Gin lovers hold on to your hats as guest author Sarah Bell takes us on a tour of an historical distillery …
When I first moved to London in 1982 I worked for a small company that supplied cocktail paraphernalia to bars & hotels across the U.K. Drinking cocktails was cool again; we sold paper umbrellas by the thousands and were welcomed with many large Pina Coladas or Blue Lagoons wherever we went. For a 19 year old it was a dream job; my streets of London were paved with every conceivable type of multicoloured liquor and Tom Cruise was at the helm!
My love of cocktails has stayed with me but thankfully my tastes are more refined and finely tuned than they were back in 80s. I now organise cabaret events harkening back to a time of the speakeasy and the jazz era so when the invitation to spend a Thursday afternoon with the Master Distiller and Brand Ambassador of Plymouth Gin arrived I jumped straight on the train to Gin Town – surely it would be rude not to?
The Blackfriars Distillery is a building in the Barbican area of Plymouth that dates back to the 1400s and Plymouth Gin officially began to be distilled here in 1793, quickly increasing in popularity as naval officers developed a taste for it. The sense of history and tradition is immediate but Sean Harrison, the Master Distiller, and Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, the International Brand Ambassador, were exactly the dapper 21st Century chaps I hoped they would be and passionate and knowledgeable in a way that they both proudly described as ‘bordering on nerdy’.
We walked and talked through the production process in the still area before entering the tasting room. Sean has been collecting gins from around the world and the walls are lined with in excess of 300 bottles. Picture walls glimmering with bottles of differing colours and sizes and labels and designs; from circular orbs containing gin with gold leaf from Switzerland to organic craft gin from the USA – it was a masterpiece and mesmerising. When we started to smell the five gins Sean had selected for tasting it felt a little like being in an old fashioned perfumery.
There are seven botanicals in Plymouth Gin: juniper, orange and lemon peel, Russian coriander, angelica, orris root and cardamom, but other gin producers add different ingredients. I loved the smelling and tasting experience – just like a wine or whisky tasting. Once I had honed my senses I found I could identify a variety of tastes and notes, some floral, some citrus, some more earthy. I was becoming a connoisseur. Only 20 minutes in and Sean was letting me loose to make my own gin!
Based on my own preferences, which were erring towards citrus and fragrant rather than dry and earthy, I added orange peel, cassia bark and orris root with juniper and coriander and Sean put my potion through a mini distillation machine. I watched excitedly as my own gin was created. I honestly think that if I had properly understood science at school I may well have been producing my own gin from a much earlier age – it is a very cool process with very tasty results!
Now armed with some history, some insider knowledge and my own concoction I was honoured to be taken into the ‘secret snug’ bar to enjoy a cocktail tasting with Sebastian, who delighted me with the stories of how the simplest of naval spirits evolved into the classic drinks of today.
Let me tell you what I learned about Pink Gin. This is gin combined with a dash of Angostura bitters and was originally concocted to help make the consumption of the medicinal bitters more enjoyable for sailors. The Gimlet on the other hand features gin and Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial and this cocktail was historically mixed as the health benefits of limes prevented scurvy, a disease which took the lives of thousands of sailors. That brings me to my new personal favourite, The Gin Pennant Cup – a gin fruit cup which was served in a beautiful copper tankard. I wasn’t aware that the Gin Pennant was so embedded in naval tradition but Sebastian explained that it was hoisted in port to invite officers on board ship for a drink. I might even sew my own flag so that my neighbours know when they can drop by for some laid back sounds and a drop of gin and juice.
If you get the chance to visit Plymouth I would thoroughly recommend visiting the distillery, taking the tour and enjoying the wonderful Refectory Bar and Restaurant – I’m hooked!