Walking the cobblestone streets of Plymouth to the Black Friars Distillery, home of Plymouth Gin, feels like being transported back in time. Although downtown Plymouth was rebuilt after being bombed in WWII, further inland at the Barbican port, Black Friars Distillery is one of many original buildings still standing from the 17th century. This picturesque port town is home to the British Royal Navy and was the last stop before America for the historic sailing of the Mayflower in 1620.
Even before distiller Thomas Coates started making Plymouth Gin in 1793, Black Friars was home to gin distilling as far back as the late 1600’s (and prior to that served as a bar and housing to many of the men from the Mayflower). Plymouth Gin’s relationship with the Royal Navy is deeper than just proximity – the gin has long been considered to be the official drink of the Royal Navy, with every new ship given a Commissioning Kit with bottles of Navy Strength Plymouth Gin. Plymouth Gin has also ceremoniously been given to victors in war (sink a ship or down a plane and you get Plymouth) and when the distillery was attacked in World War II, a system wide announcement went out to the Royal Navy to let sailors know that the distillery survived the attack.
Plymouth Gin today is very similar to the original Plymouth Gin served in the late 1700’s, and the historic gin has often been cited as the gin of choice in many key classic gin cocktails (including many in the iconic Savoy Cocktail Book). Throughout the years, Plymouth has crafted this iconic gin using a unique blend of botanicals including juniper berries, sweet angelica root, lemon peel, cardamom pods, sweet orange peel, coriander seeds, and orris root. The Plymouth Gin recipe is primarily focused on how each ingredient best combines with the others, which leads to a more balanced, soft and less juniper dominant gin. Master Distiller Sean Harrison cites the terroir, or the influence of soil, climate, and environment on the botanicals, as an element which helps give Plymouth Gin its distinctive character.
One of the reasons why Plymouth Gin is so affable is the selection of the base spirit. Plymouth’s signature botanicals are combined with a ‘buttery’ base spirit made from wheat. Although the spirit is considered to be neutral, the mouthfeel of the spirit is more buttery than many other neutral bases. In addition to a very specific botanical mix and base spirit, Plymouth Gin gets its final characteristics from the local Dartmoor reservoir water, which is naturally filtered as it runs through peat over granite. Add to the mix a 155-year-old copper still and you’ve got Plymouth Gin.
Not all gins are created equal, nor do they all taste the same, and at a taste demonstration at the Plymouth Distillery, Master Distiller Sean Harrison walked us through five of the most popular gins on the market, including of course Plymouth and Beefeater Gins. Diluted down to 40 proof (20% ABV), the role of alcohol present in the gins was diminished and their botanical flavor profiles were easier to discern. At the lower proof the differences between the gins and styles of gins became much clearer.
One of the most fascinating things that emerged from that tasting was the difference between actually tasting something and smelling it. To prove this notion, Harrison had our crew don nose plugs and taste a secret ingredient.
The secret ingredient tasted like sugar until Harrison instructed us to remove our nose plugs. Then magically we tasted cinnamon in that sugar. This demonstration was one of the most clear examples of showing what flavors come from tasting something and what flavors come from smelling them. “Cardamon has no real taste” explained Harrison, “your experience from it comes completely from its smell”.
Understanding the role of what we experience via taste and what we experience via smell was a key tool as we were set up to actually distill our own gin. Upon entering the “laboratory”, we received a beaker of base spirit and access to a wide range of botanicals to select from. “Odds are you are about to make some truly awful gin, but it’ll be your gin”, joked Harrison, who then advised us about the importance of keeping certain botanicals and ingredients in proportion. “Remember, when you distill something, you are concentrating its flavor, so a little orange goes a long way”.
Going through the process of actually distilling your own gin is almost reason enough to make a trip up to Plymouth to the distillery (that and, of course, the legendary fish and chips down the street). Not only did distilling gin show how massively difficult it is to find a great botanical mix, but also how what comes off the still and what the gin tastes like several days later aren’t the same. The task of a great distiller is to be able to taste a spirit and know what it will become in the bottle – not an easy task.
As Americans in Plymouth, we couldn’t help but give a nod to our forefathers and call what came off our still “Mayflower Gin”. After resting in the bottle for a few days and making the trip back to the US, we sat and tasted our gin. While it wouldn’t get a five star rating here at Drink Spirits, it did show that making a tasty gin is possible with the right ingredients and the right attention to how those flavors come together.
Upstairs at the Black Friar Distillery in Plymouth is an extremely well-stocked bar (with some goodies like Havana Club). They also have the much prized Navy Strength Plymouth Gin. This gin is 114 proof (57% ABV) compared to Plymouth’s standard 82 proof (41% ABV). The Navy Strength Plymouth Gin is a revelation, with the soft, easy botanical mix backed up by a strong and bold spirit. The two aspects balance out in an expression of Plymouth that is simply divine. Plymouth Navy Strength Gin isn’t available in the United States yet but we’re hoping that, like the Mayflower, it finds its ways to the American shores.
Plymouth Gin is one of these amazing confluences of history and modern relevancy. It’s one of the key historical gins of the world and it’s having a true revival in craft cocktail bars around the globe. It’s an exceptional gin, still distilled in very much the same way it was, just after the folks from the Mayflower shacked up at the upstairs bar and rested for the grand voyage ahead.
Plymouth Gin’s Black Friars Distillery: 60 Southside Street, Plymouth PL1 2LQ, telephone +44 (0) 1752 665 292.