Handle The Proof: London vs Plymouth
But much of this emotion is spent on one particular style of gin: London Dry, the bitter and strong spirit that emerged in the 1850s, after the frenzy when rotgut producers had Brits in poor neighborhoods pounding more gin than beer and guys like Hogarth painting scenes of alcohol-related sloth. It's said, however, that gin was introduced to England through the port of Plymouth--after British troops fighting in the low countries during the Thirty Years War first encountered barrels of "genever."
Genever (or jenever, if you prefer) was first distilled in Holland sometime during the 1400s as a cure for, well, all kinds of ailments--including sobriety, I presume. Where the Dutch often aged the stuff in barrels for a mellow, Scotch-like character, impatient Brits developed a taste for quick, more medicinal remedies. Companies in Plymouth, then London, began selling gin in the 1700s.
Anyway, for comparison purposes, I picked up a bottle of Broker's London Dry and a bottle of Plymouth.
Plymouth is a protected style and can only be produced in and around the city. There's really only one distillery, though--working with ancient copper pot stills from a recipe dating back to the 1790s. I chose Broker's, a newcomer to the market, because they also use copper pot stills.
Plymouth style gin is closer to the original genever in character. It presents a smooth, almost flannel-like mouth feel and gentle (for gin) set of flavors: juniper pulp and cardamom, sweet citrus and minerals, with a woody sensation on the finish and something grassy and floral lingering far to the rear. But all of this is rather faint--including the alcoholic burn which, at just under 42 percent, scores the throat in the same manner as high-quality vodka.
Broker's hits you with more pronounced botanicals and a bitter backbone. There's a peppery bite, some hints of citrus peel, a mineral-metallic taint, the essence of grain and, of course, the pine forest taste of juniper. None of this is harsh, however. It's a nicely balanced gin with a more distinct, alcoholic finish.
The key difference probably lies in the choice of lemon and orange zest. Plymouth gin banks on sweeter varieties, thus washing out some of the bitter notes associated with London Dry. Otherwise, the recipes include a similar mix of juniper, spices, roots and such, subject to minor deviations (orris root in Plymouth, licorice in Broker's).
There's no winner in this competition. I enjoy both styles--as well as aged genever, when I can get it. Those who prefer the softer taste of Hendrick's may want to try out Plymouth gin. Folks reaching for sophisticated upscale brands--Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray 10--may want to step down a notch and see what the more traditional London styles have to offer...although Plymouth would probably be more to their liking, as well.
So maybe Plymouth wins out. But I'll still stock Broker's, Boodles and regular old Bombay at home, too.