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Plymouth Gin

What is it?

Plymouth Gin, besides being a brand of Gin in it’s own right is also a type or category of Gin too. The Plymouth Gin category refers to Gin that may only made in the city of Plymouth, a port found in the South West of England in the UK. Obviously this can be confusing, and although we may be used to a single Brand of Gin (e.g. Xorigeur) coming from a geographically designated area (e.g.  Mahón), this is one where the brand and the category have the same name (e.g. Plymouth).

Gins made in the Plymouth Gin category are best described as made from a grain-based spirit. Today this is wheat but in the past it has been made from malted barley, or a combination of grains including malted barley, both giving the Gin a fuller bodied mouth feel. In the past the Gin has been yellow colored, no doubt through interaction with wood while being stored or transported, but today the Gin is clear. Plymouth Gin has a slight sweetness to it and this may have been even sweeter in the past. In summation, Plymouth Gin is somewhere between a London Dry Gin and Genever or Old Tom Gin. Today it is closer to a London Dry Gin with much smoothness and a little more sweetness (whereas, in the past it was closer to a sweetened Old Tom or whisky based Genever).

Interestingly, the botanical composition of Plymouth Gin seems to garner some discussion by aficionados, regarding its impact on the category. Using 7 botanicals (sometimes called the “Magnificent Seven”) the recipe has remained unchanged since 1793 and is said to contain less juniper than a London Dry Gin but contains more roots (angelica and orris) than most gins. This creates a softer, less bitter, mellow spirit with an aromatic taste plus more forward notes of earthiness and citrus fruit.

Geographical Designation

In the 1880’s English law ruled that Plymouth Gin could only be made within the limits of Plymouth, and a trademark was granted to them in 1882. This ruling was maintained in 1933 when Plymouth Gin took Beefeater Gin to court and successfully prevented them from making a Plymouth Gin. Ironically, both Plymouth and Beefeater; are owned by the same company (Chivas Brothers, which is part of Pernod Ricard) today.

In 2008 Plymouth Gin was granted a European Union Designation of Origin. This confirms, that within the EU, Plymouth Gin may only be made within the geographical area of Plymouth in Devon, England. This is defined as the area from the Barbican up to Drake Circus as defined by the walls of the old town and must use Dartmoor water. Only one brand fulfils these criteria: Plymouth Gin - hence the brand and the category are synonymous with each other. Plymouth Gin is currently made in four versions: Original (first called “Victorian Strength”) at 41.2% ABV; Export at 47% ABV; Navy Strength at 57% ABV; and Sloe at 26% ABV (technically a liqueur).

In 2014 Plymouth announced they would no longer be filing for protected geographical status under EU law, and subsequently in 2015, this geographical designation was removed from Plymouth Gin. This may be viewed as an unusual or even foolish move to make but there might be a method in their madness! It seems they view their worldwide trademark as more important in protecting their brand. Should the term “Plymouth Gin” move into universal usage (as it might under the EU GI status) then others could use it. Retaining the power of the trademark, only under Plymouth’s own usage, means even is someone else tried to use it, the law would be on the side of Plymouth Gin and the protection of their brand.

We very much doubt anyone would open another distillery in Plymouth and/or try to use the term “Plymouth Gin” against such circumstances – although stranger things have happened!

Plymouth History

Plymouth’s earliest history is as a Bronze Age settlement and was certainly used by the Romans too. However, it became of age first as a trading port in the 1500’s and this was fully confirmed when the British Royal Navy adopted the excellent location as their home in 1690 – as it still remains today. For many it is best known as the starting point of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 when they left England to start a colony in the New World (the USA).

Started in 1793 the Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, so named because of being built on the site of an old (built 1431) Black Friars Monastery, is the oldest operating distillery in England. Their star player, Plymouth (Navy Strength) Gin became the dominant style of Gin in England from the mid 1850’s to around the 1930’s. As a major supplier to the British Royal Navy, the brand languished after World War II when the contract to supply the Navy was cancelled (See Navy Strength Gin). The business almost became bankrupt and was finally revitalized by new owners in the 1990’s. Plymouth Navy Strength was restarted in 1993 (in celebration of the distillery’s 200th anniversary) and the Original Plymouth Gin was introduced in 1996. Today Plymouth Gin, the brand and the category, are now back in place and fighting fit for whatever comes next.

Tours of the Black Friars Distillery are available, including the sampling of their Gins, and well worth the visit.

Drinking Plymouth Gin

Plymouth Gin is eminently suitable for most Gin based drinks and those more commonly associated with a London Dry Gin. However, the nautical connections with this Gin and sailors have given birth to a few of it’s own Navy created options including the Gimlet and the Pink Gin. 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.

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