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The Black Friars distillery where Plymouth Gin is made was set up in 1793 when the Coates family joined the established distilling business of Fox & Williamson and converted the old Black Friars monastery.
Formerly a Dominican priory dating back to between 1425 and 1431, it became a debtors’ prison in 1536 when Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries and stripped their assets. The mediaeval monks’ refectory room with its fine hull-shaped beamed roof became the town’s main meeting hall: in 1620 some of the Pilgrim Fathers gathered there before walking to the harbour from which they would set sail on the Mayflower for the new world. Later, in 1685, the building became a refuge for Huguenots fleeing persecution in France.
The Coates family made a gin that was fuller-flavoured with less citrus and more pungent root flavours than its typical London dry counterparts. The Royal Navy purchased large quantities of gin for its officers (ratings were issued with rum, not gin) and as Plymouth was a naval dockyard much of Coates business was to the officers’ mess. Other naval towns such as Bristol and Liverpool also had distilleries supplying the navy with the town’s particular style of gin but Plymouth is the only one to survive. Plymouth is also the only British gin still being made at its original distillery.
London distillers clearly envied Plymouth’s name and reputation. On 13th March 1884 and 10th February 1887 Coates successfully obtained injunctions preventing London distilleries from making ‘Plymouth gin’. Today the gin enjoys Appellation contrôlée protection and only gin made in the town of Plymouth can have the name Plymouth on its label. (It is a shame London Dry gin is not equally protected.)
Although Plymouth gin is still made in the same distillery in which it was created, Coates has been owned by a range of different companies. Seager Evans, based in Deptford, London, but controlled by Schanley of New York, changed the formula to fall more in line with the predominant London Dry style and with American tastes. Subsequent owners include Whitbread (then an English brewers), Allied Domecq and then Vin & Sprit, the Swedish state owned company which then produced Absolut vodka. Plymouth and Absolut were purchased by Pernod Ricard, the present over of both brands.