Drinking Through Gin’s Past and Future in Plymouth

Located above the historic Blackfriars Distillery, the Refectory Bar tells the story of Plymouth Gin through an extensive menu of classic and modern cocktails.

For the longest time, it was believed the Plymouth Gin distillery was located on the former site of a monastery. In fact, the building, called the Black Friars Distillery, still dons a plaque commemorating its history as a monastery—and the Plymouth Gin bottle has featured a monk on the label since 1882. In recent years, however, uncovered real estate records have shown that Blackfriars probably never truly resided here. Still, when Global Brand Ambassador Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge opened a bar inside the distillery in 2004, it was dubbed the Refectory Bar, a wink-wink nod to the area where monks take their meals.

“The history of Plymouth Gin is a living entity,” says Hamilton-Mudge. “Whenever we talk about the brand, we always caveat what we say with the fact that we are telling you the best version of the truth that we know today; our research is always ongoing.”

What actually once occurred on the site of the Refectory Bar is no less interesting than the apocryphal legends. The hull-shaped building where the bar now lives is where the men who would board the Mayflower spent their last night on English soil in 1620, before heading for the New World. The building is also closely related to another major world event: the Plymouth Blitz of World War II. The German bombing raids may have completely destroyed Plymouth Gin’s offices and archives—you can still see a few charred beams in the Refectory Bar’s ceiling—but the distillery ultimately survived.

“The granddaughter of a World War II British Royal Navy sailor told us the story of how her grandfather had written in a letter that the bombing of Plymouth was the death knell for Hitler,” says Sean Harrison, the Master Distiller of Plymouth Gin, of a story a patron once told him at the bar. “This was because the thought that Plymouth Gin had been lost forever so incensed the men of the British Royal Navy that Hitler’s fate was sealed.”

While the space was an immediate smash with locals, it’s also inspired tourists and many industry greats to make pilgrimages there as well. “We are incredibly proud of the Refectory Bar, as is it inspired by Plymouth Gin’s rich cocktail history,” explains Harrison. “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.”

Since day one, the Lounge Martini has served as the bar’s “house” Martini. According to Hamilton-Mudge, the drink’s creator, it was designed to “show the diversity of Martinis—a category of its own,” he says. “I designed the Lounge Martini, as an easy-way-in to the joys of the Martini for the uninitiated, whilst still being a real alternative for those who already drank Martinis.” It certainly seemed to work: the drink has been in the bar’s top-three best-selling cocktails for the last 14 years.

The rest of the beverage program dances nicely between Plymouth Gin’s historical past and more modern uses, by way of several key sections. The first, entitled “The Four Glasses of Plymouth Gin,” kicks off with the proto dry Martini, the Marguerite, and leads into several takes on the Gimlet and Pink Gin before finishing in the present with the Gin Pennant. Reading the brief captions on the menu, you quickly learn the first three cocktails aren’t just integral to Plymouth Gin’s origins, but historically relevant to both the cocktail world and the British Royal Navy, which is based nearby.

A Tour of the Refectory Bar

Another section on the menu, “With Love From The Savoy,” celebrates the brand’s longstanding history with The American Bar at The Savoy in London. Plymouth Gin is famously the second most called-for brand in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930. This section features drinks like The Savoy Hotel Special Cocktail No. 2, which matches Plymouth Gin with Lillet Blanc, apricot liqueur and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

More modern and unusual cocktails are grouped in the “Stranger Things Happen At Sea” section of the menu. These include The Ankle Snapper, a variant on the classic Red Snapper (a Bloody Mary made with gin instead of vodka). “I wanted to make a lighter version of this brunch-time classic that would work later in the day, too,” says Hamilton-Mudge. “My love of cooking helps with many of the recipes I write, and this is certainly the case here. We bottle-batch a filtered combination of Plymouth Gin, fresh tomatoes, spice, cucumber, citrus, cardamom and a few other ingredients to create a crisp and refreshing, but still savory cocktail.” Other drinks in this section include the tiki-inspired Trading Company, a shareable cocktail featuring a homemade pineapple and cardamom syrup and fresh lime served in an iconic Dartmouth Potteries Gurgle Jug.

Speaking of sharing amongst friends, Hamilton-Mudge describes his Gin Pennant as a liquid avatar for the Refectory Bar’s ethos of conviviality, sharing and hosting others. It’s a nod to a naval pennant of the same name which was hoisted above a ship to alert nearby officers (from other vessels) to hop on-board for a drink or two. This modern salute is made with Plymouth Gin and Sloe Gin, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth and apricot liqueur. If it sounds like a pretty simple drink that pretty much anyone could make, that’s intentional.

“It is a simple Fruit Cup recipe (think, homemade Pimm’s) that can be bottle batched at home, and then simply mixed up with some soda and a little citrus juice when you have friends around,” notes Hamilton-Mudge.

So, what’s next for the Refectory Bar as it shakes and stirs its way through its 15th year? “More innovation,” according to Hamilton-Mudge. “We will have a new menu ready to launch in early 2019, and within that list there will be no less than 13 Martini variants to choose from off a unique flavor map.” This list of Martinis will also form the backbone of a global seminar he is leading that challenges attendees to reconsider what a Martini can be. “We don’t want to go back to the dark days when anything poured into a V-shaped cocktail glass could be called a __-Tini,” he says. “But at the same time there is so much room for innovation while staying true to the ethos of what a Martini is.”

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