Way before lockdown (remember that?!) in 2019 I went on a Cornish gin break – aka a long weekend in Cornwall with plenty of gin and distillery visits involved. As well as staying at Talland Bay hotel, we also visited Colwith Farm distillery and toured Plymouth gin distillery. This post is all about what you can expect whilst touring Plymouth gin distillery.
Touring Plymouth gin distillery
Plymouth gin distillery tour
The tour covers the history of Plymouth gin and Black Friars distillery, shows you around the working distillery, introduces you to the botanicals used in the creation of Plymouth gin and ends with a tasting of the gins. Each of the tours also includes a miniature of Plymouth gin to take away or you can enjoy a complimentary gin and tonic in the distillery bar. There are 3 different tour options, we did the Plymouth Gin Distillery tour, which you can read more on below:
Plymouth gin twinned with tonic, or was it? Find out more below!
The history of Black Friars distillery
The history of Plymouth distillery starts in the 1400’s which the building dates from. Rumour has it that the distillery building was part of a Dominican monastery built in 1431, however there is no real evidence to support this… Moving forward to 1620 the Pilgrim fathers are reputed to have stayed in the distillery the night before they set sail for North America, whilst their boat the Mayflower was repaired in the harbour.
The building has been used as a merchant’s house, a gaol and a congregational meeting house over the years. The first time a distillery is mentioned at the site is 1793 when Mr Coates starts distilling Plymouth gin. The business was known as Coates and Co until 2004.
Plymouth gin history
In the 1800’s The Royal Navy took Plymouth gin all over the world. They invented the Pink Gin and Gimlet cocktails with the mix of gin rations with lime rations to combat scurvy! However it isn’t until 1896 that the first recipe for the Dry Martini is made with Plymouth gin. Plymouth gin goes on to become one of the biggest selling brands in the 1900’s, with every drop made in Black Friars distillery.
Plymouth gin had a geographical designation until 2015, which meant that only gin distilled in Plymouth could be called Plymouth gin. This makes it different to London Dry gin which is a style that can be made anywhere in the world (not just London). Whilst they no longer have this protected geographical designation, Plymouth gin is the only gin distillery currently making gin in Plymouth.
Touring the Plymouth distillery
After meeting our tour guide inside the distillery building, we were taken to leave our bags and large items in a locker room. (Large bags and items aren’t allowed on the distillery tour and you can leave your coats and umbrellas etc there also). Inside the actual distillery we couldn’t take photographs because of the danger of sparks around the alcohol fumes (we even had to de-static ourselves before entry!). So these are the only photos I could get of the main distillery area – through the glass windows!
We learnt about how Sutton harbour was one of Europe’s biggest spice ports – essential for gin botanicals. It was also the centre for Royal Navy, good customers for gin rations! Therefore the gin made had to be ‘Navy’ strength, i.e. strong enough that you can still light gun powder should the gin spill on it, in practice this is 57%. There was also a ‘normal’ strength gin made at 41%. After seeing the working distillery, we headed to a separate room to taste the gin.
Botanicals in Plymouth gin
Similarly to other classic gins there are only 7 botanicals in Plymouth gin:
- Orange peel
- Lemon peel
The star botanical, juniper, is from Italy. The other botanicals are quite ‘classic’ for that traditional taste of gin. Coriander is the sweet version, it adds a layer of citrus aroma. The peels are from Spain and they only use the dried peel, not the fruit or the juice. They use sweet oranges, rather than bitter ones. The angelica comes from Saxon in Germany, and is similar to a bark. Cardamom is used very sparingly as it has a potent flavour (as I’ve learnt in cooking etc a little goes a long way!).
Orris can be a stand alone flavour (e.g. Sacred Orris gin), but alongside the angelica is used as a binding agent. The biggest users of orris root are perfumers such as Chanel, as it ‘fixes’ the aroma. In gin the orris helps to fix or stablise the flavour also and makes Plymouth gin very smooth.
Tasting Plymouth gin
Plymouth gin is a different style to London Dry gin, which is considered a ‘classic or traditional’ style of gin. It’s sweeter (or less dry) and more earthy, probably due to the root botanicals used in the distillation.
Given that Plymouth gin was being made and drunk before the invention of tonic, we tried it similarly to how people would have originally drunk it – watered down, which meant it was about 20% abv.
The gin is juniper forward, with a lovely mouthfeel and smoothness. Lemony citrus notes are prominent, from the coriander backing up the lemon peel. However it’s well balanced and elegant, no harshness anywhere and a long lingering finish. The Navy strength is more aggressive with the juniper and spice notes more prominent. Both gins are heavily used by bartenders to make cocktails, even as far back as 1930’s when it is mentioned in several cocktails in the Savoy cocktail book.
Definitely a classic gin that you should try!
The bar at Plymouth distillery
Given that we got a free gin and tonic (or take away mini to sample at home), we headed to the distillery bar after the tour.
The bar is large and spacious and most importantly it has a cocktail list! As we were done driving for the day and only had to walk back to the station to get our train, I decided that a martini was required.
Plymouth distillery shop
We had a look around the distillery shop before we left. Whilst I was tempted by several of their limited edition gins, it was these fabulous etched Plymouth gin Nick and Nora glasses that I had to buy! I love all the little details of the distillery on them and the shape is a classic cocktail shape – perfect for martinis or sours.
Booking tour tickets
Plymouth distillery tours will be available from 17th May 2021 in line with the UK Government guidelines on opening back up post lockdown. You will be able to book a tour from then and due to limited tour numbers, it’s highly advised to book in advance. There are 3 distillery tour options:
- The Plymouth Gin Distillery tour (this is the one we did) £11 per person, 40 minutes
- The Gin Connoisseur’s Tour £31 per person, 1 hour 30 minutes. This includes a more in-depth tasting exploring the journey of gin throughout history, including 7 samples.
- The Master Distiller’s Tour £48 per person, 2.5 hours. As well as covering all of the above options, this includes a distilling master class for guests to distill their own gin. Tours are limited to 4 people and each guest gets to take away a small bottle of their handmade gin.
Options 2 and 3 are limited so whilst we wanted to book on one of them we couldn’t. I’d still recommend the main distillery tour and then do as we did and carry on the tasting in the distillery bar!
Getting to Plymouth gin distillery
We got the train to Plymouth from Paddington Station for our Cornish weekend. The station is within walking distance of the Barbican area of Plymouth by the harbour where the distillery is located. If driving (which I don’t recommend if you want to sample the gin!) then there are many public car parks in town. We dropped off our hire car in the East End area before walking across the harbour to find the distillery. There are also local buses and taxis, if you can’t or don’t want to walk it.