Last weekend, seeking to avoid what could easily have felt like five wet Sundays in a row in Penzance, we spent a couple of days in Plymouth, and made like tourists. Activity one: the Plymouth Gin distillery tour, where we learned a lot about beer.
We don’t drink a lot of gin, but my Mum’s partial, and I’ve been buying her bottles of ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’ gin as presents for a couple of years. Plymouth Gin rates itself as the most artisanal of the big brands, if that makes sense. But… the base alcohol is produced in Scotland; the gin is bottled in Essex; and most of the process is automated. “Here’s where our distiller loads the botanicals himself, through this hatch,” said the tour guide. “That’s what makes our gin handcrafted.” At this point, her voice was drowned out by the sounding of the bullshit alarm.
Lesson one, then: unless you’re talking objects, ‘handcraftedness’ really is a poor measure of quality.
The tasting stage of the tour was the real eye-opener, though. First, we were talked through the various herbs and spices (‘botanicals’) in the recipe and couldn’t help but think of Belgian Witbier when talk turned to coriander, cardamom, lemon and orange peel. It was when things got tactile that a bulb really went on: crushing the small-seeded Russian coriander used in Plymouth Gin, we realised it is nothing at all like the earthy, woody Indian stuff we use at home. It smells more like lemons or lemon verbena, and extremely pungent.
Lesson two: coriander is a more complex variable than we’d appreciated, and we need to experiment more.
We’d never even heard of Orris Root which the guide tells us is used mostly for its ability to help keep essential oils in suspension in the gin.
Lesson three: there are more herbs and spices to play with in brewing than we’d previously been aware, some of which might be very useful.
After all that, we enjoyed our complimentary gin and tonic at the end of the tour, but, being beery people at heart, found ourselves itching to brew a gin-inspired Wit sooner rather than later.
The tour costs £7 per person and takes about 30 minutes. The cocktail bar upstairs also happens to have a small selection of bottled beers including Brewdog Punk IPA and Anchor Steam.