The world of spirits is strange and convoluted but as I was studying for my WSET certification, one specific spirit stood out as uniquely odd: Plymouth Gin. Sometimes referred to as its own category, with its own regional protection, and tons of history, you would expect this to be a full-fledged line of spirits from many distilleries. But no — it’s just this one bottle. From this one distillery. Which made it immediately worth a look.
Founded by Fox & Williamson in 1793, the Black Friar’s Distillery began producing gin from their facility located in the ancient battlements of the city of Plymouth in England. Reportedly, the building was originally constructed in 1431 as a monastery, which is how the distillery got its name. The company name changed over the years to Coates & Co, which is still listed as the manufacturer on the bottle.
Starting around 1793, the British Royal Navy started supplying their ships with bottles of gin — specifically Plymouth Gin. Supposedly, for over 200 years, no British warship left port without a bottle on board. The brand was so synonymous with British naval tradition that newly commissioned officers would commonly receive a “Plymouth Gin Commissioning kit” containing a bottle of the gin and appropriate glassware.
Because of that strong historical significance, Plymouth Gin enjoyed Protected Designation of Origin status within the European Union. The term “Plymouth Gin” is recognized as a distinct class of gin (despite being pretty much a standard gin in all other regards), but can only be made within the area of Plymouth in England. Not even the term “London Dry Gin” carried that protection — that is, until the United Kingdom extracted itself from the European Union.
The company remained in private hands until 1996, and was eventually purchased by the French spirits company Pernod Ricard.
- Learn More: What Is Gin?
While this might technically be considered a distinct category of spirit (i.e., “Plymouth Gin”), in reality, the way this is made doesn’t actually differ from the standard pattern. The only reason why this is considered to be a unique style of gin is purely historical, not for any perceptible stylistic or production choices that differentiate it significantly from a London Dry.
As is typical for a gin, this starts as a neutral spirit that is distilled elsewhere (from an undisclosed source) and trucked into the main facility. Once there the flavoring components are added — specifically juniper, coriander seeds, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root, green cardamom, and orris root — and then the mixture is re-distilled to produce a clear spirit that still has the flavors and aromas of the added ingredients.
This is a neat bottle, in that it is a bit of a departure from the norm. The body has an oval cross section, with a flat base that tapers outwards to the shoulder and then rounds to a short stubby neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
On the front of the bottle is a round label that does a good job being distinctive, attractive, and unobtrusive all at the same time. It is just large enough to make the brand name and the sailing ship on the front (the Mayflower, which set sail from Plymouth, England) to be visible and distinct even across a bar, but without obscuring the clarity of the spirit inside.
Barely noticeable on the back of the bottle is the image of a monk, an homage to the monastery in which the gin is produced. It’s a historical feature that’s been on the bottle for ages, and as the folks at Plymouth will tell you it’s a helpful reminder as well — apparently when the monk’s feet are dry it’s time to order another bottle.
This is a great example of a clean design that still pays homage to its historical roots.
There’s minimal difference in the aroma of this gin versus other London Dry gins we’ve tried. You’ve got the juniper and the lemon citrus — the gold standard indicators for a gin — but the only difference I see is that the proportions are a bit different. London Dry gins tend to be very juniper-forward, but here what we have is a gin where the lemon citrus and other components are making more of a showing in the aroma. It is a bit closer to what we would call a “modern” or “American” gin.
That aroma translates directly into the flavor, as well. As you’d expect, there is some juniper, but there are also a whole bunch of other earthy root flavors in there that are really taking control. I’m getting some star anise, a bit of vanilla, some coriander and cardamom, a touch of orange peel — and only after all of those components have had their say, the juniper finally makes an appearance.
Dropping a couple cubes of ice in here actually seems to bring out the juniper in the aroma. Usually, with some ice you’ll see the more prominent components toned down, but that’s usually at the cost of the lighter aromatics. Here, it seems like the juniper is just too resilient a component to get knocked out.
That translates into the flavor as well. Before, the earthy components were loud and well saturated to the point of drowning out the juniper, but here the juniper is staging a significant comeback. It tastes very much like you are walking through a grove of Christmas trees at this point, with that pine flavor and lemon aspect large and in charge. There’s still enough of the cardamom, orange peel, and other elements to make for a well balanced experience, but the juniper is definitely running the show at this point.
This is about on par for what I’d expect from a Negroni. It’s a hard cocktail to get right, with a lot of loud components all fighting for dominance, and the right play for a good gin is to just provide some supporting herbal and botanical flavors that help to tone down the Campari and provide some good aromas.
That’s exactly what I’m getting here. The gin isn’t necessarily trying to directly compete with the other components, but instead is providing some good context and other fringe flavors that make it interesting and complex. That leads to a relatively drinkable cocktail — even though I legitimately hate Negronis.
Fizz (Gin & Tonic)
While this might be a surprisingly modern take on a gin, it still makes for a really good and well-balanced traditional gin & tonic.
What I really like here is that the underlying flavors are strong and well saturated enough to come through the ice and the tonic water, but they still achieve a good balance. The juniper brightness contrasted with the earthy spices and roots, all supported by this carbonated texture that I find really enjoyable.
The history of this gin is fantastic, whether you are looking at it purely from the length of time it has been on the market or if you are looking more at the strong naval tradition. But moving beyond that and looking purely at the product, there’s definitely something interesting that it brings to the table.
This is something that seems to straddle the line between a traditional English gin, with the strong juniper flavors, and a more modern American gin that prefers the earthy root components. Both are there in different formats, and the interaction between those two camps makes this something that is enjoyable and interesting to try in different ways.
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 41.2% ABV
Price: $28.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Interesting, not only historically but also for the flavor profile. A great gin to keep on hand.