As the London Dry style 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.
Technically, Plymouth Gin is a style of gin unique to it’s own and in addition to this, by law it can only be produced in Plymouth. 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, so the Controle Apelee is most likely awarded as the result of a decision to preserve the regional differences rather than a single distillery sueing another for creating something similar.
The Plymouth Gin distillery (the Black Friars Distillery) is now the only gin distillery located in Plymouth in what was once a Dominican Order monastery built in 1431. The established distilling business of Fox & Williamson began the distilling of Plymouth Gin in 1793, soon the business was to become known as Coates & Co (it is now owned and distributed by the French company Pernod Ricard as of 2008).
Plymouth Original Strength is 41.2% ABV. It has a distinctively different, less crisp flavour than the much more commonly available London Dry Gins. 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. 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 distiller Sean Harrison is convinced that this is a contributing factor in Plymouth Gin’s taste and is understandably reluctant to let anyone alter it.
If one looks through the old bottles of the standard strength variety 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 was changed to an Art deco style and this piece of drinking folklore was laid to rest. The image was replaced with the Mayflower, a ship that nods toward Plymouth’s long standing association with the Navy. The relationship with the Navy is as historically steeped as friars’ themselves and the change in bottle design was justifiable- in 1691 William III founded the Naval Dockyard at Devonport and ever since Plymouth has been an official Royal Navy base. By 1850 the Royal Navy were buying over 1,000 barrels of super strength 57% ABV Plymouth Gin a year. This relationship between distillery and Navy even gave birth to the Gin Pennant- the green and white flag hoisted up by a Royal Navy ships when entering port (as an invitation to other ships’ officers to come aboard for a drink). The Art deco bottle design we have today also has its reasons for being, namely Plymouth’s dominance as the gin of choice in many cocktails from that era.
Plymouth Gin was favoured by notable individuals such as Winston Churchill and Alfred Hitchcock but suffered badly at the hands of multinationals enduring years of neglect. After a recent surge back into the lime light, Plymouth Gin has had a torrid 2010, with sales in the UK falling through the floor. However, the spirit itself, its heritage and the craftsmanship involved in the making of it, mean that it’s almost imposible to ignore this fantastic gin and no doubt Pernod’s attention will soon return to this legendary brand and its long history will surely continue.
The move to combine the marketing and positioning alongside the Beefeater gins should see a rise in awareness and with sites like Gin & Tales alongside clever ideas like opening up the distillery center and showing people how to make their own gin; things will turn around for Plymouth. In the mean time, we recommend picking up a bottle and seeing why so many bartenders still say it’s their gin of choice.
For more information about Plymouth Gin, visit their website: