Plymouth Gin as a brand has grown in spite of its owners’ woes both present and past. The oldest British gin distillery still operating in its original location, Plymouth Gin is a titan in the drinks world and worthy of the continued affection held by many gin fans all over the world.
Contrary to the London Dry style that has come to dominate today’s gin market, Plymouth Gin continues to be true to its roots and has retained its own distinct character. Produced in a still which has not been changed for over 150 years, it has a subtle yet full bodied flavour with no astringent botanicals and a slightly subdued juniper.
The Plymouth Gin distillery (known as the Black Friars Distillery) is now the only gin distillery remaining in the town ofPlymouth, England, located in what was once a Dominican Order monastery built in 1431. Before being a gin distillery, the building’s history was both rich and chequered. One of the oldest structures in Plymouth full stop, the building was briefly turned into a debtor’s prison after its time as a monastery. The established distilling business of Fox & Williamson began production ofPlymouth Gin in 1793, although records show distilling had been going on at the site since the 1690’s onwards. Plymouth Distillerynow has the accolade of being the oldest British distillery still active today in its original location.
In the early 1800’s the business was to become known as Coates & Co, but to save a long and protracted story about the sales and acquisitions of the brand through the next 200 years, let us just say that since 2008, it has been owned and distributed by theFrench company Pernod Ricard. Having been passed around more than a hot potato, nearly killed off and under appreciated, there are some highlights from the archives that are worthy of a mention however…
Technically speaking, Plymouth Gin is a both an actual gin and a style of gin which by law, can only be produced in the town ofPlymouth. It is the only gin in the UK to have a Protected Geographical Indication within the European Union – one of only a handful all across the world. This is the result of a legal judgement in the 1880′s when a London distiller began producing a “Plymouth” gin. In this period, it is possible that there were several distilleries producing gin in Plymouth and as such it may have been possible to identify a style native to the area. Therefore, the Contrôle Appelée was most likely awarded as the result of a decision to preserve the regional differences rather than a single distillery suing another for creating a similar product. It’s hard to know for sure as no records or transcripts have survived from the other now defunct distilleries that were based inPlymouth – for example, understanding what botanicals they purchased and their sales records may have been able to shed some light onto the wider Plymouth style.
While we’re on the subject of Plymouth’s history, it’s probably fair to say that a major reason why the distillery fought for their name and their regional style is because they were seeking to protect their sales from the Royal Navy. An important buyer at the time, the Royal Navy rations may have been issued with rum, but officers were all drinking gin. The commercial relationship with the Navy was huge business to British distillers. By 1850 the Royal Navy were buying over 1,000 barrels of super strength 57% ABV Plymouth Gin a year! Navy Gin remains to this day – despite there being numerous alternatives on the market and numerous defunct distilleries that enjoyed a similar relationship with her Majesty’s Navy (e.g. Bristol Gin, Liverpool etc…) – almost completely linked to Plymouth.
In the early 1980’s as Plymouth Gin‘s sales went through the floor, the decision was made to reduce the ABV to 37.5%. Thankfully, when Plymouth was bought in 1997, production quality was restored by the new management. The ABV was raised once again and a return to grain spirit (rather than the sugar beet introduced by the previous owners) was combined with the reintroduction of a “one shot” distillation method. It wasn’t plain sailing from there on in, but at least it was no longer a shadow of its former self.
Plymouth Original Strength is at 41.2% ABV. It has a distinctively different, less crisp flavour than the much more commonly available London Dry Gins on the market today. This flavour is the result of a higher than usual proportion of root ingredients, which bring a more earthy feel to the gin as well as a smoother juniper hit. Once the coriander dissipates, liquorice andangelica dominate the palate long after the gin has gone in what is an unusually long finish for a gin.
The still used to create Plymouth Gin has been in place for over 160 years. A character of its own, the neck is shorter than customary and the lye pipe is more harshly bent. Master DistillerSean Harrison is convinced that this is a contributing factor inPlymouth Gin’s taste and is understandably reluctant to let anyone alter it even if that would make it more efficient. There is a Navy Strength (57% ABV) version of the gin also available. Re-introduced in 1993 by then Master Distiller Desmond Payne, who now currently resides at the helm of Beefeater’s production, sought to celebrate the brand’s 200 year anniversary. It was intended to be a nod to the relationship between Plymouth and the Royal Navy and a small run to diversify the range and celebrate the milestone, but time has shown that the result has been far more important than that. More than 10 years on, the existence of Navy Gin as a sub-category is almost purely due toPlymouth – as the style wouldn’t have resurfaced had Desmond Payne not brought it back. It has been the flag bearer of this sub-style and the gin has allowed a whole era of the spirits history to remain alive and accessible to today’s enthusiasts. It’s had an enduring legacy and it’s hard to overestimate just how big a cornerstone Plymouth Navy Gin represents for the category.
To taste, Plymouth Navy Strength is more aggressively charged than its Original Strength sister. The juniper is a little more assertive and so too the spice notes. The lemon seems brighter and Plymouth Navy, upon every re-trial we have here at Gin Foundry, is in our top 5 gins of all time. It is – all eloquent words aside – just awesome.
If you take a look at the old bottles of Plymouth found in their archives – and now perhaps even on Google – it’s possible to see a depiction of one of the monastery’s friars on the inside of the back label. It was said that “when the monks feet got dry, it was time for a new bottle”. Unfortunately in 2006 the bottle’s style was changed to an Art Deco look and feel, and this piece of drinking folklore was laid to rest. The image of a monk was replaced with the Mayflower, a ship that retains special significance in the brands 200 year history, as allegedly some of the Pilgrim Fathers spent their final night in Britain at the Plymouth monastery, before setting sail for the New World. We like to think that they went laden with gin, but history tells us it was probably a different tale…
The Art Deco bottle design Plymouth sported for numerous years (around 20) was also a nod to Plymouth’s dominance as the gin of choice in many cocktails from that era. It was also favoured by notable individuals such as Winston Churchill and Alfred Hitchcock but suffered badly, enduring years of neglect at the hands of huge multinationals.
In 2013, there was a re-design and a more rounded shape given to the iconic gin bottle. The price has been drastically hiked up in the UK and the brand team seem desperately intent on tinkering about with it, seemingly fixing long term issues caused by previous owners. It’s finally getting there and despite not pushing it, Plymouth Gin has remained a trade favourite and is now growing globally once more.
With its heritage and the craftsmanship involved in the making of it (Sean Harrison is an incredible distiller), it’s almost impossible to ignore these fantastic gins. There is no doubt that things will continue to turn around for Plymouth and that they will regain more of of that justly deserved attention. We recommend helping them along this path by picking up a bottle and seeing why so many bartenders still say it’s their gin of choice.
Distiller: Patron | ABV: 35% | Price: €7