Well, You Can Cry Me a River (part two)

It ruined mothers (and fathers) and was an early harbinger of binge-drinking Britain:  Gin.   It also has been described as “the magic that happens when you combine a base spirit with unique combinations of aromatic botanicals.”  Magic may also be finding the Plymouth distillery without a map when you don’t know your way around the city.  Running late, circumnavigating the old city in search of parking, Roger and I catch a quick glimpse of the historic quarter of Plymouth as we dash around the corner to find ourselves standing before the whitewashed Blackfriars Distillery.   We arrived somewhat late for our tour.  Shaken, but not stirred.

Plymouth Gin

Our tour began with a history of The Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth.  This is one of the oldest working distilleries in England and has been making this famous hooch since 1783.  The building dates back to the 1400s, once serving as a monastery inhabited by the Black Friars and is allegedly haunted.  I hear this and think — don’t be silly, of course there are spirits inside.

We quickly discover there is a good deal more than that at this distillery.   There is a fabulous lounge bar, The Refectory, which is apparently where the Pilgrim Fathers gathered before they set sail on the Mayflower for America in 1620.  I wonder:  would they have imbibed some of this local tipple?

Gin may have once been seen as the choice of grannies, but according to our guide, we are entering the biggest gin craze since the days of William Hogarth!  In the early days of gin, it was a relatively cheap alcoholic beverage, easily produced at home.  It was purchased and consumed in ruinous amounts by the poor, contributing to any number of social problems.  Then came the British Royal Navy who both consumed and introduced gin, specifically Plymouth Gin, throughout the world.  In India, gin was mixed with the tonic water consumed for the anti-malarial properties of quinine, thus leading to one of my favourites:  the Gin and Tonic.

Plymouth Gin is also the only UK gin to have a Protected Geographic Status, sharing place with Scotch Whisky, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, and, The Cornish Pasty to name a few.   This status resulted from legal decisions in the late 1800’s when London distillers began producing a Plymouth gin.  The then owners legally established Plymouth Gin could only be made within Plymouth’s city walls.  Still today, Plymouth Gin can only be produced in the old part of Plymouth in Devon.

With our history lesson over, we moved into the distillation room to understand how gin is made.  This is no bathtub-in-the-barn operation.   The still, with its elegant swan neck high above our heads, has not been changed for over 150 years and this is largely to do with the local water.  That’s right, the pure water from Dartmoor, some of which is running past our house, is softer than a lot of the calcified waters found elsewhere in the UK.  As such, it is credited with the unique flavour of Plymouth Gin.  My affection for Plymouth Gin was growing exponentially.

Full of cultural, geographic and historical information, Roger and I are then taken to sample gins.  And of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world we walked into what I would like to dub The Inner Sanctum, an underground Gin Palace of sorts, to begin our tasting tutorial.  On the shelves there appeared to be a bottle of what may well be every gin produced anywhere in the globe.  We took our perch at the bar.  Before us appeared five unlabeled popular gins next to a tray of seven botanicals – juniper, coriander, sweet orange, lemon, cardamom, angelica and orris root.  We smelled botanicals, we smelled gins, and we tasted gins.  In short, it was a tour de force of flavours!  In our blind tasting, we both chose Plymouth Gin.  What a relief.  It would feel like an act of betrayal to select a competitor.

As our tour was nearing the end, we thanked our guide and made our way to The Refectory lounge, complete with plush sofas, a piano, a long curved bar and a long list of classy cocktails on the beverage menu.  We nestled into a corner sofa, placed our order and looked above at the spectacular hull-shaped timber roof of the medieval hall.  Before leaving, we purchased a bottle.

Sitting by the fire, sipping my lovely new gin and writing this blog, I’ve uncovered the Ginstitute, a new gin museum in London.  Clearly, this is a must see when I am next in the Big Smoke.  For now, I will turn my thoughts to spring and our gardening efforts.  Our hardy winter garden is bravely holding up against the recent frosts, down pours of rain, and the forecast for snow this week.  Hey bartender….

On the bottle there is an image of one of the monastery’s friars.  It was said when the monk’s feet “got dry”; it was time for a new bottle.  Despite many bottle redesigns, this little monk icon remains on the back.  We shall not let his feet grow dry.

On the bottle there is an image of one of the monastery’s friars. It was said when the monk’s feet “got dry”; it was time for a new bottle. Despite many bottle redesigns, this little monk icon remains on the back. We shall not let his feet grow dry.

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14 comments on “Well, You Can Cry Me a River (part two)

  1. Jack Murray says:

    Almost makes me want to join you for a nip, but I always considered gin a summer drink… Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the blog post where you uncover a horde of Viking treasure stolen from the Picts, hidden just beneath the hedgerow in your garden this Spring….

  2. Ann Dawney says:

    This blog should be accompanied by a Health Warning:

    ‘Do not attempt to read this until the sun is well past the yard-arm’ …

  3. Thanks for this informative post! If the “Pilgrim Fathers” really did stop there, they must necessarily have included my iconoclastic great-grandfather-to-the-11th-power, Stephen Hopkins. Fascinating thought. When we lived in London (1975-76), we drank so much gin, and had such horrendous hangovers, that we’ve sworn off it ever since! Perhaps it’s time to re-visit the experience. Cheers!

  4. jllevitan says:

    Lovely post about your tour. Felt like I was there with you. Especially enjoyed “I hear this and think — don’t be silly, of course there are spirits inside.” and the part about the monk’s feet.

  5. Dennis Benson says:

    Some years ago Eric Asimov have an article assessing 20 gins, his point was that many gins are equally good, just for different uses, eg martini or gin and tonic . I proceeded to diligently research his thesis and after coming out of rehab also chose Plymouth for my straight or martini gin of choice. Cheers.


  6. Excellent post – a real tonic (with a slice of lemon for added zest). RH

  7. We’ve recently become gin drinkers (and are still quite surprised at it being self-proclaimed “lightweights”). We live on a small island near Seattle, Washington and happened to have a small organic distillery nearby. In support of our local businesses, one sip at a tasting was all it took and we were hooked! It’s made with our local Douglas Fir. Now we are looking into making our own tonic water. It’s a slippery slope when you don’t let your feet dry out…

    • Slippery slope indeed, but one worth sliding down! Making your own tonic water sounds like a fantastic idea and next time we’re in the Pacific NW, we’ll have to try this local gin of yours. It seems to me to be a worthy effort to sample the wide variety out there — as they are all so different. Good luck on your pursuits and keep those feet wet! I’ll look forward to reading about it in a future blog of yours.

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