Much like any story that involves a lot of alcohol, the history of navy strength gin and how it came to be named is mixed with legend and rumour.
While it allegedly didn’t receive its moniker until the 1990s, thanks to a clever marketing ploy from Plymouth Gin, higher strength gin and the navy have long had a relationship.
As any good employer should, the Royal Navy legislated that gin and rum needed to be carried onboard boats, with officers drinking the former and the men drinking the latter. Fed up with being ripped off, so one story goes, the officers would add gunpowder to a measure of gin and see if it lit – if it did it was “overproof” or 57 per cent.
Another explanation, as Ben Martin, a spirit educator from The Liquor Studio, Leeds, tells us, is that “the gin had to be a high percentage as it would often be stored in the lower decks of the ship. If the ABV wasn’t high enough and the gin spilt onto the gunpowder, it would essentially render their firepower useless.”
He adds: “The higher ABV also means you get a lot more communication of flavour, so you don’t necessarily need a double shot. A good navy strength gin will linger on the tongue 10-15 seconds after it’s been drunk and it stands up to the tonic much better.”
Because of the greater scope of flavour, navy strength lends itself to a sipping gin, with the different botanicals easier to identify. Or, if you want to give the drink its due historically, there are two cocktails seafarers would have slurped.
Firstly, the gin and tonic – though add a splash of Angostura bitters and a squeeze of lime for the naval version. Secondly, a gimlet – the most iconic drink with a navy strength. “Fresh fruit was stored within sugar barrels, which drew out the moisture from the citrus peels. This resulted in a potent lime syrup, which was added to the gin,” explains Ben.
From Sweden to Scotland, over to the USA and across the UK, we tried 35 navy strength gins, each with its own tale, to bring you the 15 best bottles.
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Plymouth gin navy strength, 70cl
With a long history selling gin to the navy – at one point up to 1000 barrels a year – and supposedly the first to coin the term “navy strength”, Plymouth Gin is the benchmark when it comes to the stronger spirit. The multi award-winning gin is created in the oldest working distillery in the UK and the recipe is handed down by word of mouth. The tastes and smoothness from the original strength bottle are here but with far more gusto: a sweeter, juniper-led flavour, which starts with earthy notes of angelica root and coriander seed, before being undercut by a sharp citrus tang.
Buy now £34.99, Thedrinksbasket.com
Elephant Gin elephant strength, 50cl
A big, spice-filled bottle that’s packed with flavour, Elephant Gin’s navy strength version uses twice the quantity of the 14 botanicals found in the original strength. Slightly oily, the spirit has a lot going on, with sharper, cleaner flavours such as mountain pine and orange peel opening up to fruiter blackcurrant, liquorice and peppery notes.
While the gin is made in Germany, the botanicals are found in South Africa and include traditional medicinal plants such as buchu and baobab, alongside lion’s tail and devil’s claw. The name is no coincidence – 15 per cent of profits from each sale are donated to elephant conservation charities and bottles are inscribed with the name of one of seven elephants from Kruger National Park.
Buy now £32.94, Masterofmalt.com
Defiance navy strength premium gin, 50cl
Following in the footsteps of a founder, Manchester-based Defiance gin is the first British unaged white spirit to win at San Francisco World Spirits Competition since Plymouth Gin (£34.99, Thedrinksbasket.com) took the title in 2006. Though that’s largely where the similarities end with Plymouth.
Defiance is forest fresh with strong wafts of pine thanks to the tips of spruce, which have been foraged for the distillery. Underneath that initial hit of pine, the gin is robust and spicy, with several other foraged botanicals, including liquorice-tasting sweet cicely and citrus tangerine, as well as angelica root, nutmeg, and cinnamon. With all that fragrant aroma, try using it as a digestif after a big meal or muddle it up with tonic for an autumnal G&T.
Buy now £39.00, Defiancedistillery.co.uk
BeauFort fifty-seven smoked sipping gin, 50cl
Owned by The Prodigy drummer, Leo Crabtree, BeauFort fifty-seven has been crafted using a perfumer’s approach to gin-making. Inspired by naval officer Sir Francis Beaufort – the inventor of the eponymous scale, the blend uses smoked water to pay homage to the gunpowder test. The result is astonishing – and it’s not hard to see how it won a Gold Outstanding at 2020’s International Wine Spirit Competition – with flavours of smoked meats (yes, really), followed through by liquorice, coriander, and lemon peel. Ditch the tonic water and try it in a martini to best appreciate the explosion of taste.
Buy now £39.00, Beaufortspirit.com
Highland Liquor Co. seven crofts fisherman’s strength, 70cl
If there’s one good thing 2020 brought us, it’s the release of Highland Liquor Co’s seven crofts higher strength gin. Based on the northern edges of Scotland, the craft gin company pay homage to their home, with “Seven Crofts” named after the first seven buildings to found Ullapool. They’ve also dedicated the bottle to the seafarers of the region, with their “fisherman’s strength” label – and with a gin blend that’s as bracing as the Inner Seas.
At first whiff, seven crofts bites with peppery smells – and it’s there on our first gulp too, as black pepper and pink peppercorns give way to a fresh cardamom and lemon peel to round the whole thing off. Drink it with a splash of tonic – or for a real kick, in a dry martini.
Buy now £43.00, Tyndrumwhisky.com
Crossbill 200 single specimen dry gin 2020 edition, 50cl
Packing a punch in all aspects, this small batch gin uses only two botanicals: juniper handpicked from a 200-year-old bush outside the distillery and the wild rosehip that grows around it. There’s a wild berry sweetness on the nose with an undercurrent of bay leaves, and a smack of piney juniper on tasting. The spirit is distilled in a 150l still and bottled at strength – a rather heady 59.8 per cent. It was also the most expensive bottle we tried, though given the rarity of the juniper source and the limited number of bottles, this is worth the extra pounds.
Buy now £90.00, Buybritain.com
York Gin outlaw navy strength, 70cl
An award-winning gin that’s inspired by some of York’s more nefarious characters – namely Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin, and Mary Bateman – this bottle struck us with its smoothness. Almost creamy, the gin has a particularly rounded feel thanks to the double distillation process: the heads and tails are taken from their London dry, and redistilled with more botanicals to give it its complex flavour. There’s still a lot of bite, with earthy, peppery notes alongside cardamom and cloves for a warming finish. To really capitalise on those flavours, the team recommends mixing it up in a pepper martini: that’s ice, gin, black peppercorns, and a splash of soda.
Buy now £45.00, Yorkgin.com
Atlantic Distillery bowchaser, 70cl
A heftier, juniper-led gin which is lightened by creamy-tasting Cornish gorse and sharper, grapefruit-like citrus fruits, Bowchaser is best served with a good quality tonic and a wedge of orange and lime. The bottle has sustainability at its heart; Atlantic Distillery is the only Soil Association-certified spirit producer in Cornwall and uses 100 per cent organic ingredients to create their navy strength, many of which are grown onsite or handpicked from the surrounding area. They also work with a 100 per cent recycled glass company to create their bottles, and are planning on using wind power to sail them to markets out of Falmouth very soon – sounds like a seaworthy gin to us.
Buy now £46.50, Mygreenpod.com
Strane navy strength London dry gin, 50cl
It’s over to the west coast of Sweden for this juniper and spice-heavy bottle. Having conquered the single malt whisky world since opening just more than a decade ago, Smögen distillery have turned their attention to gin. Borrowing techniques from whisky production, former navy man and owner Pär Caldenby distills three base gins (citrus, herbal, and junipery) which are then all blended to create their desired taste. A kick of spice from the coriander and orris root characterise the first sip, with a lemon sweetness to round things off.
Buy now £49.00, Highfern.com
Brighton Gin seaside strength, 70cl
As fresh as the coast it’s from, Brighton Gin’s “seaside strength” was one of the more classic bottles we tried. Blended as a London dry, there are a lot of piney juniper flavours in there – they double the amount used in their standard bottle – with a candied orange sweetness and a smoothness from the milk thistle used to round the profile off for a weighty sipping gin. The team behind the brand work towards sustainability and they are now the first craft gin to be certified as 100 per cent vegan (including their wax seals and label glue). Plus, if you live in the Brighton and Hove area, keep an eye out for their powder blue gin bike, which delivers orders to locals.
Buy now £47.00, Brightongin.com
Conker Spirit RNLI navy strength gin, 70cl
One of the most well-balanced gins we sipped, Conker Spirit’s navy strength option blends spicier notes such as cassia and coriander with the sweet citrus of Seville orange. So far, so London dry. But with more interesting botanicals that include marsh samphire, elderberries and creamy-tasting gorse flowers, the distiller has dubbed this a “Dorset Dry”. It’s also reasonably priced for its size, at £43 for 70cl, and with £5 from every bottle going to the RNLI, this bottle still has close links to the sea.
Buy now £43.00, Ocado.com
Sky Wave navy strength London dry gin, 50cl
Inspired by both their travels and what’s on the doorstep, husband and wife team Rachel Hicks and Andrew Parsons have been showered in awards since opening their distillery in 2018. Distilled in small batches, Sky Wave navy strength has all the flavours of their accoladed original, in extra doses.
Muddled with 13 botanicals, the gin starts with a juniper-led foot, before earthy tones of coriander, cardamom, and cloves warm in the mouth. It’s all finished off with a sweet, fruity flavour, thanks in part to the raspberries picked from the distiller’s garden and blackberries foraged from the Oxfordshire hedge groves.
Buy now £46.00, Skywavegin.com
Ableforth’s bathtub gin navy strength, 70cl
Easily identified by its paper-wrapped bottle, Ableforth’s has become a household name in the UK. The navy strength version of their bathtub gin is quite a departure from the original due to their approach to distilling, which sees the botanicals cracked open in order to release as much of the flavour as possible. It seems to have worked; the 57 per cent spirit was one of the spiciest we sipped, with warming cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and a hint of black pepper leaving a lingering taste. With all that heat, this bottle will add some weight to cocktails – we suggest throwing it together with sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters for a gin Manhattan.
Buy now £43.90, Thewhiskyworld.com
Perry’s Tot navy strength gin, 70cl
A light, floral gin that we wanted to mix in summer G&Ts, Perry’s Tot has been flown over from America. The first navy strength gin created in the US, the blend is the work of New York distilling company, which has named the bottle after Matthew C Perry – that’s the naval officer, not the actor.
A blend of eight botanicals, the spirit starts with a sugar sweetness from the wildflower honey and sharp grapefruit and lemon, before being rounded out by the spicy cardamom and star anise. To bring out the citrus fruits further, mix Perry’s Tot in a traditional gimlet, with the lime cordial creating a sharp, fresh flavour for a sharp, fresh gin.
Buy now £48.00, Masterofmalt.com
VSOT Locksley, 70cl
With semblances to flavoured gins, Locksley’s VSOT (Very Special Old Tom) is one for sweeter teeth. The recipe came to founder John Cherry in the middle of the night, with a lightning bolt idea to combine navy strength with an Old Tom – the latter being popular in the 18th century and sits somewhere between a Dutch Jenever and London dry.
The result is something much sweeter than a standard gin, with smacks of sugar and floral notes cut through by citrus. Almost syrupy, the drink is smooth enough to drink straight over ice or used as an alternative cocktail ingredient.
Buy now £50.00, Locksleydistilling.com
The verdict: Navy strength gins
There were so many wonderful gins that we tried from big names and small batch distillers, that this list could easily have been twice as long. Every single bottle in the round-up had a unique flavour that was even more present at the higher ABV.
Ultimately though, there is one brand that serves as a benchmark for navy strength gin – whether it be your first time sipping or simply reminding yourself of a classic – and that’s Plymouth Gin’s navy strength. It’s a smooth, London dry with a well-rounded finish that will please all palates – plus, its link to the navy and history make it an excellent introduction to the genre.
An honourable mention also goes to BeauFort Fifty-Seven for its depth of smoky flavour, that’s rarely seen in a gin and we found to be one of the best for sipping straight or in a martini. Finally, Elephant Gin’s use of unusual botanicals, sourced from South Africa, gave it a spicy, deep flavour that really livened up a tonic.
Now you have an extensive guide to navy strength gins, it’s time to experiment and reveal the mixologist within with one of these best cocktail shakers