Plymouth's Sean Harrison
Article By: Becky Sue Epstein
Gin and the Man Who Makes It
Master Distiller of Plymouth Gin
During his six and a half years in the Royal Navy, Plymouth Gin Master Distiller Sean Harrison spent his time "piloting ships around" - and rarely consumed any gin. He didn't give a thought to the official gin of the Royal Navy, never imagining he'd land at the company that provides it after his Navy service. Because he happened to be stationed in the port of Plymouth on England's south coast, Harrison applied for his first civilian job at Plymouth Gin. It was an unassuming entry-level position, but as he learned about the product his new employer made, he recalls, he "asked if they would train me and they said 'yeah.'"
A Non-scientist Learns Science
Sounds pretty straightforward. But though he doesn't say it in so many words, it took some work to master, especially as Harrison wanted to fully understand all aspects of this his new discipline. "If you are interested, you spend more time," he explains. "If you're not interested you won't bother to pick up the book." Brought up in the Lake District in the northwestern part of England, Harrison remembers in secondary school, "I did chemistry 'til I was 16 and math and science 'til I was 18. I wouldn't describe myself as a scientist by any stroke of the imagination," he laughs. When he started his training at Plymouth Gin, he went back and taught himself some of the scientific principles he would need in this field. He needed to "fundamentally understand essential oils, which are the fundamentals of gin". He studied plants, and how their oils are extracted and used, which he notes, is similar to perfume and aromatherapy.
Alcohol and Purity
For the rest of us, Harrison wants to simplify the concept of making gin. "The easiest way to think of gin is 'flavored vodka,'" he says. How could this be? Gin and vodka seem to be two very different spirits. Harrison further explains you can take wheat or corn or sugar and turn it into alcohol. That product is essentially vodka. "We buy our alcohol from a distiller in London," Harrison reveals. The distiller makes it with wheat from East Anglia, a large farming district northeast of London. "You have to make decisions and look for [certain] characteristics [in the finished product]. We work with the distiller for the characteristics we want . . . 'Potable alcohol' is the term for alcohol that is safe to drink. There's a lot more filtering in potable alcohol. A lot more care and attention, and it's 96% pure." Why only 96%? "You can get pure alcohol but only laboratory conditions. If you took it out and opened the lid it would suck back in the water vapor [from the air] and drop to 96%."
Flavoring and the Art of Taste
The process of making gin is the process of flavoring the alcohol with essential oils from plants. "It's more about applying flavors," Harrison explains. And each company has its own proprietary formula. He must be quite an expert in the nuances of flavor and aroma, but he would never say so. Harrison believes, "We're all pretty much, as human beings, built the same. It's all about giving language to what you smell and taste. Even with supertasters they have to recognize [each one] and give it a word."
Critical Components: History and Juniper
Harrison has the added challenge of remaining true to history in creating this product because Plymouth Gin's "recipe" dates back to 1793. It hasn't been altered, though "We probably apply a little more science so we're able to match the crops better each year," he admits, referring to the plant flavorings. These flavors are actually pure herbs, distilled to give up their essential oils, which are then added to the alcohol. For example, there has to be juniper in gin, says Harrison. "It has to be the largest single flavoring ingredient by definition." But it's up to each producer to source their own berries. Plymouth gets its juniper berries from Italy. Even so, he recounts, "We probably look at a hundred samples of juniper every year. We need to know how much oil is in a given volume and we need to know what it smells like. It's the concept of terroir - it's very true that plants are affected by where they grow. We need to keep the flavor profile [the same] every year." And he must do the same with all seven of Plymouth Gin's flavoring components: orris root (which is actually iris root) comes from Italy as well. Lemons and oranges are sourced from somewhere in Spain. Coriander is from Russia, while angelica originates in Belgium and cardamom is sent from Sri Lanka. And they are all natural. "As you see them on the plant, that's what we put in the still," maintains Harrison.
The distillation process itself is also historical. And Harrison seems to enjoy that challenge, as well. The gin is distilled today in the company's 15O-year-old copper pot-stills. The stills are even serviced by the same local company that made them originally. "The great thing about distilling is every time you turn the still on, it's an art form," says Harrison. "You don't know when each batch of berries is going to give up the oils. We're trying to take out the peaks and the troughs," he explains. So the finished gin will have only the most pure, true flavors.
Batches and Bottles
Distilling is done in batches, so it can be done to order, when the company needs more gin for the marketplace. Nowadays, they do about 5O batches a year, resulting in 17O,OOO nine-liter cases. Plymouth produces all bottle sizes including 75Oml,
1 liter, 7OOml (for everywhere outside the US and Canada), even miniatures. For the airlines, they do plastic bottles because "weight is key", and they know the gin will be consumed in a set time period. "If you're not careful," Harrison cautions, "Plastic leaches [over time]." Which is one reason they don't do plastic bottles for the consumer market. Also, "you associate weight [of a bottle] with quality," says Harrison. "It's a mindset thing."
With all these bottles, how long do they last? Harrison's explains that, "alcohol evaporates. The more you empty the bottle, the more space there is to evaporate, especially in heat or sun." Each time you open the bottle, more alcohol is lost into the air, and more water vapor is absorbed by the gin. "If you keep [a bottle] in a dark cupboard," he says it will last for about two years. "It's not because the gin is degraded; you're drinking more water, less alcohol. If you've got a partial, opened bottle, throw it out after two years."
Raising the Bar in Marketing
Recently, Plymouth Gin changed their bottle design for higher market appeal, de-emphasizing the Navy connection by relocating the ship on the label. But this is only one in a long line of changes. Harrison says they have a "full display cabinet of [different] bottles" and labels have always undergone design transformations as market conditions dictate. "From a gin point-of-view, Bombay Sapphire changed the playing field with the blue bottle about 17 years ago. And the vodka superpremiums changed people's perception of high quality."
Generations and Drinking
Over all, Harrison notes there's been an increase in gin consumption in the past decade. In the UK, states Harrison "gin has skipped a generation." Young people in the 197Os and 198Os didn't want to drink what they saw their parents drinking in the 196Os. Gin was a "missing link until the late '9Os or early 2OOOs," as Harrison puts it. "There's always a generational thing: my parents did that and it's not relevant to me." About drinking in general, Harrison admits, "I don't actually drink that much. I have got to the stage where I don't like to be drunk. I try to drink better quality-wise than quantity-wise."
He has three children, the oldest is ten. "I take things home and I basically allow them to try. In the UK [children] can legally drink at home," he explains. And he's greatly in favor of openness on this topic. Harrison believes "If you ban something people are more likely to do it.
If someone says 'don't do it" kids will do it. [Alcohol] is not a bad drug until you use to excess, which is true for anything. Do it in moderation. It's getting the balance right."