by John Harrington Who are they? Plymouth Gin was the product of two very British institutions: navy and empire. Established by general merchant Mr Coates (his first name, oddly, remains a mystery) in 1793 at the start of prolonged war with France, the gin became the tipple of choice for a generation of battle-weary servicemen. The location of the distillery, a stone's throw from the historic naval bases in Plymouth, is no coincidence. As the British Empire expanded, so did the brand and by the late Victorian era, it had become the most widely drunk gin in the world. But WWII brought this to an abrupt end. The distillery suffered bomb damage during attacks, but more important was the lack of grain due to rationing. Production fell, and, by the end of the war, Plymouth Gin like Britain itself was not the power it was. The Coates family left in 1953, and the brand looked in terminal decline. Business recovered slightly when bought by US conglomerate Schenley in 1958, but it too ditched the project in 1975. Plymouth Gin MD Nicholas Blacknell said later that owners Allied "ran the gin into the ground", preferring to concentrate on their other brand, Beefeater gin. Just 5,000 cases of Plymouth Gin were sold in 1996, and the distillery was close to shutting down when Allied bailed out that same year. Thankfully, the new owners, a group of shareholders headed by marketing guru John Murphy, reversed the fortunes and secured distribution in supermarkets and in 20 major markets abroad. Plymouth Gin was named Drinks Exporter of the Year in the 2002 HSBC & Food from Britain Export Awards. Main brands: Plymouth Gin Original Strength (41.2% abv) is the biggest seller. Employees: 11 full-time. Annual production: "It's in the low hundreds of thousands of cases," according to Blacknell. Don't mention: Allied's ingredients. Plymouth Gin's traditional grain spirit was ditched in favour of sugar cane or beet malaise, resulting in a "harsher, more industrial taste," according to Blacknell. They also dropped the abv down to 37.5%, to the disapproval of Plymouth Gin's present owners. Future plans: Plymouth Gin may be distributed across the world, but there is still business to be done. "It's not about expanding but making it work in existing markets," Blacknell said. A new restaurant, bar and visitors centre is due in the spring.