A World of Spirits: Plymouth Gin
Hello! Apologies for the time it has taken me to post something new, the last couple of months have been extremely busy for me. But just like the prodigal son, I have returned, with a brand new section no less. I will attempt over the next few months to visit as many distilleries as possible and talk a little about spirits I have tried and tasted. Today I will be covering plymouth gin.
And so on a very grey summers day I caught the train full of screaming babies south to plymouth. Which is probably the furthest south I have ever been in the UK. 3 Hours and a taxi ride finally brought me to the distillery. At first glance it is a really old building, the oldest part of it was built in the 1400s, but the rest of it was built in the 1700s.
I was shown around by one of the distillers and a very nice lady from the shop, whilst there was tours going on at the same time as I was there; they were nice enough to show me around by myself (most of the other tours were 12-15 people.) Whereas photos were generally not allowed, I did convince them to let me take a couple of photos with my phone so apologies about the quality in advance.
As some of you guys may know, my main speciality is history so that’s a big part of what I’ll be talking about, but I also looked at the stills, and did a tasting and made my own gin which was fricking awesome!
As i mentioned before the oldest part of the distillery is from the 1400s, being an old referectory hall for monks. Legend has it that the building was the former monastary of an order of dominicans, hence the name “Black Friars Distillery”
In time the distillery became a debtor’s prison and after the split of the Church of England from the catholic church became a local meeting place. The Pilgrim Fathers are reputed to have spent their last night in England there before they set sail on the Mayflower.
A wine cooper took it over in the 1700s, introducing a core merchant, a brewer and a malter, and mostly likely made beer up until 1793 when it was taken over by one Mr Henry Coates who started producing gin. Luckily for our friend Mr Coates, a legislation making it only possible to make gin in only liscensed still houses had been put into effect only forty years ago. This changed gin from the drink of the poor and wretched to a drink worthy of the middle classes.
By the 1820s the distillery was solely producing gin, and plymouth was the drink of choice for officers in the navy. For the lackeys of course there was rum. The quality of plymouth began to become pretty well known, which began to inspire poor, knock off products being produced.
This led to, in 1881, plymouth being granted a protected designation of origin. This is the only gin to have been given this. It stated “Plymouth gin must be made within Plymouth city limits & must be made with dartmouth water.” Not only does this make plymouth pretty unique, it also makes it it’s own category of gin.
Also throughout the 1800s, the invention of the coffey or column still revolutionises how gin is made and we see a lot smoother gins being made, including plymouth. The navy also make use of plymouth by creating “Pink Gin” and the “Gimlet” Both of which I will be covering in the next Cocktail dissection episodes.
As we reach the end of the 19th century, we see the cocktail explosion beginning in America. The first ever mention of the dry martini as we know it today was made with plymouth gin and was written in “Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix them” Published in 1896. Called the Marguerite cocktail it contained
1 dash orange bitters
2/3 plymouth gin
1/3 dry vermouth
By the 1900s we have entered the cocktail era and we see several drinks calling for plymouth by name. By 1900 plymouth had the biggest export market of any UK gin, supply over 50 countries. Gin was also hugely popular during prohibition in America. Plymouth was the favoured gin of the American bar at the Savoy when the famous book was published in 1930.
When WW2 hits, the plymouth distillery is relatively unharmed, however, due to rationing issues and transport problems, the quality of plymouth plummets. They are forced to use molasses based spirits and inferior botanicals. It couldn’t really recover from this and was forced to sell up in 1953. It was bought up and re-opened in 1975, but constantly changed hands and produced a terribly inferior gin all the way up until 1996.
After this date, the gin was produced back to the original 1793 recipe, and was brought back up to the original 41.2% ABV. In 2001 was acquired by V & S spirits, tripling the sales to 36000 cases. By 2002 it was the No.1 premium gin in the UK outselling bombay sapphire and beefeater according to Impact magazine.
In 2007, at the San Francisco Spirit awards it was awarded “Best Gin” “Best White Spirit” and “Best Spirit” the first gin to ever be awarded this. This cemented plymouths reputation as a pretty gosh darn fine gin.
It was bought by pernod ricard in 2009.
So what actually IS plymouth? Plymouth is a gin, which means it is a neutral grain based spirit that must contain juniper. It usually contains other spices too but thats up to the distiller.
Plymouth is 100% wheat based, plymouth buys in the neautral grain spirit already made from chivas bros. It is shipped at around 96%. This is then put through a pot still with dartmouth water that runs over granite to purify with whatever botanicals.
Plymouth uses 7 botanicals according to the 1793 recipe.
Orris Root (Ground up iris bulb)
It comes off the still around 80% where it is then watered down with pure H20 to 41.2% for the original or 57% for the navy strength. It is then bottled straight away.
Onto the tasting, we blind tasted 5 gins, Hendricks, Beefeater, Plymouth, Gordons and Bombay Saphire. I of course spent the whole time writing down which i thought were which. Being a complete alcoholic (or maybe just a gin fan) I got most right. But got beefeater and bombay mixed up ha!
But the plymouth on the nose:
Light juniper, subtle pine and camphor. A pleasant citrus burst fading to warming winter spices.
On the pallate:
Nice balance between the dryness provided by the angelica root and the sweetness of the citrus zest, powerful cardomom spices warmed by the coriander. Nice smooth finish.
Overall we came to the conclusion that it works great in drinks where gin is the focus point, ie martinis etc. But not so much which huge dominating flavours such as the negroni, where you would need a really juniper heavy gin.
Onto the best part, Making my own fricking gin! woo yeah! I was walked into a room that had a row of stills along one side. I was given a potion bottle and a funnel and was told to add whatever i wanted, as long as juniper was one of the ingredients I had free rein.
As i tend to favour juniper heavy, citrus forward gins (mmm.. tanqueray 10) I put a big ol’ handful of juniper in there, a large swath of orange peel. Then i added a small pinch of liquorice root, nutmeg and coriander seeds. I added angelica root to add that classic dry gin taste, and orris root binds all the ingredients together (i trusted the experts on this reccomendation)
It boiled away on the still and produced a spirit at about 80%, they watered it down to 40% for me and bottled it. And so, I am proud to present you Captain Awesome Gin
It’s actually pretty damn tasty, the shop lady said a high amount of citrus tended to turn it cloudy but mine is crystal clear, and it smells AMAZING! Definitely going to be drinking this one sparingly.
Thankyou for tuning in, see you next week.