Sunday March 10, 2013
Spirit of London
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Our columnist visits the Beefeater Gin distillery, the only major gin distillery still operating in central London.
BEEFEATER Gin is one of the largest gin brands in the world, producing about 30 million bottles a year and sold in more than 100 countries around the world. So imagine my surprise when I visited their distillery in Kennington, London, and discovered how many people actually worked there.
“There are five of us – three stillmen, one receptionist, and me,” said the distillery’s master distiller, Desmond Payne, with a cheeky grin. “Every drop of Beefeater Gin is made here. We do the distillation process here, and then ship it to Scotland for bottling.”
With origins dating back to 1820, Beefeater Gin is the only major gin producer that still operates in London, a fact that Payne is very proud of.
“Beefeater Gin belongs to London! It’s a very important aspect of our brand – after all, Beefeater is named after the Yeoman Warders, who are the guards at the Tower of London, and hence has a very strong link with London,” said Payne.
With that in mind, the company is set to open London’s first ever gin distillery visitor centre in September, which will give guests the opportunity to learn about the history of gin through a series of interactive showcases, as well as watch the live gin production process in the distillery’s still house.
“Gin has always been at the heart of London’s history as well. The history of gin is amazing, and also scary!” said Payne, referring to the “dark days” of gin in 18th century Britain when it gained a negative reputation for causing social ills.
“Beefeater is also part of the industrial history of London – we are one of the few places left in central London that actually manufacture something these days.”
The proposed two-storey visitors’ centre will be incorporated into the present structure. During my visit, however, the building was still in its unassumingly plain state, looking more like an office block than a distillery. In fact, if not for a sign with the prominent Beefeater logo on the door, I probably would have walked right by it.
It was quite eye-opening to see just how simple the entire process of making gin actually is. The master distiller personally walked us through the process, from the selection of botanicals (Beefeater is infused with nine different botanicals – juniper, liquorice, almonds, orris root, angelica root, angelica seeds, coriander seeds, Seville oranges, and lemon peel), to the impressive array of stills, where the botanicals are steeped in neutral grain alcohol for 24 hours before being distilled into gin, after which it is transported to Scotland to be blended and bottled.
The overwhelming scent in the distillery is, of course, the smell of juniper, which Payne says is what makes gin, gin.
“A gin wouldn’t be a gin without the juniper taste. That’s a given. If you make a spirit that contains all the botanicals that are in Beefeater, but you leave out the juniper, it might turn out to be a lovely drink, but it wouldn’t be gin,” he said. “If you want to make a spirit that is not about juniper, that’s fine, but you can’t call it gin. Gin is about juniper, that’s the core of gin. But a good gin would be balanced out with other flavours and botanicals as well.”
Having established what a gin is, Payne then went on to explain what London gin (sometimes called London dry gin) is.
“Technically, London dry gin is about how you make the gin rather than where you make it. So, the first thing you need to know is that London gin does not have to be made in London! In the past, most of England’s population was in London, so naturally, most of the gin was made here; but that is not the case anymore – many of the London gin distilleries have moved out of London, except for us,” he said.
According to him, most gins are made by buying neutral alcohol, putting it in a still with all the botanicals, and then distilling it to make the gin. However, the distillation process is a barrier to certain things happening. For instance, you can’t get colour out of distilling. So if you want your gin to be theoretically blue and sweet, you have to do something to it after you’ve distilled it.
“Quite a few producers add something to their gin after it is distilled to add an added dimension or colour to it, which is perfectly legitimate,” said Payne.
“However, if you want your gin to be London gin, you can’t do anything to it after it’s been distilled. You can add water or more neutral alcohol, but nothing to alter the flavour. All the flavour has to come from the process of distillation, so it is up to the skill of the distiller to get the balance of the flavours and botanicals right. It’s a much stricter method of making gin, where the skill lies in the distillation process.”
This is where Payne’s expertise comes in. The master distiller has been making gin for 45 years, and joined Beefeater in 1995. He is recognised as one of the foremost experts on gin in the world.
“My job here is a custodian of the Beefeater brand, and to make sure that the recipe put together by our founder, James Burrough, stays the same, and that every bottle of Beefeater Gin you find in the world has the same quality.
Payne is also responsible for new product development, the most recent being the super premium Beefeater 24, which has added botanicals such as grapefruit, Chinese Green tea and rare Japanese Sencha tea.
Payne reckons that after “skipping a generation” in the past two or three decades because of the popularity of other spirits (vodka in particular), gin is ready to make a comeback, with a growing global cocktail culture resulting in more and more smaller artisanal gins popping up all over the place now.
“Spain is one of the biggest gin markets in the world, and a bar in Spain may have as many as 200 different brands of gin in stock!” he said. “The gin and tonic is probably the most classic way of drinking gin, but some people don’t like tonic water – they might find it too sharp or too bitter and the quinine taste is too medicinal. Well, if you don’t like tonic, try gin with something else then!
“Gin is probably the best spirit for cocktails. Most vodka, for instance, doesn’t have much flavour, but gin gives you a lot more character and flavours, which you can then introduce to other flavours. It’s a good drink to experiment flavours with, and it’s very hard to get a gin drink wrong!”
Michael Cheang is still amazed at how a distillery with only five people can make so much great gin. Reader response can be directed to email@example.com