…or, to be historically correct “The Black Friars Plymouth Gin Distillery” however, we locals just call it Plymouth Gin. I was born in historical Plymouth at the end of WW2 and among our history lessons was, of course, the history of England and Plymouth in particular. (1)
Plymouth’s history goes back to very early times. In 1866 several caves were discovered in the Plymouth area, containing the bones of animals that no longer live on these Islands. along with the human remains were the bones of a lion, hyena, cave bear and rhinoceros, which show man lived in this district as far back as the early stone age. Saxons settled in the area and by 926 AD ruled the whole of Devon.
Plymouth was attacked, raided and ruled, by others many more times…but that is another story, this story is about the Plymouth Gin Distillery, the oldest working gin distillery in England.
In the 13th century, friars arrived in Plymouth. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. There were also Carmelites in Plymouth, known as White Friars and Franciscans or Grey Friars. During the middle ages, because the Dominicans wore a black ‘cappa’ or cloak over their white habits they became known as the ‘Black Friars’
The Plymouth Gin distillery building dates back to the early 1400s and was formally a monastery inhabited by the Black Friars. The most intact part of the distillery is the Refectory Room a medieval hall with a hull-shaped timber roof built in 1431 and is one of the oldest buildings in Plymouth.
In 1536 the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, the former home of the Black Friars was put to a variety of other uses including the first non-conformist meeting place, a debtors’ prison, a meeting hall and a centre for Huguenot refugees who fled France and came to Plymouth.
In 1620 It has been suggested that the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night in England in the distillery and they made the short walk down to the harbour to set sail to America on the Mayflower, where they founded a new Plymouth.
The original distilling business was owned by Fox and Williamson and in 1793 when a certain Mr Coates joined the establishment, Plymouth Gin started being distilled and soon the business became known as Coates & Co,. until March of 2008, when the French Pernod Ricard took over the company.
Some of the many fascinating botanicals that make up the unique taste of Plymouth Gin are Juniper berries, Coriander seeds, orange and lemon peels, angelica root, green cardamom, and orris root. Its gin is also ‘Appellation Controlee’ meaning it can not be made anywhere, except Plymouth, Devon, England.
One of the oldest continuous buyers of Plymouth Gin is the Royal Navy. Almost all Navy Gin is linked to Plymouth thus Plymouth and the Royal Navy have a long history. The Royal Navy’s ‘rum ration’ or ‘tot’ was usually rum for the ratings but the officers drank Gin.
This was a huge business for British distillers. By 1850 the Royal Navy was said to be buying over 1,000 barrels of Plymouth Gin a year, and during the Napoleonic Wars, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson ordered barrels of Plymouth Gin for his officers. However, on the 31 st July 1970, that tradition ended. Modern Naval ships carry sophisticated weaponry where a push of the wrong button or an unsteady hand could result in WW3, so it was decided to end the daily Rum ‘tot’ that the ratings had been drinking for over 300 years!
On that day, sailors, drinking their last free ration of rum, wore black arm bands, drank their tot and threw the glasses into the sea. I have no idea what the officers did with their Gin! (2)
The Mayflower ship forms Plymouth Gin’s trademark label today. Black Friars is indisputably the oldest working gin distillery with records of a ‘mault-house’ on the premises going back to 1697. Today, Plymouth Gin is known worldwide. Just the other day, to my surprise, I heard VPR – Vermont Public Broadcasting Service – advertise Plymouth Gin on its station.
At the moment, no doubt due to the Covid delays, it is hard to find Plymouth Gin in Montréal, as the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec or Quebec Liquor Corporation) where I usually buy it, is sold out!
Today, Black Friars offers a range of tours, ranging in price from a 40-minute, £7 inspection through to an in-depth, 2.5-hour “Master Distiller’s” outing (£40) where visitors get to create (and take away) their own bespoke gin. The distillery complex also has its own cocktail bar and brasserie. (3)
The YouTube link below is a tour with the Master Distiller.