Tippling Point | The legendary journey of Plymouth Gin from England's oldest distillery

Plymouth Gin became the only gin in the world to have a Protected Designation of Origin status. Only if it is made in the town of Plymouth can one call a gin Plymouth.

October 10, 2020 / 01:18 PM IST

Open any cocktail book from a century ago - including the legendary Savoy cocktail book -  you'd repeatedly come across a name - Plymouth Gin.

The legendary journey of England's oldest existing distillery - The Black Friars - from where Plymouth gin was first produced in 1793 started many centuries ago.

In the medieval period, monks in Europe were experimenting with juniper to make spirits that could keep the plague at bay. Gin was born. In 1536, the Black Friar's distillery was converted to a debtor's prison when Henry VIII, enraged at the Pope's decision to annul his marriage, dissolved England's monasteries and stripped their assets. All was thought to be lost in the dark annals.

But the Black Friars distillery reappeared in the pages of history once again in 1620 when some of the Pilgrim Fathers - the first settlers on New England - who decided to leave England (because of religious persecution) met in the building for one last time at home. Mayflower was waiting for them at the dock nearby. Later, the distillery also offered a haven for Huguenots, French Protestants, fleeing persecution in France.

In 1793 Coates & Co started making Plymouth Gin from the Black Friar's distillery. Slowly it began to hog attention from all the right quarters.


Maybe because of easy access from the port, Plymouth Gin was a favourite for the Royal Navy right from the early days. Large quantities were purchased for its officers. There were other uses as well.

The cannons used in warships kept on losing their firepower when leaks from the cellar seeped into gunpowder. Poor quality drink, they surmised. Plymouth Gin came up with a solution. They made a new gin with a whopping 57 percent alcohol strength. All the officers had to do was to pour the spirit onto the gunpowder to see it would catch fire. They smiled at the conflagration. Since then the Royal Navy allowed only that gin on board that could make fire with gunpowder.

Navy Strength Gin was born.

manu remakant logo the-tippling-point-logo1-RIn the middle of the 19th century, Plymouth was supplying over 1000 barrels of the 57 percent Navy Strength gin to the seamen. Such a warm relation with the Royal Navy could only lift the image of a spirit. Plymouth soon became one of the most sought-after gins in other countries as well.

In the Second World War, when German blitzkrieg made significant damage to the offices and archives of the distillery, many believed that the bombing sealed the doom of Hitler. Because the men of the British Royal Navy were so enraged at the very thought that their favourite Plymouth was raced to the ground by the enemy.

For almost two centuries Plymouth had been making gin from the same recipe. When other distillers from London tried to copy its success by making Plymouth gins, the company moved court. It soon became the only gin in the world to have a Protected Designation of Origin status. Only if it is made in the town of Plymouth can one call the gin Plymouth.

Unlike the dry London dry gins, Plymouth Gin has more root ingredients rendering an earthy flavour to the drink. Juniper, coriander, cardamom, sweet orange, orris, angelica and hints of other botanicals give it a full-bodied aspect. The clean and fresh flavour that you can never fail to notice refers to the pure water from Dartmoor.

In the long voyages across the oceans, seamen sometimes used Angostura bitters as a precaution against seasickness. Such experiments later led to the creation of the legendary Plymouth Pink Gin (usually taken with tonic water).

Today, Plymouth Gin is owned by the French company Pernod Ricard.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog —- A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalis. The views expressed here are personal.)
Manu Remakant
first published: Oct 10, 2020 12:22 pm

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