WineLine No. 27
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Feb. 10, 2003

A taste of gin

Dear Friends:

Sean Harrison set out seven small vials on the table. Five contained spices easily recognizable - juniper berries, coriander seed, dried lemon and orange peel and cardamom pods. The other two held gnarly looking specimens that conjured images of a Chinese apothecary. These, he informed me, were angelica root and orris root.

Harrison then reached into his bag of tricks and produced seven smaller vials which he arrayed alongside the first. These were distilled essences of the seven basic ingredients, or "botanicals" as he called them, of Plymouth Gin.

"The secret of good gin is 95 percent in the selection of the botanicals," Harrison said. "Some brands use four or five, others more." Plymouth procures its juniper berries from Italy and Macedonia, the coriander seeds from Russia and Bulgaria, citrus peel from Spain, the angelical root from Belgium, the orris root from Italy and the cardamom pods from Sri Lanka and Papua, New Guinea.

Mixing them and distilling them is more akin to making perfume than wine. When Harrison shops for his botanicals, he's not looking necessarily for that year's best crop, but one that is closest in flavor to last year's, and to every year before that.

"If I change one of the flavor elements," he said, "I've changed the gin."

Harrison is the master distiller, or as his title blandly identifies him, "operations director," at the Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, England. It is a storied building, having served as a monastery, debtors prison and town meeting hall where the Pilgrims convened before setting sail for the New World. And by law, it is the only place allowed to produce Plymouth Gin, giving the spirit a sort of appellation controllée, and making it relatively scarce. No licensing agreements for this label.

And its been virtually unknown in the United States for more than half a century. Plymouth, which was family owned until 1953, was forced to use rum spirits during World War II; the change of recipe and the disruptions in trade routes effectively dried up its export markets. Poor marketing did the rest.

Now, owned by private investors in cahoots with the Swedish owners of Absolut vodka, Plymouth is trying to reconquer the American market. The brand is trying to capitalize on the panache of its past adherents - Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Alfred Hitchcock and Ian Fleming, not to mention the British navy - to recapture whatever advantage its reputation might still hold.

Wait a minute - did I say Ian Fleming? The creator of James Bond, he of the vodka martini?

"Ian Fleming loved Plymouth Gin, but vodka was king in the late ‘40s and ‘50s when he was writing Bond, so he chose to make his character trendy," Harrison explained, more than a drop of resentment in his voice. (And by the way, martinis of any spirit should be stirred, not shaken. Shaking breaks up the ice and dilutes the drink. So there, James.)

The air of espionage was appropriate for our discussion, given those mysterious roots on the table and our venue. We were in the bar at Zola, the fashionable restaurant next to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Harrison and his colleagues, Nick Blacknell, managing director of Plymouth's London office, and Simon Ford, the "brand ambassador" (now there's a job title!) plied me with various gins and regaled me with anecdotes and stories, oblivious to the stares and curious glances from other bar patrons.

Those onlookers may have been attracted to the perfume emanating from our table as much as the odd demonstration. Plymouth is a wonderfully aromatic gin, bursting with spicy aromas that tickle the nose and dance across the palate in a joyous parade of flavor.

So I was surprised when Harrison recommended the gin be cut 1-to-1 with water when comparing Plymouth with other brands, in order to "release" the botanicals. Would that not dilute the drink and put it more on a par with the other, better-known brands? And, I asked, wouldn't Plymouth's strong flavors make it less suitable for mixing in cocktails?

"If it's neutral you're looking for, just use vodka," he sniffed, forgetting perhaps just for a moment, who was paying for his U.S. tour.

My Plymouth martini - stirred, extra dry and I was reasonably certain, undiluted - was a heady drink for a wine lover unaccustomed to such finesse and excitement in a liquor. (Plymouth tops out at 41 percent alcohol, which Harrison says gives the botanicals more room to shine than the 47 percent most gins attain.)

"The problem spirits have had is convincing people that there is more than the alcohol hit," Harrison said. "You should look for depth of flavors and complexity as well."

That sentiment rings true to any wine lover.

Dave McIntyre

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