Gin, like rum, has a long association with the British Royal Navy. While the sailors were given rum rations as part of their wages, gin was strictly for the officers.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson ordered barrels of Plymouth Gin for his officers. However, there were concerns that spilt gin could rend gunpowder impossible to light, so the founder of Plymouth Gin, Thomas Coates, created Navy Strength gin, strong enough to pass the British Royal Navy’s ‘proof’ test. This involved soaking grains of gunpowder in alcohol. If the alcohol still lit this was ‘proof’ that it was above 57% ABV, and it was allowed on board the ship. By the mid-18th century, Plymouth Distillery was supplying 1,000 barrels of Navy Strength per year to the Royal Navy!
Angostura bitters were used by sailors in the 1800s to help settle their stomachs while at sea. To make the bitters taste a bit nicer they would mix them with their daily rations of Plymouth gin, turning it pink. It wasn’t long before sailors took it ashore, and this classic became a bar favourite.
To counteract scurvy, lime juice was given to sailors. To stop the juice going off it was mixed with rum! Laughlin Rose realised that by preserving the juice with sugar it opened up the product to a wider audience and he patented his idea in 1867 and so Rose’s Cordial was born.
Rose’s Cordial mixed with gin became an officer favourite, The Gimlet, named after the Navy’s Surgeon General Sir Thomas Gimlette or a gimlet corkscrew used on board to open barrels, depending on who you speak to.
Raymond Chandler, in his book, The Long Goodbye, says “a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else”. Unfortunately, Rose’s cordial is not readily available in Australia, (weirdly, their marmalade is), so I’ve resorted to making my own and it’s not bad!
The days of gunpowder and cannons are long gone, but Navy Strength gins remain a staple of a good cocktail bar. The reason? Because Navy Strength gin stands up better against other ingredients in cocktails, than it’s lower-proof counterpart.
I chatted with celebrated bartender Jenna Hemsworth about using Navy Strength. “When opting for a navy strength gin, you have to remember that the increased strength will hinder the perception of taste of the botanicals (you’ll be tasting more alcohol ‘burn’ and less of the delicate flavours in the gin) so I tend to only use those bigger gins in longer cocktails with more non-alcoholic ingredients in order to bring the final ABV of the cocktail down.”
Her recommendations? “I adore a gimlet with the Four Pillars Gunpowder proof gin, an obvious choice considering the finger lime utilised in the gin, however the combination of sweet lime cordial, sour lime juice and the tangy spicy gin is a great mixture. An Aviation cocktail with Plymouth Navy Strength has always gone down well for me, the roundness of the gin cuts through the sometimes “too floral” combination of violet and maraschino. Lastly, the West Winds Broadside, the super strong, super salty savoury gin goes amazingly in a martini. The key is to really up the dry vermouth to 50:50 proportions in my opinion, in order to get that gin to come down to a more approachable ABV and get the most out of it.”
It’s also worth remembering that Navy Strength gins fall into two camps. First come those that are just higher proof versions of the original gin (think Plymouth), the others are new recipes, with differing botanical profiles from the original.
7 Navy Strength Gins for you to try
Botanic Australis Navy Strength gin
Botanic Australis gin with its 14 native botanicals is already a bold one and I was concerned about it coming in a higher ABV. Mark Watkins, Master Distiller, has changed the botanical profile and lifted the citrus component to great affect. You can read more about it here.
Hayman’s Royal Dock gin
Named after the Royal Dock in Deptford, records show that this gin was supplied to the Navy from 1863. It has lots of citrus and orange blossom aromas, an intense juniper flavour and a smooth mouth feel with a lingering finish. Traditionalists will love this.
The West Winds Broadside gin
This overproof gin is an absolute cracker and my go-to for a martini at Bad Frankie. Delightfully savoury, Broadside features sea parsley as a botanical and is seasoned with Margaret River sea salt.
Plymouth Navy Strength gin
Produced in the same still for the past 150 years, Plymouth Gin had Protected Geographical Indication within the European Union,until recently. It has a distinct flavour created by the more earthy botanicals and a subtle juniper flavour, however the Navy Strength has elevated juniper and spice notes. An absolute must for any discerning gin drinker.
Four Pillars Navy Strength gin
The addition of native finger limes to the botanical mix was a genius idea from the Four Pillars team that enhances the Asian spices they already used. A firm favourite at GQHQ, you can find the above cocktail here.
V-ery, J-unipery, O-ver, P-roof needs little explanation. Master Distiller, Jared Brown has taken the juniper berry and made it the heart and soul of the gin by distilling it 3 ways. He describes as it as the equivalent of “running naked through a pine forest”. And it is just like that. A spectacular gin and probably my number one Navy Strength gin. Read more here.
McHenry Navy Strength gin
Taking this as his Dry Gin as the canvas for the Navy Strength gin, William altered the recipe slightly and added limes, boosting the citrus notes and bringing out the warm, spicier notes to create an award-winning gin.
If all that talk of the Navy and gin has got you in a nautical mood then Raise the Gin Pennant and Splice the Mainbrace (crack open the booze)!
Raising a gin pennant shows that a ship is inviting officers from surrounding ships to drinks. The origins of the pennant are unknown but it was a small green triangular pennant with a white wine glass, later changed to a Starboard pennant defaced with a wine or cocktail glass. The aim was for the pennant to be as inconspicuous as possible, thereby having fewer ships spot it and claim the free drinks.
The gin pennant is still in regular use by Commonwealth Navies, such as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Some junior officers of one ship to attempt to raise the Gin Pennant on another ship, forcing that ship to put on free drinks. If they are caught raising the pennant, then it is their ship that must put on free drinks. FUN TIMES.
And yes, I do have a gin pennant, don’t you?