Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, the only one allowed to use the Plymouth designation, has a colourful but somehow also comfortable history. It is on the site of a Dominican monastery founded in 1431, so given the propensity of monastic orders to distil for medicinal purposes there has probably been distillation going on there for many centuries.
In 1793 Coates & Co began distilling gin on the site, and production has continued without interruption since then, though the ownership of the place has changed several times.
Plymouth gin has several claims to fame. American readers will perhaps be interested to know that some of the Pilgrim Fathers are reputed to have stopped in the building when their departure from Plymouth was held up by bad weather, though they predated the distillery of course. Plymouth was specifically mentioned in the first ever guide to making a Dry Martini, surprisingly published as early as 1896 (though my preferred version is Dean Martin’s – “A large measure of gin and a waiter saying Vermouth”).
And it was for many years the tipple of choice in the officers’ messes in the Royal Navy – a tradition honoured by the company still distilling a 57 per cent alcohol version as made for the Senior Service for many years – the standard drink is just over 41 per cent. Plymouth was for many years the biggest Royal Navy base in England, and probably the biggest in the world, so the distillery had a wonderful market on its doorstep for years.
The product itself is colourless, the spirit made from grain in a process designed to produce a spirit without flavours itself, as a carrier for the complex flavours of the spices and other botanicals subsequently added. Though juniper is included in these, it does not dominate as it does with say London gins. Other flavourings reportedly used include orris root and angelica, citrus zests, plus coriander and cardamom seeds. After the flavourings are added the gin undergoes further distillation.
Aficionados say that the soft water from Dartmoor gives the drink a smoothness that sets it apart from its competitors. As those who swore by it include Ian Fleming , Winston Churchill , and FDR, Plymouth Gin is very much a connoisseur’s spirit.