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Sean Harrison – Plymouth Gin

Plymouth Gin Sean Harrison interview
Seah Harrison Plymouth Gin interview
Plymouth Gin Botanicals
Sean Harrison Plymouth Gin
Plymouth Gin Sean Harrison Interview
Sean Harrison holding a nosing glass of Plymouth gin
Written by Gin Foundry

Plymouth Gin, at over 220 years old, is the oldest British distillery operating in its original location. We caught up with Master Distiller Sean Harrison to find out what the brand is doing to keep progressing, while staying true to its roots.

Let’s talk big picture – What’s been the big challenge for Plymouth Gin in 2016 and what’s the big objective for 2017?

Relevance to both the gin trade and consumers is always a challenge. The gin world has become quite diverse over the last 20 years as new brands try to find their place. As each new gin has come along they have developed their own unique selling point, which for gin is generally around a different
botanical mix, the craft involved or the story behind the brand.

These new gins are great for the buoyancy of the category but can also change people’s perception of what gin is. For a historic gin like Plymouth Gin, it is great to have a strong history of cocktail-making to demonstrate our continued
relevance today.

If I ever need to recalibrate what I think gin is I taste gins from pre-1900. This gives me a baseline to see whether the new gins are moving the concept of gin along or indeed too far. There is a reason why Plymouth Gin has been around for more than 200 years and continues to be revered among gin connoisseurs and bartenders the  world over.

Working with a brand with the heritage Plymouth Gin has, it must be a tricky balancing act to continuously remain relevant and contemporary without endangering the longer term legacy. The move to the new bottle captured that juxtaposition well. Eighteen months on, how’s the global reception been for it?

The new bottle has been very well received. It says much more about Plymouth Gin than the bottle it replaced. At the distillery, we have a wall of bottles used for Plymouth Gin – the oldest bottle is over 100 years old and the new bottle fits the overall trend of those designs, so we have come full circle. History can be a bind but it can also inspire, which is the case with the new bottle.

Both the bottle and the gin itself are iconic and often seen in classic cocktail books. You’ve paid homage to this in the Refectory Bar with the new menu that launched over the summer – what’s your favourite drink on it?

This is impossible to answer because, like most people, I am a mood drinker. Generally speaking, my hand tends to support a martini very well, but equally gimlets and even the lost and lamented pink gin are great.

We are incredibly proud of the Refectory Bar as is it inspired by Plymouth Gin’s rich cocktail history – it never ceases to amaze me that when you open any cocktail book from 100 years ago, Plymouth Gin is featured in it and proudly so! Being able to take this history and twist it to fit modern drinking habits is fun and it is why I enjoy speaking to bartenders. Equally, if you were to put the Margarite recipe (from Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them) from 1904 on any drinks menu today people would see it as a modern Dry Martini.”

One of the really interesting aspects of Plymouth Gin as a gin is the rich history. You have a team that has been looking into the very early years. What’s it like trying to get hold of the information given it’s almost all but disappeared in the depths of time?

Being a very old gin is both a curse and a blessing; the curse is that people were very lax at keeping records so finding the early information is problematic, though fascinating, and a true blessing when we do uncover a gem!

In your opinion, what’s the most fascinating part of history to have emerged from researching the origins of the distillery and those early years?

For me it is that Coates was not the distiller (as I was led to believe) but most probably the money man. The two people he funded, Fox and Williams, had known each other for many years prior to knowing Coates and were already distillers, working in a distillery that goes back to 1740.

For many years we thought we were the only distillery in Plymouth but that appears not to be the case. What this does raise is that whilst the liquid that is Plymouth Gin today may not go back to 1740, our distilling heritage might – which I think is quite exciting.

Dartmoor and the soft water play a huge role in the way Plymouth Gin tastes, do you think they knew the significance of having high quality, soft water back in the late 1700’s or was that just luck?

It has to be blind luck! As science developed throughout the 19th Century, discovery after discovery occurred. A good example is cholera – we only worked out it was a water borne disease in 1866 once the sewage system was introduced. Plymouth was the first place in the UK to have a municipal water supply, so not only did Plymouth Gin benefit, but so did the City.

As a distiller, you’ve amassed a Plymouth Gin Distillery Refectory huge wealth of experience. What  do wish you knew when you started your distilling career that you know today about making gin?

How science and art have to combine! It does not matter what your background is, you need to start somewhere and whilst you may have the theoretical knowledge it is not until you start working with a still that you learn the art.

There is no substitute for watching a piece of copper hiss and fizz to realise how little you know. For some reason there always seems to be a massive gap between theory and practice, and mastering the marriage of these to perfection is what makes a great master distiller.

Plymouth Gin has had an open door policy and a visitor centre for a long time now – do you still enjoy showing people around and making mini batches of gin with them on the micro stills?

One of my favourite aspects of my role is speaking to people who have an interest in gin and Plymouth Gin. The micro stills we use in our ‘distil your own’ sessions are great because they allow people to see it is not as easy as they thought to make gin, and as the stills are glass you get to see the actual distilling process. It is also funny to see how competitive friends get when making their gin and intriguing to note which botanicals seem to be popular.

You’ve always said that you would much rather do something different with a base gin rather than make a new sister expression. Arguably, the Plymouth Summer Cup is the distillery’s best-kept secret… Do you have any plans for it in 2017?

There must be a thousand gins on the market today, so distilling another Plymouth Gin would not necessarily move the category on. I would much rather play with different flavours and craft a Fruit Cup – I have always loved Fruit Cups and when asked about line extensions I always champion them. Fruit Cups can also be used for so many more things than just mixing with a carbonated liquid, such as acting as a cocktail modifier.

Over the last 30 years Fruit Cups have been cheapened and people now think of Fruit Cups as inferior. With well-made Fruit Cups the reverse is actually true so changing people’s perception is one huge challenge and one we might want to embark on in the future.

Plymouth Gin Sean Harrison interview