It was William of Orange who introduced gin to England when he came to the throne in 1688. Overnight the nation turned into a country of gin drinkers as it grew in popularity. In 1793 the Blackfriars Distillery started making gin for the Royal Navy. In those days gin was served for officers and was made to “Navy Strength.” Gin was traditionally stored next to gunpowder on ships and its higher alcohol content meant that if it was spilled the gunpowder would still ignite. The Blackfriars Distillery in Plymouth is the oldest working distillery in England.
I enjoy a gin and tonic from time to time and was curious about the process used to produce it. When I saw tours were available at Plymouth Gin Distillery I couldn’t resist. Located in the heart of Plymouth’s Barbican the distillery is close to historic pubs and the famous Mayflower Steps.
The entrance itself is hundreds of years old and part of the building was a Marshalsea prison in the 17th century. It has also been a monastery. There is a really interesting display about the history of gin making from the famous gin palaces in the 18th century to prohibition and the modern day, particularly the connections to the Royal Navy. The tour, however, was well worth the visit and must be booked in advance. So many disappointed people were turned away as the tours were all full.
Once into the distillery the smell of gin was evident and overpowering but there was more. Scents of citrus wafted through the air. Plymouth Gin is distilled in the original Victorian copper still and uses 5000l of wheat alcohol at 96.4% proof and 2000l of Dartmoor water. Water on Dartmoor is really soft. To this are added a range of botanicals which includes juniper berries, lemon peel, angelica root, coriander seeds, orange peel, and orris root. The process takes 7 hours with alcohol being distilled first. The distillers are trained to recognise the scents of the botanicals as they are released during the distilling process as this alerts them to the various stages of readiness in production. lemon peel is the scent that is first released apparently- and followed by orange and juniper.
The tasting and smelling of the various botanicals was interesting. From squeezing juniper berries to taste their distinctive flavour to sniffing orris powder, there was a lot to learn. Sipping gin was another delight which is why this tour is for over 18 year olds only. Finally I headed to the bar upstairs and relaxed with a perfectly made gin and tonic, fascinated as to how one of my favourite tipples was made.