What do you do on a slightly grey day in Devon? When you have a list of local food and drink to work through, the answer is simple.
You go to Plymouth. In search of gin.
The Plymouth Gin distillery can be found at the Barbican in Plymouth, just along from the famous Hoe (where Drake played his, possibly apocryphal, game of bowls whilst waiting for the Spanish Armada to arrive). On a grey afternoon Mrs Running Buffet and I wandered into the distillery, home to Plymouth Gin since 1793, and took the tour.
Gin was big business in the eighteenth century. In the late 1600’s, in a bid to lure people away from French Brandy (we were not on great terms with the French in those days) and to curb the power of big breweries, the duty on gin was reduced whilst the duty on beer was increased. By 1742, according to Pete Brown’s excellent book ‘Man Walks Into a Pub’, a population that was 1/10th the size of what it is today was drinking 10 times the amount of gin we consume now. Gin shops sprung up and the people took to it like there was no tomorrow. For some of them there wasn’t, with people literally drinking themselves to death. Eventually, the taxes on gin were adjusted to a level where gin consumption was still high, but there was less chance that the population were going to drink themselves into an early grave.
Against this background a Mr Coates joined Fox & Sons distillers in the 1790’s and shortly thereafter, as Coates & Co, began distilling Plymouth Gin. This was produced at two different strengths: normal strength at 41% ABV and navy strength at 57% ABV (or 100 degrees proof). You may think, as I did, that this is merely a reflection on the hardiness of sailors and their tolerance for strong alcohol, but there is actually a far more practical reason for this increase in alcohol content.
On board ship, the gin would be stored next to the gunpowder. In the rolling seas, if any gin (at 41% ABV) were to spill on the gunpowder then it would render the gunpowder useless. Not great when firing cannons at jolly foreigners was your main raison d’être. At 57% ABV however, the gin-soaked gunpowder would still light, allowing your cannons to fire.
In fact, the term “proof” (the measure of how much alcohol there is in an alcoholic drink) comes from the tests that were carried out to make sure that a sailor’s rations had not been watered down. Gunpowder and alcohol would be mixed and set alight. If it burnt then this was “proof” that no water had been added to the rations. An ABV of 57% is the point at which this alcohol-soaked gunpowder tips over from not catching fire to bursting into flames, so that became 100 degrees proof, with anything less than that being “under proof”.
Whilst “proof” has largely been replaced by the modern ABV (alcohol by volume), the practice of setting your drink on fire to measure how much of a twit you are, can still be found alive and well on a Friday night in any bar serving flaming sambucas.
The link with the navy meant that Plymouth Gin travelled far and wide, becoming a renowned brand around the world. It even has Protected Geographical Indication, meaning that it has to be distilled in Plymouth in order to carry that name, in a similar way that Champagne does. Have the protection I mean, not have to be made in Plymouth. That would be quite a coup.
Sadly, this popularity began to decline after the Second World War. A shortage of ingredients, including the wheat-based alcohol used as the base of the gin, and a much reduced market for the product, saw the recipe change and demand drop. Not only that, it became weaker as well. It fell out of fashion and stayed that way until the mid 90’s when the company was rescued and relaunched. The ABV was ramped up again and the product reverted back to its original eighteenth century recipe.
So what goes into gin?
Plymouth Gin use a wheat-based alcohol into which they add seven aromatic ingredients. These are hand-loaded into the still in exactly the quantities specified by that eighteenth century recipe. There are, we were reliably informed on the tour, only two people in the world who know the recipe for Plymouth Gin and, amazingly, this recipe doesn’t ever change. There are no yearly vintages of Plymouth Gin; what they are seeking is consistency. Consistency in a product that uses seven different aromatic ingredients that have to be sourced every year from around the world.
Naturally, the taste and aroma of any given plant or fruit will alter from year-to-year, so the Master Distiller cannot return to the same suppliers each year. Because the recipe does not change, he has to match the exact nuances of each ingredient to the previous year, to allow the end product to be consistent. There can be no tweaking of the quantities of aromatics added, no desire to have a product that has a unique yearly character. Instead, there is the skill of finding the exact flavour profile you need from all of the suppliers around the world and getting that year’s supply of that particular ingredient from them. Seven times over. I was somewhat flabbergasted when we were told this on the tour; I don’t think I have the patience or perfectionism to be a distiller.
The first aromatic is, of course, juniper berries and Plymouth Gin uses a lower quantity of these than some other distilleries, meaning that it has a smoother taste than some other brands (or so we were told, I am no expert in gin I’m afraid). It was designed to be drank neat or with water, so needed to have a smooth flavour. Alongside juniper berries comes dried orange peel and dried lemon peel, both recycled waste products from other industries. Coriander seeds and cardamom pods also go in along with two mystery ingredients. To find out what they are, you will have to take the tour yourselves…
You may wonder why the gin was designed to be drunk neat or with water, rather than with tonic. After all, G&T go together like B&Q or M&S. The simple reason is that the practice of adding tonic to your gin only started when the British Raj in India began adding gin to their daily dose of quinine. This habit had grown in popularity by the mid nineteenth century and travelled back down the supply line to Britain, where it has been popular ever since.
Quinine was an anti malarial medicine, made from the bark of cinchona tree. This ground bark became known as the “fever tree”, a name that has now been taken and used to market a range of tonic water. Fever Tree was recommended to us on the tour as a good match for their gin, although they seem to be based in London so are no good for my Devon A-Z challenge. We were also given an interesting tidbit of information: a cheap tonic will chemically inhibit the flavours in gin. So if you are splashing out on a good gin, don’t skimp on the tonic otherwise you will ruin the flavours in the gin.
For more information on the history of gin and tonic, I recommend this post on the Active History site.
At the end of the tour we were presented with a voucher for either a miniature or a glass of gin in the bar upstairs. I was driving, so took the miniature option, but I joined Mrs RB in the rather stylish Refectory Cocktail Lounge for a drink. The revival in interest in Plymouth Gin can be attributed, in part, to their marketing approach of hiring brand ambassadors to spread the word about their product. For some reason, to my mind, the slick bar upstairs in the Black Friars Distillery fits this ethos nicely: it’s not just about the product, it’s about making it seem hip and desirable.
If you’re looking for a cool and sophisticated hangout, this cocktail bar might just be the place for you. I certainly looked a little out-of-place in there.
Despite being part of the vast global Pernod Ricard machine, Plymouth Gin is still made by a small band of people by hand in the world’s oldest working gin distillery. Its protected status means that it has to be made in Plymouth. Its multinational parent means that it can get to markets all around the world. Hopefully they can maintain this balance and ensure that this revival in fortune will be long lasting.