Ever since a post-Bob Bob Ricard need for booze struck after a pre-Christmas dinner last year led to me wandering into Graphic on Golden Square I’ve been meaning to go back. However, despite hearing about their bi-weekly Juniper Society gatherings earlier this year I’ve singularly failed to until this month, almost a year to the day since my previous visit. The Juniper Society is a regular night when the gin obsessed Graphic get in someone from the world of gin related produce to come and show-off their wares to an increasingly knowledgeable and growing group of attendees. It’s run through Facebook and has featured tonic water tastings, gin taste-offs and masterclasses from the likes of Brockmans, Bloom, Hendricks and, this time, Plymouth Gin. This was the biggest Juniper Society turnout yet, filling the bar with 50some random drinkers, and they divided the evening into two halves – a session on martini making and a masterclass on gin production.
I started out with the martini session, led by mixologist/Plymouth brand ambassador Max Warner and Seb Hamilton-Mudge, owner and bartender at Eight Bar in Falmouth. While waiting for things to start the Graphic barstaff were knocking out a couple of fruity martinis (pineapple and watermelon), which Max started off explaining – not everyone likes the boozy hit of a martini and the fruity drink (much as they’re not normally on my list of things) is a nice way of dulling that punch with some fruitiness. His standard recipe was 2 tablespoons of fruit muddled with 2 teaspoons of sugar and then shaken with 2 measures of gin over ice. Strained into a glass and served with a slice of fruit it’s pretty and a nicer intro to the world of cocktails (especially gin cocktails) than the old-fashioned strength of the martini. We then moved on to the more traditional style of martini, using no fruit, which Max assured us we were making with Plymouth gin not only because he works for them but also as it was chosen by Harry Johnson in his much updated and reprinted Bartenders Manual (available in scanned form from scribd), although on page 165 of the 1882 version that I just had a look at it asks for an old tom gin rather than a Plymouth style one…
Making a martini is mostly down to personal taste, something which is difficult to develop in the standard british bar culture of ordering drinks by category – a gin and tonic changes in flavour based on which gin and which tonic you use, but most people just order “a gin and tonic” and base their like or dislike on which ever combination they get. Gins all taste different, as do vermouths and garnishes, and the combination of ingredients and construction can vastly change the taste of the drink. The main factors that Max picked out were the balance of strong to weak (gin to vermouth and dilution from the ice), stirring and ice (to affect the rate of dilution and cooling – more ice cools faster, more stirring dilutes more), straining (changing the mouthfeel of the drink by limiting the size of ice particle that might make it into the glass – double straining removing everything, single straining with a julep spoon maybe allowing through a few crunchy fragments), garnishes (whether to change the flavour of the drink or to provide an accompaniment) and the overall ratio (balancing the construction, process and ingredients to produce the drink you want). Dilution and temperature are the two main factors, as their combination will govern how much of the flavour of the gin comes out – too cold or too dilute and you’ll taste nothing, too warm or too strong and the alcohol flavours will swamp the botanicals within the gin. It’s all a balancing act.
We went straight into a practical demonstration from this, with Seb showing us how to make his default martini, the drink he produces when asked for an unqualified martini to allow the drinker to specify how they would like it changed for the next one, while Max mixed up a batch to pass around the table. Firstly, he decided to use Lillet rather than a vermouth. Lillet is often thought of as a vermouth, and has in recent times regained popularity due to its use by Ian Fleming in James Bond’s martini in Casino Royale, but isn’t quite. Vermouth is white wine, infused with herbs and allowed to oxidise, that is then fortified with a neutral spirit. Lillet is a mixture of white wines, infused with herbs and then fortified with citrus liqueurs, bringing in a citrusy flavour to the mix – I still haven’t tasted it neat, but it’s on my ‘learn more about vermouths’ list, despite not quite falling into the category. The level of dryness in a martini refers to the amount of vermouth/Lillet added to the cocktail, ranging from none (the Winston Churchill ‘acknowledging the existence of France’ or waving a bottle over the top of the mixing glass approach) to quite a lot (generally not more than a ratio of 1:3 vermouth to spirit). For Seb’s cocktail he went for a medium approach, pouring a measure into a mixing glass of ice before swirling it round to coat both ice and glass, and then pouring out most of it. He then added 2 measures of Plymouth gin and slowly stirred about 20 times (he lost count, but reckoned he’d normally do 19 turns for 50ml and 22 for 2oz, a level of accuracy that is beyond me), stopping when the drink smelled right – the aroma can give all the information you need on dilution and temperature if you know what you are smelling for. He strained it into a chilled glass and garnished it with a lemon twist – squeezing a piece of lemon peel bursts the oil containing pores on the skin and if you aim it at your drink it will give a lightly citrusy tang which can take the edge off the alcohol as well as taste generally nice.
While we had a sip on the martinis Max had made we were divided into teams to make our own. One of Max’s instructions to us all was not to be concerned if we didn’t have all the ‘correct’ equipment, as you can make martinis with almost anything. My team was presented with a spaghetti jar, pasta spoon, knitting needle and espresso cup to make our drink. This time a bottle of Martini Dry vermouth was passed around and with espresso cup as our measure and some team work in coordinating the pouring and pasta spoon straining we put together a rather good (and rather large – filling most of a very big red wine glass) medium dry martini, which kept three of us going for the rest of the session.
We then moved down to the front of the bar where Sean Harrison, Plymouth master distiller, was waiting to tell us about the distillery and how he makes gin. Plymouth gin has been around for quite a while, opening in 1793 and still operating out of the original buildings. It was built by Thomas Coates, who saw the potential for the Napoleonic wars increasing demand for gin amongst the navy, and as such built his distillery near the docks in Plymouth. At the time this was a great idea, but as the town has grown over the years it’s increasingly become difficult to get delivery trucks into the old part of Plymouth. However, distilling still happens in the same buildings as it did in 1793, some of which are over 500 years old, making it the oldest distillery in the country. They have also been granted a geographical designation, meaning that drinks marked as Plymouth gin can only be made in Plymouth, but as Plymouth Gin (the company) are the only people who make Plymouth gin (the style of gin) this has yet to be more than a nice bit of marketing.
Location-wise Plymouth isn’t a bad choice – to the north is Dartmoor which is made up of peaty ground on top of granite, in a similar way to large amounts of Scotland, providing soft water filtered through the peat, meaning that less purification needs to be done before it is used in the distilling process – limestone is not something you particularly want in your water supply when heating up water, as anyone in a hard water area who has a kettle can attest. The use of the word ‘distilling’ to describe Plymouth’s production is slightly inaccurate: Simply put, gin is vodka that has various ‘botanicals’ introduced to it and then is redistilled. Plymouth, as with many gin producers, doesn’t make its own base alcohol (the vodka part) and thus doesn’t legally do any distilling – the redistilling of a high alcohol product is merely ‘rectification’, which sits in a different band of licensing. Plymouth’s base alcohol is made from wheat, as it has been since the distillery started. The reason behind this is one of pure accessibility – wheat is the most commonly grown grain in the area around Plymouth and was thus the simplest base grain to get hold of. The different base alcohols produced can be divided into 4 categories of ‘flavour’ (although they are chemically pretty much identical): neutral, bready, buttery and grainy. Sean buys batches of buttery alcohol from wherever he can find it to make Plymouth – his most recent batches came from France.
Plymouth is quite a traditional gin when it comes to flavouring, using just 7 botanicals:
- Juniper – the berry of the juniper tree/bush, as made famous by The Life of Brian, is a legal requirement for inclusion if you are to call your spirit gin: it must be the main flavouring component. However, juniper isn’t necessarily the main manifested flavour of gin – the other botanicals are the bits that vary between gins and make the distinctive flavours.
- Coriander seed – Plymouth use the smaller Russian coriander seeds rather than the larger Moroccan ones generally used for cooking, going for the former’s citrusy taste rather than the spicier flavour of the latter.
- Orange peel – to add sweet citrus.
- Lime peel – to add spicy citrus.
- Cardamon – the third most expensive spice in the world (at about £40/kg this year) and also one of the more concentrated flavours – coriander seeds contain about 2% essential oil, cardamon 7%. Due to the concentration (and maybe the cost) this is the smallest proportion in the botanicals mix but it still makes its presence known.
- Angelica root – from the low countries of Europe, this is quite a tannic root and adds that element to the mix.
- Oris root – the ground up root of the iris plant, currently quite expensive due to Chanel buying up most of it to make Chanel #5. It adds a base earthiness with some floral notes (hence its inclusion as a base scent in perfumes).
They buy up a year’s supply of botanicals at a time, matching the flavours with the previous years by distilling small batches of individual botanical spirits and comparing them to historical samples. The distinct difference between Plymouth style gin and others (such as London Dry or Old Tom) is its use of a higher proportion of root ingredients, making a more earthy and dry spirit.
Plymouth’s gin production process is quite simple and uses a pot still that’ll be familiar to anyone who knows about whisky distillation:
- Add base alcohol, at about 96%, to the still
- Dilute with water down to about 65%
- Add the botanicals (whole, apart from the ground up oris root)
- Water down the distillate to bottling strength
It takes about 1hr to come to the boil, they collect distillate for about 5 hours and then leave it for a further hour to run through the remaining ‘feints’, giving about a 90% middle cut that they keep. The exact proportions of ingredients used are kept secret, but the various batches of gin are blended together to give consistency, in case individual batches had more active botanicals than others. Plymouth’s approach to getting the flavourings into the gin is quite common – they add the botanicals just before they start cooking – but other distillers used different methods: Tanqueray and Gordons use a similar approach to Plymouth, Beefeater and Sipsmith steep their botanicals overnight before redistilling, and Bombay Sapphire hang the botanicals in a bag in the still to allow the vapours to be infused during distillation, rather than the alcohol in liquid form.
Before we moved on to tasting Plymouth’s gins, Sean tried a couple of experiments with us about taste. Firstly he handed out strips of paper for us to place on our tongues – if you’re a supertaster then the paper tastes bitter immediately, if not then it either tastes of nothing or gradually comes on with some bitterness. I’ve tried the test before and it seems that I’m not a supertaster, getting a little bit of a bitter flavour after looking at the people around me who are clawing at their tongues. Not being a supertaster doesn’t mean you can’t taste just that your intensity of flavour perception is much greater. This is both a good and bad thing, allowing you taste things that others may not but also allowing your palate to be more easily swamped. We were then handed out nose clips and a small vial of powder. With the nose clips on, blocking off our sense of smell, the powder just tasted sweet, but as soon as the clip was removed my tongue was flooded with spicy cinnamon – a demonstration of quite how much flavour is actually detected as smell.
The first gin we tasted was the regular Plymouth English Gin, bottled at 41.2%. On the nose it was well amalgamated, with citrus on top, juniper and coriander underneath and an earthiness staying with the alcohol behind all of that. That said, I’m not sure I would have been able to pick out the flavours without having been told what was in it – my gin nosing skills are far from honed. To taste there was the general taste of juniper, sweetened with some spiciness that lingered around the sides of the tongue, and ended with a more bitter juniper berry. I then watered it to about half of bottle strength (as recommended by Sean) and found some mintiness as well as some sour lime.
Next we tried Plymouth’s other regular gin – Plymouth Navy Strength, bottled at 57%. This is the same distillate as the regular gin, just bottled at a higher ABV. On the nose it was spikier due to the higher alcohol and the citrus was more noticeable. In the mouth there was more vaporisation of the alcohol, helping the citrus flavours get around more as well as adding a bit more spice. Watering it down made it the same as the regular gin, as expected.
Lastly we tried Plymouth Sloe Gin, initially thought to be a difficult product to sell due to the proliferation of homemade versions (Sean met The Queen at an event recently and she commented that Philip makes theirs…), but it seems to have gone rather well, needing 50 tonnes of sloes per year to keep up with demand – they bought their sloes from Poland this year as UK production isn’t enough to meet their needs. Rather than use the traditional method of pricking the sloes before putting them in the gin to start the infusion they instead freeze them, which breaks the skins and allows the process to happen – with approximately 50 million sloes used to make their stock, attacking each with a pin isn’t really an option. The sloes are added whole (including stone) to gin straight from the still (at about 82% alcohol) and left to steep for 2 months before sugar is added and they are left for a further 2 months. On the nose there are sticky cherries with a background of biscuits and it’s big and fruity to taste, with cherries and redcurrants balancing sweetness with an underlying tartness. It is very sweet but is also worryingly drinkable – very nice and maybe the best commercial sloe gin I’ve tried.
A great night at Graphic and a rather special introduction to the Juniper Society. Their next event is a ginger ale tasting on January 17th – keep an eye on the Facebook page for further details – I’ll definitely be there.
Plymouth English Gin
Plymouth gin, 41.7%. ~£15 at Master of Malt.
Plymouth Navy Strength
Plymouth gin, 57%. ~£25 at Master of Malt.
Plymouth Sloe Gin
Plymouth gin liqueur, 26%. ~£17 at Master of Malt.
Bottle pictures from Master of Malt.
Many thanks to Sarah Mitchell at Graphic for organising the Juniper Society; Max, Sean and Seb for running the evening; and to David Smith at Summer Fruit Cup for telling me about it and making sure I realised that it would be foolish not to attend. The Juniper Society events are free to attend and this time Plymouth gave everyone a rather nice goody bag (along with some cocktail making gear I also now have a small book about martinis that has recipes for bitters and vermouth in that I think I may have to try).