Get a taste of gin and history in Plymouth

From the steps of Plymouth, 150 passengers boarded the Mayflower on Sept. 16, 1620, and set sail for America. And, during the Second World War, the same city in the southwest corner of England was the target of endless bombings and devastation by the German enemy.

The Nazis had intended to obliterate the city along with a handful of others, but Plymouth stood fast, the community neither failing nor faltering, its people united in an effort to survive. To endure the relentless punishment, the residents would often take shelter in well-protected buildings where they could remain together during the attacks. One of these strongholds was an important and historical site in its own right: dating as far back as 1431, it had been a 16th-century Dominican friary, and later it housed the Pilgrim fathers the night before their famed journey aboard the Mayflower. Today, it is the Black Friars Distillery, home of Plymouth Gin, and the oldest working gin distillery in England.

It’s not surprising that the foundations of a gin distillery carried so much historical weight when you consider the lineage. Hand-crafted in 1793, Plymouth Gin has been an endurg symbol of Britain. Its long heritage runs parallel to that of the country it represents, traditional and genuine. It was beloved by the late Queen Mother, a favoured companion to Winston Churchill, even fondly adopted by the Royal Navy.

The city of Plymouth has for centuries been the port from which the Royal Navy sails, and so it seems natural that Plymouth Gin quickly became a favourite, accompanying the sailors on many of their journeys. In fact, a small part of this drink’s worldwide success could probably be directly attributed to its “military marketers,” who visited many foreign ports.

However, Plymouth Gin deserves its well-deserved reputation, since gin has been a traditional staple of social entertainment, enjoyed by all classes in England.

Originally, gin was a crude, rather harsh alcoholic variation. It remained that way until pioneers such as the Plymouth Coates family refined it, gave it distinct flavour and soul – and named it Plymouth Gin. They introduced their gin during a time when London distillers were quickly running out of reliable sources of clean water. The Coates family used wonderfully pure, crystal clear water from a natural source within neighbouring Dartmoor National Park. It’s this water that may be the key ingredient to what makes the gin distinctive. In fact, it is the only gin in the world with a geographical designation. It can only be distilled within the ancient walls of Plymouth and is recognized as one of only three official styles of gin – Dutch, London and Plymouth.

Although the unrivalled Dartmoor water comprises more than half the gin’s content, there’s also a combination of specially blended botanicals: juniper berries, coriander seed, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root, orris root and cardamom pods are all carefully united to give it a well-balanced taste. The recipe itself has not changed in more than 200 years. Plymouth Gin is the only gin from the 18th century still batch-distilled in the original distillery. Even the delicate process of distillation itself is a time-honoured tradition passed down from one head distiller to the next. 

I feel as though I’m literally passing through time as the train leaving Plymouth rolls along the countryside, and the sea laps gently against the shore. Plymouth is a city built upon the historical events that shaped it and a society resting comfortably on the familial laurels that ensured its survival. In my imagination, I have stood on the wharf watching the Pilgrims leave for the New World, joined the Royal Navy on their sea adventures and shared a gin and tonic with the Queen Mum.