This feature first appeared in Coast magazine in 2015

Right in the historic heart of Plymouth, rows of sailing boats sit in Sutton Harbour. Step back from here into Southside Street and the salty air gives way to a sweet, citrusy smell. Halfway up this winding lane, the source of this scent becomes clear: giant blue doors emblazoned with a white ship mark the threshold of Plymouth Gin, England’s oldest working distillery.

Gin has seen a revival in recent years with micro-distilleries and specialist gin bars popping up across the UK. But if you want to understand gin, you need to go to Plymouth. The history of the spirit and this city are so intimately entwined it’s as if they’ve been left to steep together, like the botanicals and alcohol that make up gin. ‘Welcome to Plymouth, twinned with tonic,’ declares a sign in the distillery. Inside bottles marked ‘Est. 1793’, boast of a long heritage.

In a cavernous chamber at the back of the Grade II-listed building, a copper still dating back to 1855 is used to boil plant extracts in ethanol, so that their essential oils attach to the alcohol and form gin. ‘Every drop of Plymouth Gin ever made was produced in that room – that’s pretty cool,’ grins Sean Harrison, master distiller here since 1996. ‘Our process and selection of ingredients has got better and more consistent over the centuries as we’ve become more knowledgeable, but if Plymouth Gin’s first distiller walked in here today he’d still recognise what we are doing.’

DUTCH COURAGE

Nowadays we think of gin as a quintessentially British drink but it came to these shores from overseas. The Dutch are widely credited with developing a juniper-based alcohol they called Jenever hundreds of years ago. When English soldiers fought alongside the Dutch in the Thirty Years War (1618-48), they joined their counterparts in fortifying themselves with this drink – hence the term ‘dutch courage’. ‘We “degraded” the word Jenever to gin,’ explains Sean. However, oak-aged and made from a malt wine blend, this liquor tasted more like whisky than the gin we recognise today.

After the Dutch William of Orange landed on the Devon coast to become king of Britain in 1688, he triggered a rather sorry revolution in drinking. Until then, there were strict restrictions on grain distillation. In the free-for-all that followed the liberalising of distilling laws under William, a pint of gin became cheaper than a pint of beer. During the first half of the 1700s, what had been a rarefied spirit imported by the elite became the downfall of the masses. In this period known as the ‘gin craze’ – most memorably captured in William Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, in which a drunken mother lets her baby fall to its death – the homemade alcohol being passed off as gin often didn’t contain any juniper at all and was sometimes laced with poisonous methanol and sulphuric acid. ‘Not gin’s finest hour,’ says Sean.

NAVY STRENGTH

Gin as we know it today really originated in the late 18th century, after various laws were brought in to control alcohol production and the only people who could make money from gin were those entrepreneurs who were determined to make a premium product. As the quality of gin ascended, so too did its social standing. It was against this backdrop that Plymouth Gin emerged in 1793 – a year when Britain entered war with France and Plymouth’s harbours swelled with a growing royal Naval Fleet. A short time later, admiral Lord Nelson would order daily rations of Plymouth Gin for his naval officers, while ordinary sailors had to make do with barrels of rum.

‘The history of our gin is strongly tied to the Navy,’ explains Sean, who himself served in the royal Navy for six years. At 100 proof (57 per cent ABV), Plymouth Navy strength Gin had so little water in it that gunpowder would still ignite if the gin spilled on it. By 1850, Plymouth was supplying Her Majesty’s fleet with more than 1,000 barrels of Navy Strength gin a year. For the next century, no ship left port without it.

Plymouth Gin’s coastal location didn’t just ensure steady demand from the Navy, it also meant ready access to a supply of exotic ingredients coming into the docks from all over the world: juniper berries from northern Italy, coriander from the Mediterranean, angelica from central Europe, and green cardamom from India – some of the ingredients that continue to give Plymouth Gin its flavour profile to this day.

Many of the delicious concoctions found in bars today were also first invented at sea. The Gimlet – a cocktail consisting of gin and lime – was originally created by a naval doctor to ward off scurvy. Pink Gin – made with angostura bitters – started as a treatment for sea sickness, while the classic Gin & Tonic developed as a way to make anti-malarial quinine go down more easily for those sailing into the tropics.

These mixes made their way back to London’s gentlemen’s clubs and, by the 1920s – as stuffy Edwardian dinners and rigid corsets gave way to the age of the flappers – gin fuelled a whirl of cocktail and dance parties. At this time Harry Craddock, a legendary bartender who left Prohibition America for London, created The Savoy Cocktail Book. Still considered a mixologist’s bible, it specifies Plymouth Gin by name in no fewer than 26 cocktails. The inter-war period also saw the development of a new naval drinking tradition: the ‘gin pennant’, a triangular green flag with a white cocktail or wine glass, which was hoisted on the halyard to invite officers from neighbouring ships to come aboard for drinks.

THE ‘GINNAISSANCE’

The Second World War put an end to the gin party. Plymouth suffered badly in the Blitz, with the distillery itself being struck in 1941 – the admiralty sent a message to all ships to let them know that despite the hit, it was thankfully still in working order. But after the war, gin lost its glamorous image. Teenagers in the 1960s were more likely to plump for sexy new vodka White Russians than G&Ts, which they associated with their parents. Gin became a hangover of another age.

Yet in the last decade or so, there has been something of a ‘Ginnaissance’. A new wave of bartenders and bar-goers have a renewed appreciation for gin’s complexities and refreshing botanicals. As showy cocktails have fallen from favour, people have started to look at the classics again. ‘If you focus on original cocktails, you’ll bump into gin within seconds,’ says Sean.

Plymouth has seen regeneration in the last 10 years. Waterfront areas such as the Royal William Yard have been revitalised with vibrant new shops, restaurants and art galleries. And the city’s most famous export has also seen a new lease of life. Plymouth Gin may not be the behemoth it was – it was once the largest brand of gin, exporting 1,000 cases a week to New York alone by the 1900s – but increasing numbers of people are rediscovering its rich flavour and unique heritage.

First appeared in Coast in 2015.