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Sunday, July 14, 2024
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New ‘gunpowder’ gin honours Darwin’s voyage of discovery

Charles Darwin’s epic voyage of discovery, aboard HMS Beagle, has been honoured in Shrewsbury with the launch of a barrel-aged navy strength gin that’s said to be similar to the potent tot drunk by sailors 200 years ago.

Royal Navy veterans (from left) Colin Hopkisson, Terry Weston and Graham Meredith enjoying their tot of Beagle ‘gunpowder’ gin with gin creator Darren Tomkins of Shrewsbury Gin.
Royal Navy veterans (from left) Colin Hopkisson, Terry Weston and Graham Meredith enjoying their tot of Beagle ‘gunpowder’ gin with gin creator Darren Tomkins of Shrewsbury Gin.

The Shrewsbury Gin company’s Beagle navy strength edition is aged in oak, as it would have been traditionally, and bottled at an alcohol content of 57%. Its label claims to “warm the hearts of even the saltiest sea dogs”.

To put that theory to the test Shrewsbury Gin invited veteran sailors, from the town’s Royal Naval Association, to its gin bar, Gindifferent, in Shrewsbury Market Hall, to get a taste of the type of ‘gunpowder gin’ that would have been drunk aboard HMS Beagle on its voyage to survey the coast of South America between 1831 and1836.

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Darwin, then aged 22, was the ship’s naturalist. It was during the ship’s visit to the Galapagos Islands that he began to formulate his ideas on natural selection and evolution.

“Being Shrewsbury Gin we wanted to do something that was a homage to the history of Shrewsbury and the town’s favourite son, Charles Darwin,” said Darren Tomkins, gin bar owner and curator of Shrewsbury Gin.

“There are a lot of distilleries doing navy gin and a lot doing aged gin, but very few doing barrel-aged strength. Our Beagle edition, developed with Henstone Distillery, in Oswestry, is a proper navy strength barrel-aged gin.

“It’s aged for three months in an oak barrel and bottled at 57% alcohol proof, so it’s a very good approximation of what navy gins would have been like in the day when Darwin was on his voyage of discovery.

“Gin and rum would have been stored in barrels for the sailors’ rations, called a tot, which is where the term ‘tot’ comes from. The ‘tot’ tended to be stored alongside the gunpowder. It had to be just over 57% ABV because that’s when the liquid becomes flammable. So, if it spilled, the fuses and gunpowder would still fire.”

Navy strength gin was invented in the 18th century as a safe drink for sailors, as wine, beer and water would spoil on voyages. Later it became the custom for lower ranking sailors to drink rum while the officers continued to drink gin.

The tot was the equivalent to a quarter of a pint and was issued in 5cm tall measures. The daily tot was practiced in the Royal Navy for 200 years right up to July 31 1970.

Royal Navy veterans Colin Hopkisson, Terry Weston and Graham Meredith, from Shrewsbury, all served when the daily tot was being distributed and heartily approved of the Shrewsbury ‘gunpowder’ gin.

Graham, 73, who served from 1966 to 1990, said: “It’s an excellent gin. It’s what we call gunpowder standard which is the original strength that used to be the naval gin going back.”

Terry, 85, who saw active service aboard HMS Bulwark during the Suez Crisis and minesweeping operations in The Gulf, said: “It goes down very nicely and it’s smooth. It doesn’t burn your throat. It’s a a very nice gin.”

Colin, 75, said: “I am usually a rum man but I do appreciate that this is a really nice strong gin and is similar in strength to what we would get issued in the navy.”

The veterans have returned to the Shrewsbury branch of the Royal Naval Association with a bottle for fellow members to sample. The association has more than 70 members, both veteran and current serving members of the Armed Forces. It welcomes new members and meets at 8pm on the second and last Fridays of the month at Meole Brace Bowling Club.

The Beagle gin label depicts an image of HMS Beagle, taken from Darwin’s own drawing of the ship, called ‘The Journey Home’. Shrewsbury Gin has been granted a special licence to use it.

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