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Best of British – Beefeater Gin and more:
Despite being born and bred in South London, and being rather partial to the odd gin, it had somehow escaped me that the Beefeater distillery was on my doorstep in Kennington, tucked away behind the Oval cricket ground. An invitation to tour the distillery on none other than World Gin Day soon put that right.
Waiting for the tour to start I was rather excited by the merchandise in the gift shop. There were the usual bags, pens, drinks coasters, as well as bottles of gin (some of which can only be pruchased from the distillery), but the celebration crackers caught my eye, each containing a minature bottle of Beefeater; these have to be better than the normal Christmas ones or could even prove to be a welcome wedding favour!
The distillery has been on this site since 1958, although the London dry gin was first produced in 1876 in other south London sites. These old stills in the photograph below aren’t in use any longer, but are soon to be replaced with new ones to order to increase capacity. As we entered the distillery itself, the first thing to hit me was the smell; that wonderful juniper aroma.
The challenge for today’s master distiller, Desmond Payne, is to ensure that each bottle tastes the same as the original recipe. In fact, he personally chooses the juniper berries to be used in the London dry gin. We were allowed to touch, smell, and taste each of the botanicals used (apart from the almonds) to help us understand the different components of the gin. These are hand-weighed and distilled by just three still men, producing an astounding bottle of gin a minute.
It seems that Desmond was inspired by a trip to Japan (where he disliked their sweet tonic and had a gin and green tea instead) to make a new gin, adding green tea, Japanese sencha tea, and dried grapefruit, which makes Beefeater 24 rather different to the original. This was Alex’s favourite gin when we got to the tasting part.
The botanicals are steeped for 24 hours in the alcohol. We were shown the time effects; glass one was cloudy when water was added and was taken from a still in production for 12 hours, the second was noticeably clearer when water was added after the full 24 hours maturation.
To be told that you “haven’t made the cut” is a phrase that is well-understood, but I’d never given a second thought as to the origin of the phase. It’s all down to gin distillation! As the liquid passes through the Spirit Safe, the still men determine, by nose alone, which parts of the run will be used to make Beefeater gin. The early parts (the head) and the end (the tail) are discarded. Only the flavours from ‘the middle cut’ will become Beefeater gin. This is called this the ‘perfect cut’ and every drop of Beefeater is treated to this attention to detail. The alcohol that doesn’t make the cut is sold on to used wet wipes and so on.
Having learnt all about the botanicals, we were put to the test. We were given 6 glasses to smell and had to say which botanicals they were. One of our group scored an impressive 6/6, I fared less well, with a score of 3/6. The master distiller goes through full olfactory tests annually to ensure that he’s not losing his touch, so to speak.
Next stop on our tour was the tonic test. We were firstly given the tonics on their own and then mixed with the original London Dry gin. It was very interesting to see how some had lost their sparkle pretty quickly and what a difference it made to our enjoyment of the gin and tonics. Very interestingly, in a group of 6 people, we varied widely in our preferences; although there were about 3 of us who opted for the same tonic as first choice (Britvic).
It seems that Desmond’s passion for gin extended into wanting a digestive. Used oak barrels from Lillet were used to make Burroughs Reserve Edition No 1, and then, No 2 using the red Lillet barrels. This gin is best served chilled in glasses of the shape shown below, as you drink to the bulbous bottom part the intensity of the gin changes. Served with a strong cheese, such as Comte, and dried figs, this was gorgeous.
We paused briefly to eat at the French streetfood van outside before heading into the ‘House Party’. The burgers were made from slow cooked boeuf bourguignon and served with a lot of cheese. They were delicious and huge. Diet starts next week!
We then headed into the House Party. Armed with a gin and tonic we were entertained by a solo singer with an acoustic guitar, a female beat boxer, and a chap that I remarked sounded like Ian Dury. It turned out that Baxter is actually his son. I’m better at identifying singers than I am botanicals it seems. It’s strange to think that he was that little boy on the iconic album cover with his dad.
The House Party is having a break for the summer but will be resuming the autumn.
This was a fascinating afternoon and a lot of fun at the House Party. Please do look out for future events.
We were guests of Beefeater Gin.