Review: The Beefeater Gin Distillery tour, Kennington
September 3, 2016
Beefeater sells 35 million bottles of gin annually. Incredibly, it’s all produced here at the Beefeater gin distillery in south London – by just four people.
In fact, more people work in the visitor centre here than produce the gin. But these aren’t machine operators pumping out widgets at the push of a button – they are long-standing master distiller Desmond Payne and his three distillers. They make the world’s most popular gin by hand, in copper stills located in a surprisingly small and distinctly lo-tech building down a Victorian street in Kennington, beneath the skeletal Oval gasholder.
Tickets cost £12 and children are free, although they won’t get the complimentary gin and tonic at the end of the tour – even if they promise to give it to their parents. A gift shop selling Beefeater-branded cufflinks, scarves and notebooks as well as beautifully presented bottles of booze leads to a museum with recreations of Victorian stills and flapper-era speakeasies.
Gin has a fascinating and unsavoury London history, stalked for the most part by poverty, disease and crime. This must be part of its enduring fascination with the British, who are the biggest exporters of gin in the world. From semi-legal binge-drinking fuel to a fashionable snifter in gas-lit gin palaces, from mother’s ruin to the royal family’s favourite tipple, gin seems to be a reflection of our national history.
One of the most recognisable scenes in English art must be the drunken mother, her child spilling out of her arms, in Hogarth’s Gin Lane engraving. Hogarth reproductions are displayed here of course, as well as Cruikshank drawings of death’s-headed bar girls pouring spirits for poor and dissolute families – including babies. This reminded me a little bit of Jack the Ripper tours – an equally sordid yet bizarrely celebrated London heritage.
On a lighter note, there is ‘Captain Bradstreet’s Puss’, an eighteenth-century carved cat with a lead spout under his paw that discreetly dispensed black market gin to drinkers in Kew. See a brief history of the gin-based cocktail, and a display of historical Beefeater bottles that looks like my recycling bin on a Wednesday night. Visitors can also wonder at (and perhaps secretly approve of) the crassness of previous generations with some spectacularly chauvinist advertising from the 1970s, like this one (right).
After a wander through the museum, visitors are invited on the guided tour, which run half-hourly. Despite TripAdvisor users’ preposterous claim that this place is remote (er, okay, it’s not in Leicester Square, but it’s in zone 2, people), plenty of foreign tourists had made the intrepid trip south of the river.
Hosted enthusiastically by Adam, we were first taught about the base botanicals that flavour all of Beefeater’s ‘gins. There are nine in all, some familiar from spice racks, others not – juniper berries, Seville orange peel, lemon peel, coriander seed, angelica root, angelica seed, bitter almonds, liquorice and orris root, an oily base note that binds all those fragrances together, much as it does in perfumery. All are available for sniffing and scrunching, or secreting in your pockets to make up a free pot pourri for the downstairs loo at home.
Adam tells us that Beefeater London Garden gin is exclusive to the distillery, not sold anywhere apart from the gift shop, and is flavoured with thyme and lemon verbena. And Beefeater 24 is steeped with Chinese green tea, Japanese sencha tea and grapefruit peel – apparently created in 2009 with Asian buyers in mind, who’ve taken to making their G&Ts with actual tea, not tonic.
The copper stills in which all Beefeater gins are made can be seen through a glass ceiling in the visitor centre. They range from monsters containing over 2,000 litres to an original Victorian mini-still (‘Still 12’) in which Beefeater’s small-batch sipping gin, Burrough’s Reserve, named after the founder of Beefeater James Burrough, is made before being ‘rested’ for just 6–8 weeks in oak casks previously used for storing aromatic French liqueur Lillet.
Our guide explained the process: the nine botanicals are steeped in 98% alcohol neutral spirit for 24 hours in the still and diluted to 65% ABV with water. Then the stills are distilled by being gently heated, the vapour rising through the still before condensing as gin. What is distilled is cut, in the spirit safe which separates the impure ‘head’ and ‘tail’ of the gin from the purer ‘heart’. This is still stong stuff at 80% ABV, so the gin is again diluted by blending with water down to a more retailable 40%. The process is difficult to master, and a reminder that a real alchemy takes place here – gin is, in the end, nothing more than flavoured neat spirit and water.
At the end of the tour, there’s a welcome gin and tonic, included in the price of entry and taken in a custom-built bar area. Happily, they use Fever-Tree tonic water. After you’ve had this once, it’s impossible to go back to tinny Schweppes. Famously, gin and tonic was invented by colonial Brits in a bid to turn their dose of anti-malarial quinine (contained in tonic water) into something a little more palatable. They succeeded emphatically, but how long you’ll linger here depends on how much you like sitting on a table surrounded by strangers with no music. Perhaps Beefeater could stretch to a second gin to get the party started?
Failing that, there’s a good selection of gins from this great British brand in the gift shop – including Burrough’s Reserve, Beefeater 24, London Garden and export-strength Crown Jewel (50% ABV).
Beefeater Gin Distillery
20 Montford Place
Kennington SE11 5DE
Open Monday–Saturday 10–6