Rare Vantage: Beverage History From The Spirits Chemist

I recently acquired another forgotten gin document, titled The History of Gin, by the chemist, D.W. Clutton, who gave us some of the most important works on gin distillation and chemical analysis. But what would such an important chemist speaking in 1972 have us know about gin? Read it and find out.

Clutton also wrote a wonderful history of rum that is notable and well organized. There are brilliant snippets and descriptions plus a bibliography of forgotten articles not seen elsewhere (that of course I’m already tracking down).

I also just digitized my copy of Herman Willkie’s Beverage Spirits in America —A Brief History (I apologize, but you will have to rotate the view of the PDF once you open it). This was an adaptation of Willkie’s 1947 address to the Newcomb society. It also answers the question: what would the greatest distiller of the 20th century have us know about American beverage history? And he goes on to say a great deal of things that were new to me. Some parts are so wonderful I dare not spoil them for you.

Clutton’s history of gin is really interesting and I’ll highlight what caught my eye. The most interesting parts are centered around Plymouth Gin and Old Tom.

J.B. Priestly described Plymouth gin as the gin ‘with a suggestion of a fresh morning at sea about it’.

The production of Plymouth gin is very localized. Messrs. Coates & Co. (Plymouth) Ltd. are the sole agents for its manufacture (with the exception of New Zealand, Germany, and Italy, where it is produced under license).

This was new to me and surprising as lately they hype their appellation status. More spirits are licensed for production in multiple locations than you’d think.

The secret of the success of Plymouth gin derives from the soft pure water which runs from the river Meavy, through the granite of Dartmoor. Spirit is obtained from grain whisky distilleries in Strathclyde, or occasionally from a London grain spirit supplier.

I began to wonder why he goes into such detail. Either Clutton was an employee or they just hosted him. It seems like Plymouth existed in a world where gin was simply a commodity but as often as possible they tried to elevate it to something fine.

During the war, molasses spirit had to be used, much to the disgust of the manufacturers. Eventually, however, the switch was made back to grain spirit, and this was commemorated by the following telegram sent from Glasgow—

From the land of Scotch and Bonnie Lasses,
We’re glad you’ve given up molasses
and Plymouth gin is once again,
The very best and made from grain.

The grain spirit is pumped into the still and reduced with the famous water to ca. 25° over proof and the spirit is rectified. The spirit is then pumped into a pot still and the botanicals are added. The centre portion of the distillation is reduced in strength, taken into bond and bottled as Plymouth gin. ‘Plym-Gin’, as it is affectionately called, is exported to 80 overseas markets.

The term ‘dry’, as applied to London dry gin, means that the over-all flavour content is low. This arises since the gin is distilled from extremely pure spirit and a low proportion of botanical ingredients.

I interpret “low” here as low enough to be crystal clear. If the gin is cloudy from insoluble terpenes, it either has too much flavour and/or is cut improperly. I’ve been exploring a new technique for post distillation clarification of cloudy gins and I’ve having spectacular success. It will be the defacto practice once I write it up.

Another explanation [of Old Tom gin’s origin] of the term was given by Boord’s (Distillers) Ltd. of London (Est. 1726) They established that Old Tom referred to Old Thomas Chamberlain of Hodges Distillery. He was an experimenter in gin flavourings, and once added sugar syrup to London gin. One of Boord’s ancient labels showed a picture of ‘Old Tom’ Chamberlain.

Old Tom is a gin sweetened, after distillation, to 3 to 6% w/v of sugar (or occasionally glycerine). Occasionally the sugar syrup is flavoured with orange flower water, and is known as capillaire. Old Tom is no longer popular in England, but is still exported.

This wonderful Difford’s Guide article gives even more background to the origins of Old Tom. I think its references mainly comes from a book titled Slang and its Analogs.

Clutton’s Rum had some spectacular passages I’ve love to quote, but I’m short on time.

2 thoughts on “Rare Vantage: Beverage History From The Spirits Chemist

  1. Hi Rex, I think I host that paper somewhere on the blog. I know I’ve definitely read it.

    My understanding is that Clutton is still a distillery consultant and recently has a gin on the market for a small distillery that his name is attached to. I’m itching to get his contact info and see if we can get him to tell some stories.

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