." He's immediately chased by the witches, who according to myth, are unable to cross water. As he approaches the bridge over the River Doon, Nannie just behind him, manages to grab his horse's tail and it comes off in her hand as Tam rides safely away.

Tam o' Shanter on Maggie (Meg) pursued by the witch, Nannie Dee.        ©Cutty Sark Trust

Tam o' Shanter on Maggie (Meg) pursued by the witch, Nannie Dee.  

©Cutty Sark Trust

Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie
Wi’ twa pund Scots (‘twas a’ her riches)
Wad ever graced a dance of witches!
— Tam o' Shanter, Robert Burns

The poem has been touted for offering a glimpse into the drinking habits of Scotland's classes in the 18th century. Perhaps the makers of Cutty Sark Whisky capitalized on this bit of history brought to light as it all played into the marketing and naming of their special brew.

Apparently, Whisky blenders Berry Bros. & Rudd had been searching for a name for their darker blends. The talk of the town was that the Cutty Sark had returned to London from trading and was to become a cadet training vessel. Inspired by the news, Scottish artist, James McBey, a sailor in his own right, lobbied the name for the whisky. On March 23, 1923, a brand was born. The motto? Hold Fast, Sip Steady.

And just when the cross-marketing couldn't be more relevant, in an homage to Robert Burns' poem, the Cutty Sark Whisky company, currently owned by The Edrington Group, released a limited sale of Cutty Sark's Tam o' Shanter Blended Scotch Whisky (aged 25 years) of only 5,000 bottles worldwide in celebration of Burns Night in 2012.

Where There's a Will is A Way

Remember, we said the Cutty Sark was built in Scotland for Jock Willis' London shipyard? Well, she carries the motto, Where There’s A Will Is A Way on her stern. Perhaps it was an early advertising slogan that we’ve since incorporated into one of our popular cultural sayings, Where there's a will, there's a way? Note in the image below how the separation between Will and Is appears to be less than the other words, making it read more like WILLIS? The motto may have been a reference to the shipyard after all!

Where There's a Will Is A Way                       Image: Maharepa

Where There's a Will Is A Way                       Image: Maharepa

Tea Bricks: Culinary Currency

And once again, we're back to TEA!

Historically, tea had very high value in Central Asia, China, Mongolia, and Tibet. During the Sui Dynasty (581-617 AD), dried tea leaves were pressed into bricks or other shapes for easy transport and used as currency ... like the brick I was given by a friend, pictured below.

My brick of tea from the Chinese Province, Hubel mǐ zhūan chá (米磚茶) made from pressed black tea leaves. Many pressed tea bricks were made of tea powder.

The back of my tea brick. The scored sections could be broken for trading.

Tea as Food

In Ancient China, flour, blood, or manure were added to give the leaves a molding consistency for pressing. With these additional ingredients, it’s difficult to imagine the blocks were ever used for anything that went into the body, but tea could be also eaten as food if starving and was often brewed to stave colds, at least that was the thinking. After all, tea does have antibacterial and antioxidant properties as it's rich with vitamins C and A.

Bricks for drinking are still made today and quite prized by Tibetans who use Ya’an Chinese tea to create a potent butter tea. The drink is made by steeping broken pieces from the tea brick in boiling water overnight, then mixing with butter (sometimes yak’s butter), cream or milk, and salt. 

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was touted as the golden age of tea, its consumption elevating the act of drinking tea into an art form. It was so widespread, that Mongolian and Central Asian nomads came to rely on a mixture of tea bricks, grain flours, and boiling water as a replacement for the lack of green vegetables in those regions. Now, that's tea as food. 

Today’s practice of steeping leaves in water began in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), although documents do confirm the practice dated much earlier (9th century Arabs and 1254-1324 Marco Polo). The British East India Company held a tea monopoly on trade with China, until organizing its own growing plantations in India.

Tea’s power was evident. We all know the political role tea played in America’s effort for independence from Britain, but our Revolution also paved the way for independent tea merchants using clipper ships racing alongside British ships to bring the best teas in for auction. 

The Tea Race

The Tea Race was a well-known sporting and gambling event in the industry during the tea trade. Bonuses were paid to ships' crews arriving in London with the first tea of the year from China. The Great Tea Race of 1866 was the last of this frenzy, but faster ships could always command higher fees to transport cargo ... faster ships like our friend, the Cutty Sark, who arrived on the scene a few years later.

Bone dice, gaming counters used in draughts (English Draughts = Checkers), backgammon, and Nine Men's Morris, a board game of strategy from the Roman Empire also called, Cowboy Checkers! Now we're talking! 

In Tudor (1485-1603) and Stuart (1603-1714) periods, many games involved betting. Gambling with dice was very popular and was played by all ranks of society, including the clergy.

~Greenwich Maritime Museum

The numerous accounts of Cutty Sark’s voyages and captains are prolific and dramatic and include murder and mutiny. When she finally retired in 1954 to a custom dry dock, fire nearly destroyed her twice. But she stands tall today for all see. Click the button to see my Gallery of Greenwich.

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Tea Bags

Stitched Muslin or Silk VS Nylon Sachets 

Drinking tea in "sacks" was an idea born from wanting a single serving where the messy spent leaves would be contained and easily cleaned up after. There's some scuttlebutt  - nautical slang for a water cask - now associated with water cooler office gossip - about who invented the first tea bag. In 1908, American Thomas Sullivan sent some silk pouches to his customers, who inadvertently discovered a use for them by putting the tea inside and submerging the bags into hot water. The practice caught on.

But earlier, in 1901, two Milwaukee women, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren filed a patent for a "tea leaf holder" made of stitched mesh fabric. Apparently, Sullivan eventually changed to gauze bags, since fine silk was too dense to allow optimal infusion.

Today's markets are flooded with product. Lipton, the world's largest tea company, is 126 years old. They introduced the "flo-thru" paper tea bag in 1952 and haven't changed the design since, but it's interesting that the newer more organic and natural tea makers are trending back to more organic materials in their bags and pouches.

Steven Smith Teamaker sachets are biodegradable, made from non-GMO plant-based material (mostly corn), though they state that some GMO corn starch might be used in the process, the process removes them. The sachets are neat and pretty and are sealed via an ultrasonic process. A big, hmmmmm.

Mighty Leaf sells handcrafted silk bags and nylon bags for larger sachets containing bulky herbs. Nylon (plastic) in this environment is controversial, as there are concerns that chemical polymers once exposed to heat will release in your brew. Ew!

Bleached VS Unbleached Paper Bags

Paper bags are well, made from wood product. Some companies practice a “safe” bleaching method known as TCF (total chlorine free), which utilizes oxygen and either hydrogen peroxide or ozone. I don't know about you, but isn't bleach, well ... bleach?

When in doubt, ditch the bag and let the leaves and herbs be free!

To the delight of shoppers and followers of the art of tea, there are all shapes and sizes of infusion elements, as well as a plethora of infusion tea pots and cups with infusers on the market.



Here's an idea I came up with for recycling used silk tea bags. CLICK on the image for the how-to.

Here's an idea I came up with for recycling used silk tea bags. CLICK on the image for the how-to.


After steeping, dry the leaves and use in aromatic sachets for your bath or wardrobe. Many of the blended teas today are chock-full of aromatic herbs and spices that infuse the air as you are creating your Chagra by simply letting the leaves air-dry.

Chagra can also be used as stuffing for herbal pillows and even garden fertilizer!

And don't forget, after reading a particularly informative blog post, a cool wet used teabag can help reduce puffy eyes.