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.
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….