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I’m standing in the cellar of Britain’s oldest gin distillery surrounded by trays of exotic herbs.

In front of me, the tangle of glass tubes reminds me of a chemistry class – only this one is a hell of a lot more fun, and you’re encouraged to drink booze. The mixture begins to bubble and soon my own unique handmade sample of gin will be ready. 

The Black Friars Distillery has been making Plymouth Gin on this very spot since it was first established in 1793. The building itself was originally a monastery dating back to the 1400s and the old refectory is now a stylish rooftop bar. A wooden plaque on the wall lists the names of the passengers who set sail from Plymouth on the Mayflower back in 1620 for a new life in North America, having spent their last night in this building. 

Back in the cellar, the vapours from my brew rise. For the past two hours I’ve been on the ‘Masters Distillers Tour’ and distilling my very own bottle of gin is the final step. One thing I’ve learned is that to qualify as a ‘gin’ the spirit must contain juniper berries. After that, companies add up to 12 other ‘botanicals’ – anything from fresh or dried plants to spices, herbs and fruits. 

“There are seven botanicals in Plymouth Gin, while Hendricks is the strongest and has 13 botanicals,” our expert guide Harriet explains. Black Friars’ recipe includes peel from “sweet lemons from Spain” and angelica which, Harriet tells me, “smells like an old bookshop and it makes a gin taste ‘dry’”. I can taste exactly what she means.


Juniper genius: Harriet shows her tour how to create delicious gin

To make my own, Harriet provided me with the neat spirit needed and set me up with my very own ‘still’. She’d preset the temperature, too, so it was heated up and ready to go. All I had to do was carefully pour the alcohol in the flask, having first diluted it with an equal quantity of local Plymouth water and my own choice of botanicals.

The heat releases the flavours, while a pitch of root of iris ‘sticks’ them to the spirit. Having previously sampled some five different brands on the tour (and discovered which ‘botanicals’ they used) I opted for sweet, sharp lemon rind, cassia bark and cardamom. 


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Gin o'clock in Plymouth: We visit Britain's oldest distillery
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