Gin Fever: Part IV - Heritage

Since we've tackled the history of gin in England, why not learn more about two of its oldest and most iconic brands? Often times people assume that smaller distilleries are making higher-quality, more-artisinal, "hand-crafted" gins than the big boys, but as I explained in the previous posts: gin is just redistilled grain neutral spirit with botanicals. There's nothing particularly romantic about taking bulk, non-hand-crafted, non-small batch, non-artisinal, agricultural GNS and simply adding flavor to it. Yet people think that Plymouth and Beefeater are industrial giants? To shed some more light on this issue, I tracked down Beefeater/Plymouth brand ambassador Trevor Easter (who used to manage Heaven's Dog here in San Francisco) to discuss some of the specifics of each brand:

David D: What is your role with Pernod-Ricard?

Trevor: I am the West Coast brand ambassador for Plymouth and Beefeater. I've got from Seattle to San Diego and a bit of Texas as well.

David D: So when you talk to people about gin, how do you distinguish Beefeater and Plymouth from other brands on the market?

Trevor: One of the things that we do uniquely -- which is easy when you have two historic gins -- is to educate people on the history of gin in general, not just ours, and hope that they find their own way. Usually consumers like the more aromatic, carter-head distilled gins like Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick's, things that are very soft and delicate. The way that we distinguish ourself is with our heritage, especially with Plymouth, and we have very citrus-forward gins that work very well in cocktails, which is kind of the intention of gin in general.

David D: When you talk about the history of both brands where do you usually start?

Trevor: When I talk about gin as a category I always start with Plymouth because it's the oldest brand that has been continually made, since 1793. The brand is based out of Plymouth, England and is the official gin of the Royal Navy, so when you talk about Plymouth it's as a rather iconic gin. There are the roots buried in the history of the gin and tonic cocktail, which helped save the military from malaria, and then there are its roots in the Gimlet cocktail, which the navy captains would drink with the sailors. We start there along with the fact that it's made in an old monastery that was also a prison at one point, so it's never moved -- it's been in the same distillery since the beginning, it has never closed, and it's made from one still -- about three guys make it -- which tends to blow people's minds because they think it's some industrial product. It's not, however, it's actually quite a small production.

David D: What are the key botanicals for Plymouth? Plymouth is its own geographically-recognized gin, so what exactly makes Plymouth so special?

Trevor: Water is such a big element when it comes to making gin -- any spirit for that matter -- and when we talk about the water for Plymouth it's part of what makes it unique. Plymouth sources its water from a nearby national park called the Dartmoor and what the geography of that landscape plays a big role. It looks a lot like Scotland with the peat moss on granite, and the water there has this lack of minerality, this really nice smooth and oily texture. I was taking a hike up through Dartmoor once and had a bit of the water. It's quite incredible the way it comes out of this natural spring -- it's really delicious -- and I think that's one of the things that gives the gin its unique flavor. Also, if you go back to a lot of old school cocktail books, like the Savoy, and from anyone who did anything significant with cocktails in the late 1800s, you'll see a good amount of drinks specifically call for Plymouth. I think at that time they were the only ones doing a proper, dry English gin that mixed well.

The key botanicals for Plymouth are obviously the juniper, which is really heavy, and a lot of really great citrus -- lemon. Coriander is also a big one, along with cardamom, which is a nice addition and somewhat unique.

David D: Moving over to Beefeater, what do you usually tell people about the brand and the role of London gin?

Trevor: Beefeater is interesting because it's one of the last London dry gins that is actually still made in London. Many of them have moved to Scotland for production reasons. For Beefeater, if you look at the time period the distillery itself opened in 1820, but the first batch of Beefeater came off the still in 1860 after James Burrough purchased the facility. When you look at that time, London was really the center of great gin. All of the brands at the time were named after the last names of families -- the Tanquerays, the Gordons, the Brokers. Those are the last names of the distillers. Beefeater decided to do something different and be a bit iconic, so they named their gin after the Beefeaters who guard the Tower of London. They wanted to embrace what London was: a progressive, artistic, and modern city. When you look at them now it's a big part of why they're still there -- they can't stomach the idea of leaving because that's their heritage.

Beefeater is still made the same way today, they've never changed the recipe, which is really cool. Desmond Payne, our master distiller, has been making gin for about fifty years. He's the longest running gin distiller alive today.

David D: What type of still are they using at Beefeater?

Trevor: We use five copper pot stills with four guys who actually make it -- including Desmond, which is interesting because we're talking about the number one selling premium gin in the world. It's quite amazing that they make it all with four guys. What's also really interesting is that -- if you do this experiment and you add a bit of water to gin -- lay out a couple of great brands like Tanqueray and Bombay and add a bit of water to them, then go back to them about five minutes later you'll notice that they change. But when you get to the Beefeater it still tastes exactly the same. It's for that reason that I think most bartenders, if forced to choose one gin to do everything, would go with Beefeater because it cuts through the citrus and the aromatics of most drinks, while keeping its flavor.

A lot of that has to do with something we do that's unique to Beefeater. On Monday morning at the distillery all of the botanicals go into the still, but we don't turn it on until twenty-four hours later. So there's a twenty-four hour steeping period that is proprietarily ours, and it's something they've been doing since 1860. Not only do we have the most experienced distiller in the world, but also a recipe that's been working for one hundred and fifty years. That's pretty amazing, right?

David: It is amazing. So when people ask you, "What is London dry gin as opposed to just regular gin?" what's your answer for that question?

Trevor: If you want to get down to technical laws, our laws here in the states are not the same as they are in the UK. The rule over there states that everything that is put into London dry gin must come from distillation. The only thing that can be added after the fact is water. So the product comes off the still and the only thing you can add at that point is the water, but the gin doesn't actually have to come from London. Tanqueray is a good example. It comes from Scotland, but it's considered a London dry gin. And then Tanqueray 10 is just a distilled gin, rather than a London gin, because they add flavor after the distillation.

David: So London dry gin is just a style of gin, rather than a place of origin?

Trevor: Right, it's kind of like Bourbon in that regard. What's also interesting is that, with all of the new gin makers now, just an incredible amount, there are a lot of people making great gin -- i.e. St. George and Aviation. But one thing that differentiates Beefeater is the control Desmond has over that steeping period because that's where you can really blow it. A lot of people can simply put botanicals in a still and get a great product on the other end, but the long extended finish on Beefeater really comes down to that steeping period, which doesn't seem like a process many other people can replicate successfully.

For me, my biggest obstacle is the idea of Beefeater as, you know, "grandma's gin." It's "old," or it's a "well gin." But people don't realize that we win just about every contrast we enter into. The San Francisco Spirits Competition, the Oscars of the spirits world, and we win "Best Gin in the World." People are like, "What the hell? Beefeater?" But when you close your eyes and taste a whole bunch of gins side-by-side you realize that this is an iconic tasting gin and is really the foundation of what other gins are built off of. It's a bit like the cool kid on the block, the kid that other kids aspire to be.

When reaching out to new drinkers, however, we always want to try and get people to start with Plymouth because it's such a beautifully aromatic gin and it's one of the oldest. We actually changed the bottle to get that point across, the heritage, you know? We're still battling daily, however, with accounts that say, "Well, we really only carry small batch, hand-crafted gin." And I'm thinking, "There's nothing more small batch and hand-crafted than a gin made by four guys on a pot still!"

David D: We're going to see a backlash against that, though. The terms "hand-crafted" and "small batch" have been co-opted completely by some of the worse possible brands. I think you'll eventually see people rebel against that because it doesn't mean anything now. I taste new gins all the time that that absolutely terrible, but label themselves as "artisan" or "craft" because they're small.

Trevor: We're really fighting the hard fight. With a brand like Plymouth I just want people to start there because, both historically and stylistically, that's really where you should start. Start with the most classic of styles before moving on to the more modern gins, the gins without juniper like Hendrick's, but at least understand what gin is supposed to taste like before branching out.

David D: I agree with you 100%. You can't understand any subject well if you don't know the history, the heritage, and the foundation that it's build upon.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll