16 January 2012

Birthday gin

What better to celebrate a birthday with than some education. Pete had his birthday, and chose to mark that event by imbibing some knowledge on Plymouth Gin. So on a crisp Saturday just after noon we gathered at the distillery for a tour.

The distillery. Source: Creative Commmons

We first got a historic overview of the beverage and the building it is produced in. The building started as a Dominican monastery in 1431; the distillery is still known as the Black Friars distillery. About a century later, Henry VIII made sure the building, as many of its kind, became available for other use; some rich merchant seems to have bought it, and converted it into a grand house. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers might have spent their last night in the building before sailing across the Atlantic. In 1793 it became the Gin Distillery, and it still is up to this day.

Gin arrived in England in the 17th century together with William of Orange; he evidently left a lasting legacy. The actual Plymouth Gin was boosted once again by royal influence; somewhere in the 19th century the Royal Navy decided to use the beverage as its default officer’s drink on board of war ships. And recently, the whole brand was bought by the Swedish state alcohol monopolist V&S, which then in turn was bought by Pernod Ricard. This allows the distillery to use the global distribution network of this quite sizeable company, but Plymouth Gin is a product with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), so it can’t be produced outside the (very limited) demarcations of the ancient town, and within these limits it’s hard to get planning permission for an annex meant for fondling large amounts of flammable liquid. Plymouth Gin is therefore likely to forever stay a small brand.

Inside the distillery itself one is not allowed to take pictures, but from the hallway an attempt can be made

After the history we got a view of the process. We were lead into the room where the actual distilling takes place; the process has stayed essentially unaltered over the centuries. The kettle used has been in place since 1855, if I remember correctly. And thanks to the soft Dartmoor water there has been no build-up of lime scale in it, not even over all that time. And it seems the first and last gin of every batch produced (they distill from 6.00 to ~14.30) is of inferior quality; the line between inferior and superior is drawn based on the nose of the distiller alone. How nicely old-fashioned! The inferior product is sold on to the industry. The waste (all that gives the gin its flavour: juniper berries, lemon and orange peel, cardamom, coriander seeds, and orris root, though the latter is more a fixative than a flavouring) is sold on as biofuel. The superior gin ends up being bottled. And enjoyed by the likes of me.

We got to fondle all ingredients, and got a taste of (diluted) gin; I was most happy with that! Just add water; everything else is pollution. But I seem to be the only one; no Brit will drink his gin without at least tonic. So as far as I was concerned we had done the gin tasting there and then. We even got a tiny, tiny glass of Sloe Gin.

After that cascade of knowledge (and straight gin) were we sent into the distillery pub for our free beverage. Another one? Just leave me in the tasting room with all these unappreciated glasses of straight gin… but it doesn’t work that way. Pete, Sabrina and Hugh went for the standard G&T, while I just had my complimentary gin straight. Why not drink buckets of gin before 2PM? It’s Pete’s birthday, after all!

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