I’m in Plymouth this weekend for the bank holiday visiting the bestie, and whilst she is out at work, I have the whole of Friday to myself; the perfect opportunity to explore my surroundings.
After securing tea and eggs for breakfast (obvs), I decide to venture out on foot into the city to see what it has to offer. It’s mid-morning and there’s an overcast chill in the air, with gloomy, grey skies throwing an unflattering light everywhere I look. I head through the University quarter, passing row after row of terraced houses, all for let, as this years students finish up for the summer; a new influx of tenants come September. I stroll uphill past the train station, then down again through an underpass, and from there it’s a straight-shoot into the city centre.
It’s still very quiet as I amble down past tired high street chain shops, which are interspersed with local little businesses, and a large proportion of charity stores. In the search for a decent coffee, my quest takes me past the City Magistrates Court, and bears me round past MOD territory to the Hoe and Barbican area. I drop down from my hilltop view, to the sea below, landing squarely in Sutton Harbour, Plymouth’s original sea port.
There’s a wonderful panorama, with a plethora of bobbing sail boats berthed shoulder to shoulder in the marina, and a jetty where a portly gentleman bellows promises of a tour boat departing imminently for the perusal of local attractions.
I wander the cobbled streets which remind me of Bournemouth or Brighton, and there are plenty of antique and jewellery stores, as well as a smattering of nautical themed gift and clothing boutiques. There’s a waft of vinegar and hops in the air from traditional pubs and restaurants, although there’s few customers taking them up on their wares, with this remaining a somewhat quirky ghost town.
I take a seat at a café with outdoor tables so I can watch the boats out of my peripheral vision, and whip out my book. It’s a little cool still, so I soon relocate inside, and lazily sit reading awhile, enjoying the fact that I have nowhere in particular to be today. Three coffees in, and the air outside had warmed some, with the sun just about peaking through the ether.
I pay my tab and leave, passing outdoor seating areas on the marina front that must most certainly see more action in high summer than the token three patrons currently making use of their hospitality.
I wander aimlessly, a little uninspired, feeling somewhat flat, as there’s really no one around, and not much in particular I fancy doing.
I loop back behind the marina and hook a right onto Southside Street, where I happen upon the Plymouth Gin Distillery. When in Rome and all, I make a split-second decision to take up the offer of its daily tour, and a mere ten minutes later I’m inside the belly of the beast.
There’s only four of us this session, so it’s a very intimate viewing, as our tour guide Pippa imparts the wisdom and history of the local brand.
We begin with a lesson in how the Gin production began in the 1700’s using the soft Dartmouth water, and was the beloved drink of choice for the Royal Navy Officers (not Rum then!) who bought it up by the 1000 barrel load.
It was initially overproofed to survive the ‘gunpowder test’, meaning that if it seeped into the powder during storage on the ships, the high alcohol content meant it would still explode despite the damp.
We follow its journey to exports and its feature in cocktails during the prohibition era, with Plymouth Gin specifically named in ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’ in 23 recipes.
We trace the decline of production during World War 2, when Plymouth not only suffered from bombings, but from a ration of the key ingredients required for Gin making.
Moving into this century, and the brand is taken over by Charles Rolls, the V&S group, then Pernod-Ricard, where it sees a resurgence in popularity and collects many an award for its taste.
Our timeline complete, we head on into the still room, where all at once a pleasant subtle scent of Gin hits my nose, making me smile.
Pippa continues to educate us, highlighting the various botanical ingredients that go into the Gin preparation, and explaining how the distilling process itself works. With the sour mash brought in already pre-formed, it is then the fed into a still which is STILL the very same kettle dating back to the era of Queen Victoria. Mixed with local water, this is then shot up into steam, before being cooled and dripped slowly back into its high-proof content liquid form. According to Pippa, this process is where the botanical oils are imbibed into the Gin, and through this whole procedure it is in fact only the middle portion of liquid which is used for the final product itself, with the waste alcohol recycled for industrial purposes.
Knowledge imparted, we move on to the tasting rooms where we are walked through the intricacies of the fruits and herbs used to flavour the Gin.
It’s a very hands on affair and we get to play around with the dried fruits and spices, smelling for ourselves juniper berries, Spanish lemons, angelica and the orris root, which feels familiar, I am told, as it is actually the base note used in all of all the Chanel perfumes.
Next we get to taste the Gin itself. Our sample had been mixed with plain water and we are advised to smell it, and I’m hit with a burst of lemons, surprised by the sweetness. Next we swill, and suddenly the heavy juniper erupts, bringing the mellow Russian coriander, less fiery than its Indian counterparts, to the forefront. It’s quite the transformation.
We also get the added bonus of sampling some of the Sloe Gin produced here too.
Instantly my nose picks up sweet cherries, but when I hold it in my mouth before swallowing, it’s the taste of prunes that lingers. Rich and dense like a fortified wine, it could pass as a tasty Port, and all that’s missing is some cheese.
This section brings to a close our official tour, but I’m extremely happy to learn my ticket also includes a long drink in the cocktail lounge upstairs. I’m pretty pleased given my last venture to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, although wonderfully informative, was distinctly lacking in actual alcohol consumption given it’s brewed in a dry county (Go figure!).
I head on up and am served a refreshing G&T. Given my more recent love affair with whisky (thanks country music!) I’ve almost forgotten my first paramour that was/is Gin, and I savour every last mouthful.
My bartender is particularly attentive, and as soon as my glass is empty, he offers me another, which I politely decline, seen as that one went down a little too easily, and it’s not even 3:30pm yet (although as my cowboy compadre Alan Jackson would say, ‘it’s 5 O’clock somewhere!’).
Bidding my fellow tourers adieu, I head back out into what is now a glorious sunny afternoon (NB: not sure this is the result of the actual weather, or merely the effects of the Gin). I’m happy though, as it’s been a rather splendid day in the end, and quite the tonic for a Friday afternoon lull. As I jaunt back to my friend’s abode, the skies have cleared, and I’m full of Gin-spiration, the fragrant taste of Plymouth’s finest still lingering upon my lips.