Comment - Spirits - Plymouth Gin: West is Best

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When Pernod Ricard said last week that it is updating the packaging for - and raising the price of - Plymouth Gin, there was a run on tonic water at Richard Woodard's local shop. It's taken a while, but the brand is back, and Woodard would like to celebrate.

How does this sound as a template for the perfect premium spirits brand? Let's start with provenance: you’ve got your own protected geographical status in the European Union, and your distillery was built by Black Friar monks in 1431.

Some guys calling themselves the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night on site before sailing west in the Mayflower in 1620, and you started distilling there back in 1793. Oh, and you’ve been using that “new” copper still since Victoria was on the throne.

Then, there’s the liquid: you’re appreciated by connoisseurs of your category, but just far enough off the mainstream in terms of flavour profile to create a buzz among bartenders and consumers. Historically, Americans were big, big fans (no doubt the Mayflower connection helped there).

For those who haven’t worked it out yet, you are Plymouth Gin. Unlike London Dry Gin, which can be made anywhere on the planet, you can only be distilled within the walls of your namesake home town in the UK.

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And you’ve obviously done something very, very bad in a previous life because you’re probably the most put-upon, neglected and under-achieving premium spirits brand out there.

Until now.

I don’t tend to get very excited about brand relaunches and repackaging exercises, but even I will admit to at least one raised eyebrow when I opened the jpeg of the new-look Plymouth bottle. It is, quite simply, lovely, from its super-tactile dumpy bottle to its copper cap. Let’s hope that it’s a harbinger of a bright new dawn for one of the finest gins out there.

Pernod Ricard’s Chivas Brothers is responsible for the (belated) new-look Plymouth, which seems apt, given Plymouth’s status as the “single malt” of gins. If anyone can understand the value of the Plymouth back-story, it’s the owner of The Glenlivet, Aberlour and Scapa.

But, Plymouth fans probably feared the worst when the brand passed into Pernod’s hands with the acquisition of Vin & Sprit in 2008. Nothing anti-French, you understand (despite its associations with the Royal Navy and Plymouth’s genesis in Napoleonic times). Just a gloomy air of resignation after being passed from pillar to post – and, more to the point, the threat of being overshadowed by Beefeater once more.

Wind back to the 1990s. This was Plymouth’s nadir, under the ownership of Allied Domecq, which was way too busy pushing Beefeater for all it was worth to be bothered with some tiny gin tucked away in the south-west corner of England. Plymouth became just a dusty curiosity on a forgotten corner of the back-bar.

Luckily, a few individuals had the vision that Allied lacked; most notably, John Murphy, a branding genius who named the Mini Metro, the HobNob and the Homebase DIY chain, and who also started St Peter’s Brewery in Suffolk.

Murphy bought Plymouth in 1997 and, with the help of Charles Rolls (who went on to find further success with Fever-Tree premium tonic water), resurrected the brand’s fortunes. How? By talking about heritage, history, provenance, artisanal qualities and embodying this in the packaging and the marketing.

At the start, Plymouth’s success wasn’t even a blip on the big brand radar – the initial target was to sell the 25,000 cases required to break even – but as the brand gathered momentum, it caught the eye of Absolut owner Vin & Sprit, which acquired a 50% stake in 2000.

It’s a default position for some commentators to see the acquisition of a small-ish, premium brand by a big company as "A Bad Thing", with few or no exceptions. That’s narrow-minded to say the least, and I for one thought the coming of V&S was potentially hugely positive – almost a necessity, indeed, for a brand that had reached some kind of critical mass.

The Swedish company already had expertise in the area of white spirits, lacked an international gin brand, and its soaraway success with Absolut offered Plymouth – historically popular Stateside – a route to market in the potentially huge US market.

All fine in theory, but that didn’t reckon with what was, in my very humble opinion, one of the worst rebranding exercises in the history of the drinks industry.

Plymouth Gin bottle

Take a gander at the bottle, right, and you might wonder what I’m on about. It’s smart enough, a bit art deco-ish and jumps off the shelf quite nicely compared to its rivals. If it was a new launch, it’d be decent enough.

But, where’s the history? Where, beyond the name itself, is the provenance? At the time, V&S said they were redefining Plymouth as a “contemporary premium spirit”. In doing so, they made it look like a mid-market vodka and, in the process, threw out the gin with the tonic water. In an increasingly crowded gin sector, it just looked dull.

And so Plymouth came to Pernod and Chivas, making it five owners in about 15 years – and, once again, the brand was initially left to languish in the shadow of its erstwhile big brother at Allied, Beefeater.

As Chivas developed Beefeater’s funky London image and created Beefeater 24 and all manner of line extensions, Plymouth was only mentioned as being potentially surplus to requirements and a likely casualty as Pernod looked to offload a few unwanted brands.

New Plymouth Gin bottle

Did it struggle to find a buyer or the right price for Plymouth, or was the brand never really for sale? Whatever the truth, Chivas took forever to decide what to do with it, but early impressions suggest it’s been worth the wait.

The new packaging, left, is spot-on; the Murphy and Rolls-era talk of history and provenance is back front and centre, and the planned price rise positions Plymouth clearly above Beefeater.

The task for Chivas Brothers now, having come this far, is to make sure Plymouth doesn’t get forgotten again in all the fuss over Beefeater, giving it the chance finally to fulfil its undoubted potential on the dynamic super-premium gin scene.

It’s about time.

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