Pernod Ricard, Black Friars Distillery, Plymouth, Devon, England, UK.
The distillery is on the site of an old
monastery (hence the name Black Friars Distillery) dating back to 1431 and,
besides being one of the oldest buildings in Plymouth, is a national monument.
Whilst it is quite possible the monks carried out their own distilling, maybe
even producing a juniper concoction as a health remedy, the friary was closed
in 1536 under the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The
buildings were put to other usage, including a debtor’s prison and a refuge for
Huguenots fleeing from France. The Pilgrim Fathers stayed here when their ship,
The Mayflower, had to stop for repairs. This makes Plymouth the last place they
set foot on English soil, before embarking for the New World in 1620, and founding the initial settlements that would become the North
America of today. With this august history it is no wonder The Friary
Monk and The Mayflower have both become notable trademarks for Plymouth Gin.
Modern day distilling started on this site in 1697, under the firm of Fox & Williamson, making it the oldest working distillery in England today. In 1793 they started producing Plymouth Gin, the same year a certain young Thomas Coates started working at the distillery. It wasn’t long before the company became known as Coates & Co. and remained so until 2004 when the Swedish company V&S (of Absolut Vodka fame) bought it. Pernod Ricard in turn purchased V&S in 2008, making them the current owners of the distillery and the Plymouth Gin brand. Tours and tastings (book in advance) are held at the distillery’s visitor’s center and there is very good bistro available onsite, which opened in 2006.
Many seaports during the 1700’s and 1800’s had their own distilleries, making spirits for the Navy and other sailors undertaking voyages. Besides London, Plymouth is the only one of these seaport distilleries still surviving today, and has been granted Protected Designation of Origin status under both English (1880) and European (2008) law. In essence this means only Gin made within the city walls of Plymouth may be called Plymouth style Gin. Plymouth has been the home of the British Royal Navy for centuries with the distillery providing spirits for their needs e.g. part of a sailors pay included a pint of grog (half rum and half water) each day aboard ship. For a long time both crew and officers received the same ration of grog but this changed, as officers wished to set themselves apart, and so Gin was supplied as the ration for officers.
During the hay day of the British Navy, Scurvy (due to a deficiency of vitamin C) was a common cause of death on long voyages. Experimentation showed a daily dose of citrus juice (lime from the British West Indies specifically) proved the preventative the Navy needed for these pointless deaths. Citrus juice however, does not last long by itself and needs to be mixed with a preservative. The preservative of the day was (castor) oil and tasted awful, leading officers to mix it with other liquids to lessen the taste. Naval doctor Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette (1857 – 1943) mixed Gin with his lime to “make the medicine go down”. The alcoholic Gin acted as a preservative, replacing the foul oil mix, and thus the “Gimlet” cocktail was created. Around the same time the now famous Rose’s (non-alcoholic) Lime Cordial was created and it is possible Doctor Gimlette used this instead of the lime juice (or both) and this may account for two different variations of this cocktail today. Another creation of this time was Angostura Bitters from the British West Indies, which is made with grapefruit juice. Around 4 dashes of this began being added to Naval Officers’ Gin (instead of the lime juice and oil) and the “Pink Gin” (or “Pinkers”) cocktail was created. For a truly classic rendition of these two cocktails, Plymouth Gin is still the “go to spirit” to use.
Plymouth Gin is not only associated with the above-mentioned cocktails but also the “Martini”. The earliest written recipe for the Martini (as we known it today) is from 1896 and specifically calls for Plymouth Gin. This is found in “Stuart's Fancy Drinks & How to Mix them” where it is referred to as the Marguerite Cocktail, and besides the Gin and Dry Vermouth, asks for a dash of Orange Bitters. In addition to this, Plymouth Gin has been consistently referred to in The Savoy Cocktail Book. This book, considered by many as the “bible” for cocktails, has 23 Gin based mixed drinks specifically requiring the use of Plymouth Gin – more than any other known spirit on this planet. With this background and level of influence, it is easy to see how some believe Plymouth Gin is the true originator of the build up to the peak of the cocktail craze in the 1920’s.
Plymouth experienced a steady decline in sales from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, mainly due to prohibition in the USA and the British Royal Navy cancelling their contract with Plymouth Gin from WWII. Fortunately sales have slowly increased since this time, and today Plymouth sells around half a million bottles of gin a year, in numerous countries across the globe. Notable people who are said to have preferred Plymouth Gin include: Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock and Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is no doubt as to the enduring popularity of Plymouth Gin, even with the increased competition of more Gin brands available today than ever before. We say, “Long live Plymouth Gin”.
The original Plymouth Gin was a Navy Strength (57% ABV) version. We believe this milder 41.2 % version of Plymouth Gin was introduced in the 1970’s, with the aim of helping to rebuild sales by targeting the on trade and off trade markets. Interestingly, this milder version is now referred to as the “original” Plymouth Gin.
The base spirit is double distilled from
pure wheat grain, which is sourced (currently from France) with a specific buttery
mouthfeel requirement. We understand (although not confirmed) each botanical is
individually distilled and then blended together. This blending is carried out
with great focus on how each ingredient combines with the others in customized
ratio’s, playing an integral part in the overall character of the Gin. The
third and final batch distillation is carried out in a traditional alembic
copper pot still (the very same one that has been used since 1855), using naturally
filtered Dartmoor spring water. Master Distiller Sean Harrison oversees
production, having taken over from the previous Master Distiller, Desmond Payne
who left in 1995 to join Beefeater.
Since 1998 bottles of Plymouth Gin have been redesigned three times. The redesign in 1998 had a picture of a monk, seen looking through the bottle on the reverse of the rear label. It was suggested when the monk’s feet became dry it was time to get a new bottle. The packaging was revised for a second time in mid 2006 to an art deco style and sported a picture of the Mayflower. Once again it could be said it was time to get a new bottle when the ship no longer sailed on Gin! In a phased introduction across many countries, spanning late 2011 to 2013, the Gin’s presentation has changed for the third time. This redesign has also coincided with a price increase – in the USA this is around $5 per bottle, across all three of their products.
This current design was produced by the UK agency Design Bridge with an antique style, the rounded bottle shape is made of flint glass, giving it a light green “sea glass” tint. The words “Est. 1793” & “Black Friars Distillery” are embossed on the front of the bottle and a smiling Black Friar icon is embossed on the reverse, at bottom right, and is best seen through the front. For those who can remember, at last we can again use the adage “when his feet are dry it’s time to buy.” The copper enriched oval shaped label marks a return to similar earlier designs and sports an image of the Mayflower in the center. Also, for those who can remember, once more we can use the adage “when the Mayflower no longer sails on Gin, it’s time to buy again.” The copper cap is used to represent the copper pot still used by the distillery. All these design elements represent the artisanal aspects of the Gin and it’s long heritage.
Plymouth Gin is Vegan Friendly.
Plymouth Gin (and London Dry Gin – as it technically meets the criteria for this style too).
41.2% (82 Proof) and 47% (94 Proof) for the
worldwide duty free market.
The 2012 price increase, the same as any price increase, has not been welcome by consumers. However this Gin, in our opinion, has been underpriced for a long time in the USA and we have been blessed to be able to enjoy this quality spirit at a low price. Often referred to as the “Champagne” or “Single Malt” of Gins, this Gin is revered by aficionados around the world and when compared against other premium and super-premium Gins it still stands heads and shoulders above the majority. Looking at it in this light it should probably cost even more, whilst many may disagree we’re still happy to enjoy it at this new price point!
Uses 7 botanicals (referred to by some as
the “Magnificent Seven”) including: angelica root (Germany & the
Netherlands), cardamom pods (Sri Lanka & other far East countries),
coriander seeds (Russia, Eastern Europe and Morocco), juniper berries (Italy
and former Yugoslavia), lemon peel (Spain), sweet orange peel (Spain) and orris
Named after where it is made, the City of
Plymouth (found in the South West of England), it is not only the brand name of
the Gin but the name of the Gin style too.
Interestingly, in China during Victorian times it was known as “Jossman” as the image of the Monk on Plymouth Gin labels looked very much like the Chinese figure of Good Luck. Shanghai is the most populated City in China and during the Victorian age was host to many British residents. One popular British Gentleman’s refuge was the Long Bar of the Shanghai Club (now a hotel) where one particular member, a Q.C. (Queen’s Council, a high level lawyer just one step away from a Judge), always ordered a Gin. Thus a Gin became known as a “QC” and Plymouth Gin a “Jossman QC”.
On the nose is fruity citrus with fresh juniper
and spice (cardamom & coriander). On the palate this creamy smooth
full-bodied and oily spirit has fruity citrus (sweet orange), spicy (cardamom
& coriander) and quietly strong juniper flavors with sweet earthy wood-like
(angelica) notes. On the long warming close is grassy lemon, aromatic herbs and
pepper with a dryness (angelica) and slightly tangy finish. This is an expertly
balanced Gin with no individual botanical over dominating the flavor.
Whilst Plymouth Gin is made the same way as London Dry Gin it is softer and slightly sweeter (probably due to the higher proportion of root botanicals), with more citrus in the foreground, earthy notes around the edges and juniper in the background. This has helped it to become a firm favorite with both new and established Gin drinkers alike. But do not be mistaken, for beneath this gentle exterior lies a pure heart of juniper.
For us the Gin feels somewhat muted (like a butter knife) and has led some to describe it as “dull” and even “boring” and one reason for this is the lack of bitterness. As juniper forward, “biting” Gin lovers, we understand these descriptions but we also “get” how this Gin is constructed: it is like “a pent up thoroughbred race horse, patiently waiting to start the biggest race of it’s life”. We have spent many years with this Gin and have come to appreciate more and more. It has concentrated power and deep complexity but rather than shouting about it from the treetops it is understated, restrained and subtle – the true signs of real elegance - we might in fact be describing “The Complete Gentleman” of Gins.
This is a very versatile Gin and should be found in the bars of any expert mixologist, and hopefully any budding amateur home bar. It is a worthy of drinking neat and rather than adding ice suggest keeping it at room temperature for the better experience. In a Gin and Tonic the juniper comes out to match with the smooth citrus and makes a memorable G&T. Many citrus fruits are suitable for garnishing this drink but it is almost a crime not to use a slice or wedge of lime! It makes a sublime (pun intended) Martini, with a good quality Vermouth to bring out the best of the herbal notes from both, the citrus, juniper and spice all inter-mingles in a soft punch of taste. It is best stirred rather than shaken because the additional water does slightly reduce the flavor profiles. For garnish we found it very difficult to decide because cocktails onions (Gibson), olives and a lemon twist are all good. However you might wish to be different and try a lime twist. Other cocktails we have tried have all excelled including Gimlet, Pink Gin & Tom Collins, if looking for a weakness it’s when it’s in an Aviation (when it’s good rather than excellent!).
No accolade can really do this brand justice - it is simply a valued and noble part of our Gin heritage, for us all to enjoy, that can’t and shouldn’t be replaced. It is approachable with a dusky dreamy addictive nature being hard to compare and deserves to remain in a style all unto itself – “The Smooth English Gin”. This Gin is a true masterpiece and, if not in our top ten, is certainly in our top twenty of Gins. Speaking so well of it, “why isn’t this our top Gin?” is a question you may well ask. Because it is not the only Gin out there we like, is the straightforward retort, and no Gin (we suspect) ever will be.
93 Points, Wine Enthusiast.
91 Points, Beverage Testing Institute.
Double Gold, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2013.
Silver Medal, International Wine and Spirit Competition, 2013.
Silver Medal, Gin Masters, 2013.
Silver Medal, International Spirits Challenge, 2013.
Chairman’s Trophy & Gold Medal, Ultimate Spirits Challenge, 2012.
Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2012.
Bronze Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2011.
Silver Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2010.
Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2009.
Masters, Gin Master, 2009.
Top Gin, Double Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2008.
Voted No. 1 Gin Martini, by the New York Times, 2007.
Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2007.
Best of Show x 2 & Double Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2006.
Silver Medal, International Wine and Spirit Competition, 2005.
Double Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 2001.
Chairman’s Trophy & Gold Medal, International Spirits Challenge, 1999.