PRESTIGE SELECTION TOUR #2: BEEFEATER LONDON
These days Beefeater, with its world-renowned Tower Guard label, is the last large gin producer still making its products in London. Beefeater invited Munich-based bartender Andreas Till for a tour of its headquarters in Kennington, and we tagged along for a look behind the scenes.
Really? Just four guys? This sums up the astonishment of the German delegation when Pernod-Ricards Beefeater Brand Ambassador Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, who is our guide for the distillery tour, confirms precisely how many people are responsible for the production of every single drop of Beefeater. Desmond Payne, acknowledged as the gin segment’s most experienced distiller, is not here today. But we constantly run across Keith, Will and Dave, who are in charge of the day-to-day production duties. They’re unavoidable really, running around doing all of the associated work from filling the “steep”, where the botanicals are macerated in neutral grain alcohol, right through to testing the final cut.
Bartender “rousing the steep”
Stirring the mixture of botanicals and alcohol is called “rousing the steep”, and Andreas Till was also given the opportunity to give the huge plastic stirring rod a go himself. If one wanted to draw off a “Till Limited Edition” from the mix, it would be enough for no less than a good 4,000 bottles thanks to the varying sizes of the stills that are used. They run from between 3,236 and 6,300 liters and are used alternatively for macerating the botanicals and for distillation. The beautiful old copper pot stills we pass between the former Botanical Room and the current production facilities are now only for decoration or on hand as reserves. “Seb” Hamilton-Mudge explains, “Back when the quality of the neutral alcohol still fluctuated greatly, we would do distillation here”. But the practice of macerating the botanicals has still been retained in the column distillation approach, and no distillation takes place until the steep has been macerated first. At this juncture, Mr. Hamilton-Mudge confirms a popular rumor Andreas inquires about: The strong “Monday Gin”, distilled on Mondays from the previous Friday’s maceration, is always blended into a week’s Beefeater production.
During this process the individual components are volatile at different times, with the orange and citrus oils coming through first. This is why the “Morning Cut” smells like a bitter-orange marmalade, while the “Midday Gin” we also tested has far more prominent earthy notes. Achieving the right aromatics is no picnic, particularly since the quality of the juniper also plays a role. The Botanical Room is always filled with the next two years’ supply, packed in 25 kg bags. 15 tons of juniper alone are used each year as the dominant element in the gin’s taste. Italy and Macedonia supply the best juniper qualities, but the blend of three to five varieties is reconfigured each year. Mr. Hamilton-Mudge tells us, “We call that ‘The Big Sniff’. That’s when we immerse the samples in neutral alcohol and then do laboratory analysis”. He goes on to tell us that 200 samples are tested per harvest, because flavor continuity cannot be maintained without a consistently good juniper blend.
Tea gin in your tea?
Located near the legendary Oval cricket grounds, the Beefeater distillery shipped out 30.5 million bottles of gin last year. They can all be traced back to the recipe from James Burrough. Burrough began experimenting with gin in 1870 to augment his production of other spirits. In 1879 he wrote down his first bitter orange-based recipe, the ingredient which is still the primary essence in his gin’s taste today. His portrait still hangs in the “Director’s Office”, occupied now by Desmond Paynes. Paynes started out in 1969 at Plymouth Gin and worked his way up to the position of Distillery Manager there. After a wait of almost 40 years, Paynes was finally able to witness the premier of his own gin recipe in 2008 with the introduction of “Beefeater 24”. Inspired by a visit to Asia, Paynes’ gin uses tea as a botanical. On our tour we were given a taste of the two teas which are responsible along with grapefruit peels for the taste of “Beefeater 24”. The Japanese Sencha tea is distinctly different from the Chinese tea, which is most notable for its tannin and the structure this brings to the mix.
“Thyme” only for guests
Our tasting session wouldn’t have been complete without a nip of the “Endemic Edition”, i.e. “London Garden”, the special gin you can only get at the distillery. London Garden was created in 2014 for the opening of Beefeater’s new visitor center and features unusual thyme and lemon verbena herbal notes. To find out how this rare gin works in a cocktail, the German delegation visited Ryan Chetiyawardana’s nearby bar, Dandelyan, the only bar to use London Garden in a signature drink. The cocktails there kicked off a visit to Beefeater’s namesakes, the red-uniformed “Yeoman Warders” AKA “Beefeaters” charged with guarding the Tower of London. The famous gin takes its logo and name from these esteemed sentries, and as one might imagine, the ties between the warders and the gin manufacturer are friendly.
Our accompanying bar experts Claus Föttinger and Andreas Till benefit from this warm relationship after witnessing the “Ceremony of the Keys”, the ritual marking the closing of the Tower’s three gates, going back more than 700 years. This is because in addition to their guard duties, the 38 warders currently in service, all required to be decorated military veterans, also have their own bar. The wall decorations and historic collectibles (“I like to tell visiting Americans that our clock is older than your country!”) create a very special atmosphere in which to enjoy these special gin and tonics at the source, so to speak. This unique ambience is underscored by stories from the Lieutenant Commander such as, “To be beheaded here, you had to be a friend of the King’s”.
New! Oak rested “Beefeater”
In the end we head back to the less martial halls of the distillery, which has equally dedicated a number of rooms to the London of old. Beefeater’s small Gin Museum traces what our guide Seb Hamilton-Mudge cites as “the first genuine drug problem”, the “Gin Craze” as depicted by William Hogarth. The “House of Gin” humorously references the Prohibition Era before leading us through the drink’s late 20th century golden age and the original advertising posters that accompanied it.
The tour finishes up with a visit to the aging cellar, where Beefeater stores its new “Burrough’s Reserve” gin resting in oak casks. While the wood lends a light golden hue to the gin we tasted, the main reason for the cask aging according to Mr. Hamilton-Mudge is actually the flavor. He stresses that “…the gin character should always be recognizable”. There are few secrets kept at Beefeater, aside from the experimental casks stored in the background. They may well be replacements for the former Jean de Lillet casks used with Burrough’s Reserve up to now, but a “Don’t ask – Don’t tell” gentlemen’s agreement was reached on the subject. All we can reveal is that these casks are also from France. For any purists rolling their eyes with the suspicion that gin may now be aping whisky, ex-bartender Seb Hamilton-Mudge eagerly responds that the best thing about gin is its diversity. Elaborating he says, “Gin is not like high-end malts that live in their own exclusive world. Yes, we’re in the Martinis at the Savoy, but we’re also down at the local pub and with the granny who’s been drinking gin & tonic for 50 years”. And that’s unlikely to change in the next 145 years of the Beefeater story.
Translation by J.J. Collier.
Foto: Photos via C. Föttinger