On a day out in Plymouth, visiting the Plymouth Gin Distillery is an absolute must. For a reasonable price (£7 / person) I got a fairly detailed guided tour, a tasting, and then a free gin and tonic at the bar.
Here is what I found out. Gin is a sibling of the Dutch jenever, another juniper-based spirit. Juniper is a small dark purple-blue berry that grows on an evergreen shrub, often wild. It’s also the base for a Slovakian distillate called borovička. All these drinks get their main flavour from juniper, but what distinguishes gin is that it has several other ingredients, herbs and spices, added.
When William of Orange, who was a great lover of jenever, came to the English throne in the second half of the 17th century, he opened up distillation and placed a heavy duty on wine and beer – with the result that England became a gin-drinking nation. Gin was also called Dutch Courage as the story goes that English soldiers fighting in Holland would drink it to steady their nerves before battle.
The distillery in Plymouth was established by Thomas Coates in 1793. His young business was very well placed in the port city as the Royal Navy was a major buyer of gin. Their preferred style was ‘navy strength’, at 57% ABV, as at this strength the alcohol was still flammable and if it was spilled on board it didn’t ruin the gunpowder the ship was carrying. At the end of the 19th century the distillery introduced new restrictions and started to use soft Dartmoor water only. It was also stipulated that Plymouth gin could only be made within the boundaries of the city.
In the Second World War Plymouth suffered from 59 bomb raids but luckily the distillery survived. However, as no botanicals were available and the wheat could not be used for distillation as it was needed for bread, gin production came to a halt. After the end of the war gin fell out of fashion – vodka was the new thing – but recently gin has seen an immense revival in England and internationally.
Today gin and tonic (G&T for short) is the standard long drink, but it was actually a Victorian invention. It first appeared in India among British officers, who took their dose of extremely bitter quinine powder blended with gin, sugar and soda to protect them against malaria.
Each gin brand has its own individual combination of botanicals, its distinguishing mark. At Plymouth Gin, 7 botanicals are used in the distillation process to give the gin its unique character: juniper, coriander seeds, lemon peel (using only Spanish sweet lemons), angelica root, orange peel, cardamom pods, and orris root. The triple distillation process takes place in a Victorian copper pot still and takes about 7 hours. (We were not allowed to take pictures while inside the distillery, but in the photo below you can vaguely make out the copper still in the background.)
The base spirit for Plymouth Gin (any gin in fact) is wheat-based alcohol, basically like vodka. They then soak the botanicals in it and distil the blend until the desired flavours and aromas emerge.
Plymouth Gin is categorized as a dry gin, or London dry gin, which means that angelica root must be one of the ingredients. Another stipulation in order to qualify as a London dry is that after distillation nothing except water may be added. While Plymouth Gin ticks both these boxes, because of its slightly different style and for marketing purposes it is not labelled as London dry. It gets a sweeter character from the sweet lemon, sweet orange and coriander in the blend.
The establishment has three distillations per week, each producing 5,000 litres of gin at a strength of 82-86%, which is then watered down. Two strengths are available on the market: the original at 41.2% and the famed navy strength at 57%.
The shop downstairs has a small exhibition where further historical information is available to the keen gin lover. They also run a connoisseurs’ tour as well as a master distiller’s tour, which are much longer and the latter even gives you the opportunity to create your own gin blend.