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Spotlight Mini-Series Part Two: Sean Harrison & Plymouth Gin

Plymouth Gin, Sean Harrison, Spotlight series
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Vintage Plymouth Gin Bottles
15/01/2018
Written by Gin Foundry

We’re kicking off our Spotlight series with a jaunt down to the Devon coast to meet Sean Harrison, the Master Distiller behind Plymouth Gin – one of the oldest renditions of the spirit still around and active in the world. As custodian of a centuries old recipe, Harrison knows better than anyone what it is like to work with history in such a tangible manner. What does it mean to use such an iconic recipe? Does it help or hinder creativity to work in a distillery that has made the same gin for hundreds of years? And, finally, how does one drag such a legacy into the path of a new, enthused generation of drinkers?

London’s concrete and glass skyline blended quickly into motorway and then slowly into sand and sea as we made our way South West, setting off as early as possible to get as much of the day as we could on such hallowed ground. We started to gain a clearer picture of Harrison’s stewardship of the brand almost instantly. He’s a man who has seen the category flourish, he’s seen his own gins grow within that and he’s found a fine balance – one that allows new ideas to take shape whilst respecting the history and traditions of both the distillery and Gin in general.

Heritage, history and legacy are all buzzwords in the Gin world, but it’s a rare treat when a brand has real authenticity over them, especially in the UK, where over 75% of the distilleries operational today were created after 2008. The US displays similar numbers, while in Australian and South African markets, the amount of new distilleries is closer to 90%. To be a decade old is a big deal, so to be 225 years old is… well, almost incomprehensible.

Harrison is at the helm of a team that are at the very extreme of living with history. Everywhere you look at Plymouth Distillery – every door you open, every cupboard you peer into – you are met with a story, a moment and a sense of legacy. The Plymouth Gin Distillery (formerly the Black Friars Distillery) is the only gin distillery in the town of Plymouth (thus, the only creator of the geographically protected sub-category, Plymouth Gin), and is located on the site of a former Dominican Order monastery build in 1431. This monastery, in its heyday, was used as a stopover by the Pilgrim Fathers on their way to the new world. This alone is an extraordinary fact, but combine that with an understanding of the British Navy’s thirst for gin and the importance of the coastal city to those departing for foreign shores, and it suddenly seems surprising that there is just one distillery in this town. How many didn’t survive? We’d love to know.

Somewhere on its journey from monastery to distillery, the building played a small role as a debtor’s prison, and while booze business Fox & Williamson wasn’t established until 1793 (more on that in a minute), records suggest that distilling had probably been taking place on the site since 1690.

In the early 1800s, Fox & Williamson became Coates & Co, and for those of you seeking cold hard numbers, the earliest records showing the distillery to be active date back to 1815. A bottle from 1882, however, bears the words ‘est. 1793,’ so while there’s not much paper trail left connecting the time between Fox & Williamson becoming Coates & Co (a lot of evidence is thought to have been destroyed in the War), one can assume that the date holds some relevance.

The distillery and building is so historically important now that much of it is grade listed, which throws up plenty of its own difficulties. As a modern team trying to implement up to date technology, the Plymouth crew have had to be very inventive when it comes to instilling modernity around their own history. Need an extension? Nope. Want to bring in a new still? Sure, but you can’t touch the walls, ceilings and access routes that you need. Want to level the building to eliminate stairs? Well… you catch our drift.

History may be something that all brands crave, but the realities of living with it are as much a curse as they are a blessing. There’s a good reason only a handful of these legacy brands have remained in the same building as where they were first created. It is distillers like Harrison and his team who work tirelessly to keep this legacy alive, and it is because of them that we as Gin fans get a glimpse as to what life might have been like all those years ago. It’s important to celebrate this hang on to heritage, because if isn’t valued, it will all but disappear.

It is also because of Plymouth Gin that many of the objects and practices that you see in new distilleries exist (certainly, with context, meaning and resonance). Take one of the most ubiquitous items in craft distilling that that has almost no reason to exist today – the Spirit Safe. Attached around the spout of all stills, these glass walled contraptions prevented distillers to access to the liquid flowing from their still unless a customs officer unlocked it. This ensured HMRC would be payed the tax owed and allowed them to monitor the volume of liquid each distillery made. Today, these “safe’s” are all but redundant apart from being a visual embellishment. It’s seeing this dated tech in its original home that helps to deliver a true understanding of the wealth of historical context on offer at Plymouth. It also allows you to imagine what the human relationships might have been, and just how a distillery worked from day to day.

That’s not to say that the distillery hasn’t evolved over time, of course. This is immediately apparent when one takes in the branding and bottle. As Harrison himself said: all gins need to be relevant to today’s drinker, and this can be seen in the changing face of Plymouth Gin throughout the decades. Today’s drinker will soon be yesterday’s, and we’ve no doubt the brand will move on once more.

Branding is important, too. History and legacy isn’t an automatic plus point. Consumers either will engage with that narrative or they won’t, so a gin needs to have more going for it than its back story, no matter how rich. Shelf presence, taste, mixability, it’s all relevant. Especially with our Millennial attention spans – we struggle to see past 140 characters. In the wrong hands (or presented to the wrong eyes), all that heritage becomes nothing but baggage.

When we hear from Harrison, it becomes clear that even as the Master Distiller, the weight of history is a huge part of what makes Plymouth, as a brand as well as a place, special. In interviewing him to shine a spotlight on this aspect of the category, it’s become even more evident to us just how important (and long and vast) the history of Gin is. With attention spans shorter than ever and media distracted by the shiny, new and often gimmicky, it’s important to look at something that has truly endured. Plymouth demonstrates to others why it is key to safeguard history, and how important it is for those entering the fray to build something that can grow and evolve for generations to come.

Gin is in a better place now than it’s ever been and we’re all writing this mad chapter in its ever twisting tale. We’ve no doubt that in decades to come, this period will be looked at as a mythical era for the category, equivalent to the Roaring ‘20s or the turn of the 20th Century. The question that’s less easy to answer, however, is in what light will it be considered? Will we be laughed at or lauded?

We Gin fans have a role to play in preserving the category’s heritage, too. We can’t merely put history on a plinth and admire it from afar – we need to place a value on it by taking inspiration from ideas others have had in the past, by reading – hungrily – the stories of our spirits and by seeking out the real deal, making brands earn, rather than claim, a back story worthy of telling. It’s possible to live in and with history whilst writing your own and Sean Harrison and the Plymouth Gin team are clear cut evidence of this.