When your distillery is just 100 metres from the shoreline, it’s natural that the ocean will play a large part in your outlook on the world. For Plymouth Gin, the sea has been even more crucial than that, with botanicals arriving and cases departing from the ancient harbour for many years.
With sea levels rising, the business had already taken steps to become fully fossil fuel free and has now turned its attention to the protection of delicate seagrass – an amazing seafloor habitat that captures carbon 35 times faster than rainforests. Working with the Ocean Conservation Trust, Plymouth Gin is now assisting in the protection and regeneration of 20 hectares of seagrass, and your gin consumption can help with £1 donated from every bottle of Plymouth Gin sold in the UK.
We caught up with Master Distiller Sean Harrison to talk about the brand’s rich history and its vision for a more sustainable future.
The Navy is integral to both Plymouth Gin’s and your own history – how did you first get involved?
I wanted to join the Navy before I was 10. I had a couple of family members in the Royal Navy, who were my inspiration and after seeing Britannia Royal Navy College in Dartmouth, I decided I wanted to attend. From there, I started a 10-year journey that ended on 1 May 1985 when I was driven through the gates in a military bus wondering what I had let myself in for. In reality, it was a lot of hard work, fun and exhaustion.
I left the Royal Navy after five years and joined the Royal Naval Reserve. It was during this time I ended up in Plymouth, met my wife, Rachel, and became the Assistant Distillery Manager at Plymouth Gin in November 1994.
But the brand goes back further than that, what is its history?
Plymouth Gin dates to the 18th Century, and it is one of only four gins that survive from that period. It has been distilled in the same building for over 200 years and the Distillery is the oldest continually operating gin distillery in the country. It has been a central pillar in the rise of cocktail culture, and is the most listed gin in the Savoy Cocktail Book.
What sets Plymouth Gin apart from other gins?
Plymouth Gin is very versatile, that is its key strength. It only uses seven botanicals: juniper berries, coriander seed, orange peel, lemon peel, orris root, angelica root and cardamom pods. They are all so well balanced that one flavour does not overly dominate the others. It is a classical juniper forward gin but in a subtle way.
This means it is easy to work with when adding other flavours and making mixed drinks. Plymouth Gin is the heart and soul of a good cocktail allowing other flavours to come to the fore. It won’t dominate them or be dominated by them. This means you can take the cocktail in many different aroma and flavour directions and find one that suits your palate.
You made some changes to the recipe when you took over as Master Distiller – what were the reasons for that?
When I started in 1994, Plymouth Gin had been changed from grain to sugar-based ethanol and the strength had been dropped to 37.5%. In other words, it had been cheapened. When Plymouth Gin was sold into private hands in 1996, I immediately changed back to grain-based ethanol, which adds a depth of flavour that sugar cannot and put the abv back to 40%, which adds more flavour.
Then in 1998 when the packaging was changed, the abv went up again to 41.25%. We did this because I found this is where the best compromise between strength and flavour is for Plymouth Gin.
Can you tell us about some of your botanicals and where you source them from?
The seven botanicals are:
- Juniper berries from Italy or Macedonia;
- Coriander seed from Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania;
- Sweet orange peel from Spain;
- Lemon peel from Spain or Egypt;
- Orris root form Italy;
- Angelica root from Germany, Poland and the Netherlands;
- Cardamom pods from Guatemala.
Why is tradition so important to Plymouth Gin?
When you are a gin that is over 200 years old you naturally pick up traditions that are passed down. The only ‘do not touch’ tradition is the gin distilling process. To ensure we continue making the best version of Plymouth Gin, we do exactly what was passed down. We even use an old wooden stick for the fill level of the Still. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!
Innovation is also important to Plymouth Gin. Can you tell us about the plans to improve the sustainability of the distillery?
Innovation is about staying current and leaving the right traditions for the future. The next stage in this journey is making the Distillery fossil fuel free. To this end, we are replacing our production boiler with an electric one in the first half of next year and then removing our domestic gas boilers. The Distillery is already supplied by hydroelectricity and these actions will make the distillery fully fossil fuel free.
Looking further afield, you are also working with the Ocean Conservation Trust, what are you hoping to achieve?
Plymouth Gin has survived and thrived because of the ocean. The Distillery is 100 metres away from the harbour and traditionally all our botanicals came in, and the gin went out, by sea. The Ocean Conservation Trust has an educational approach to teaching about conservation and not lecturing. This engenders self-awareness about the plight of the ocean and the way we tend to take it for granted.
Their work tends to go unnoticed because they go about their business through this teaching method. However, this resonates with our approach with Plymouth Gin. We would rather teach people about Plymouth Gin. We hope to support the OCT in the rescue of sea grass beds and the educational aspect of their work. A simple but effective project we are supporting this year is to put marker buoys in Falmouth harbour to mark the sea grass beds. So rather than preach to sailors that they must not anchor, we are showing them where the sea grass is so they can make an informed decision. Plus, they are a Plymouth-based organisation, as are we.
Which are your favourite bars in the UK right now?
I will turn this one around. My best bar may not be yours. I would always advise you to try a few different ones and find the bartender that makes the drinks you like and then you have found your favourite bar.
Finally, I know you’re a fan of a gin cocktail at home as well, what’s likely to be in your glass this evening?
There are a few. I love a Martini, made with Lillet, so that is one. A Plymouth Gimlet and French 75 are difficult to beat. Of course, what people consider to be the stalwart gin drink, a Plymouth and tonic is just perfect for a warm evening.
To discover more, visit: plymouthgin.com
All imagery courtesy of Plymouth Gin.