Gin is a deceptively complex spirit, and one of the best ways to understand its mystery is to distill the English distillery tour to its essence.
It has been said that if you wish to fully appreciate wine, you must first visit a winery. To comprehend beer, drop in at a brewery. And to understand gin?
Plymouth is a 3–4 hour train ride from London. The “full monty” tour at Plymouth’s 217-year-old Black Friars Distillery, (plymouthgin. com) which includes the blind tasting, gin making and a coupon for a gin and tonic at the bar, costs £40 and takes roughly 21⁄2 hours, whereas the 45 minute basic tour, which also includes the drink coupon, costs just £8. Although much of Plymouth was destroyed during the last World War, the area known as the Barbican still stands as a living reminder of what the city once was. In addition to being the home of the Plymouth Distillery, the district also boasts numerous pubs, clubs, restaurants and shops.
The National Marine Aquarium is the largest in the United Kingdom and the deepest in Europe, and a great experience for kids and adults alike. (Avoid weekend and holiday visits if travelling without children, as those days are immensely popular with families.)
The large green space by the Sound is the Plymouth Hoe, an ideal spot for picnics, strolls or simple relaxation on a sunny day.
History buffs will want to take in the Plymouth Mayflower Exhibition, which traces centuries of the city’s maritime existence through three floors of interactive exhibits, with special emphasis, of course, on the Mayflower sailing. Tamar Cruising offers entertaining one hour harbor tours with commentary for £6 per adult, half price for children 5–15 and free for kids under 5.
When in doubt, eat and drink! Plymouth is home to a perhaps surprising number of excellent restaurants and pubs, including the seafood specialist, Piermasters, the celebrity chef-driven Tanners, the casual Barbican Kitchen in the distillery building and the wonderful tucked-away pub, the Fisherman’s Arms (the fishermansarms.com). For cocktails, especially gin cocktails, don’t miss the Refectory Bar, also in the distillery building. That would be the Plymouth in southwest England, of course, from whence the pilgrims set off on their journey to the New World and, more importantly for our purposes, home to both Plymouth gin and Plymouth Gin, which is to say, the appellation and the brand.
Uniquely in the U.K., this unremarkable but curiously endearing port city—a three-hour train ride from London—lays claim to not just England’s oldest continuously operating distillery, but also a protected Geographical Designation for the gin made there, similar to an appellation controllée. The combination makes it the perfect spot in which to learn everything there is to know about the spirit that has been called the world’s original flavored vodka.
On this distillery tour, a conventional tourist activity—a casual explanation of the gin-making process illustrated by a thorough tour of the one-time monastery—is followed by hands-on (or bottoms up) business: we were invited to a blind tasting of five commercial gins—Plymouth; its Pernod Ricard stable-mate, Beefeater; Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s. The idea is to illustrate the differences in gin style, and in this task the sampling succeeds admirably.
From style to flavor to cocktails
The type of gin with which people are most familiar is the London dry style. The term does not imply a requirement that the spirit be distilled in the British capital, but rather that it is flavored with fresh botanicals—juniper, naturally, plus a potpourri of any number of other ingredients from citrus peel to cardamom—which are added to the still all at once. This serves to differentiate London dry gins from others, which might be made up of three or four distillations using different botanicals at different temperatures, ultimately being blended together to form the finished bottling.
Great, but this tells you zero about how the gin tastes. Cue Plymouth Master Distiller Sean Harrison.
What Harrison wants us to discover in our blind tasting is how some gins, such as Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s, tend more towards the gentle and aromatic side of the gin flavor spectrum, whereas others, notably Beefeater and Tanqueray, and to a lesser extent Plymouth, emphasize bolder, brasher and spicier notes. How you feel about either on its own is a matter of personal preference, but how you use them in any given cocktail can make or break the balance of the drink.
If you take the rose petal and cucumber-accented Hendrick’s, for example, and put it in a Negroni cocktail with equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, the gin will all but disappear, leaving in its wake a bit of a bittersweet mess. Use Beefeater or Tanqueray, on the other hand, and the more assertive juniper and peppery spice notes will balance out the strong taste of the apéritifs and create a far more attractive whole.
Other varieties of gin emerging or re-emerging on the scene include the sweetened Old Tom style, which is a throwback to a 19th century style, and a cluster of modern gins like the Oregonian products Aviation and Rogue Spruce Gin, the French G’Vine Floraison and the English Williams Elegant Crisp Gin, which take the notion of dry gin in innovative and sometimes eccentric directions: Rogue even does a “Pink Spruce Gin” that is aged in Pinot Noir barrels, while the Chase Distillery in Herefordshire uses a veritable shopping basket of botanicals, including apple peel and hops, in their Williams Elegant Crisp Gin.
Another category, the cheaper and far less sophisticated compound gins, in which oils and essences are simply added to a neutral distillate to give it the desired flavor, is briefly discussed as we leave the tasting room and enter the lab. Here, the true craft of the Master Distiller will become all too apparent as we attempt to create our very own gin.
The distiller inside me
Against one wall in the lab are displayed all the ingredients used in the creation of Plymouth Gin: juniper berries, lemon and orange peel, angelica root, coriander, cardamom and orris root. (The last ingredient, likely unfamiliar to most, is the root of the iris and used in almost every gin, as well as a good number of perfumes, primarily to bind together the other flavors and aromas.) On a shelf against the other wall are a number of mini-stills. We are given an amount of grain neutral spirit—vodka, really—and challenged to add as little or as much of the ingredients as we wish to the liquid. We will then distill our gin.
How gins are flavored varies from brand to brand, but may be generally divided into three methods. Some, like Beefeater, steep their botanicals in the spirit prior to distillation, for a full 24 hours in Beefeater’s case, while others such as Hendrick’s position their ingredients in such a way that the vapors arising from the still pass over, around and through them. Still others, such as Plymouth, simply add the botanicals to the spirit and begin the distillation immediately. This is what we do with our gins.
At the end of the distilling process, we are handed a label to fill out and affix to our proprietary 200-milliliter bottle of gin. We are advised to give the flavors a full day to settle and integrate before we taste it. We are further advised that when it finally does come time to sip and savor our creations, we may well find that we have formulated the finest gin that has ever passed by our lips.
Although more likely it will taste as mine does: an unbalanced mix of over-assertive aromas and combative flavors. What I’ve discovered, however, is how crafty a science is the creation of a fine gin, dependent as it is on a host of factors from temperature to ingredients, mechanics to measurements, the slightest differentiation in any one of which has the potential to alter the character of the spirit to an outrageously disproportionate degree.
Visit Plymouth and, likely as not, it will be a long time before you again order a martini, Negroni or simple gin and tonic without first specifying the brand of gin you’d like.
A Brief History of Gin
A tour of the Plymouth distillery will include an overview of gin’s five centuries (or more) of history, beginning in the Low Countries on the south side of the English Channel, where it was known as genever. Although popularly credited to one Dr. Sylvius, a Dutch professor of the seventeenth century, it appears today that story may well be apocryphal. As noted by Gary “Gaz” Regan, in his book The Bartender’s Gin Compendium, reports that reference a beverage known as genever, the Dutch word for “juniper,” can be found as much as a century earlier, and the use of juniper in alcohol-based medicines could date back so far as the 1100’s.
What we do know for certain, and what your Plymouth guide will tell you, is that Dutch genever was brought to England by soldiers returning from wars on the continent during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and popularized during the reign of William of Orange, being along the way renamed first geneva and then, ultimately, gin. To say it grew quickly popular is an understatement of the highest order; it is not for nothing that the period following its arrival is commonly referred to as the “Gin Craze.”
As the seventeenth century progressed and the Craze grew less, well, crazy, England witnessed the slow demise of the fly-by-night distiller and the rise of gin distillation as a legitimate form of business, brought about by the rise to prominence of such now-familiar names as Gordon, Booth, Tanqueray, Gilbey and, of course, Plymouth.