Monday December 28, 2009
A toast to London
If London had a taste, Beefeater Gin may just be it.
BEEFEATER Gin is the world’s No.1 premium gin with annual sales of 2.4 million nine-litre cases, enjoyed in over 100 countries.
It has won more awards than any other gin since it was first recognised with a gold medal at the International Exhibition of 1873, and is consistently placed in the top three at the world’s most prestigious spirit competitions.
In 1969, Beefeater was the only gin on board the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth II to New York.
It is the only major premium gin distilled in London, the birthplace of London Dry Gin (more on the designation later) and once the industrial centre for England’s national spirit.
Righty-ho, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get down to what makes Beefeater special.
It has a lot to do with the ability of Master Distiller Desmond Payne to recreate the unique original recipe developed by pharmacist James Burrough in the 1860s, and make sure the quality and standard of Beefeater Gin remains consistent.
With over 40 years in the business, 15 of them in his current position, Payne is involved in everything from selecting the juniper berries (the principal ingredient in gin) to discussing the latest cocktails.
“Choosing the Seville oranges, the juniper and all the other botanicals that provide the right balance for Beefeater is the most skilful part of my job – it’s also the bit I enjoy most,” he says.
Nine botanicals are essential in creating the spirit’s award-winning flavour: Juniper, of course, as that is the principal ingredient, and imparts an oily, piney taste; coriander seed, for a peppery finish; dried lemon and Seville orange peel, which give Beefeater its instantly recognisable citrus notes; almond, which brings a hint of marzipan and nuttiness; angelica root, for earthiness; angelica seed, for its floral character; liquorice, for that characteristic woody, bittersweet flavour; and orris root, to hold all the volatile elements of the other botanicals together.
Given that these are all natural products which are completely at the mercy of the climate, getting the perfect botanical isn’t an easy task. It’s even harder for juniper, which grows wild on the hills of Umbria in Italy. It’s harvested in early October by people who hit the branches with a stick and collect the berries as they fall. Payne needs 50 tonnes of these berries and works on a two-year stock.
“When I retire, that’s the business I’ll go into,” Payne tells a group of Malaysian journalists who had the privilege of touring the Beefeater distillery in Kennington, south-east London, recently.
Unlike other premium gins, the nine botanicals are steeped for 24 hours prior to distillation. This long, slow process, according to Geraldine Coates’ Beefeater London: The Story Of London’s Gin, “allows for both a fuller extraction of flavour from the botanicals and the capture of a wider range of the more volatile oils, resulting in a more complex gin.”
London dry gin is officially defined as a type of distilled gin that is made by re-distilling spirit and natural flavourings, primarily juniper; it may not contain added sugar or colourants, water being the only permitted additive.
A London dry gin doesn’t mean it has to be made in London, although the name is derived from the city that was the centre of the gin trade in its early days.
Today, Beefeater, acquired by beverage conglomerate Pernod Ricard in 2005, is the only distillery that operates out of London, an association the brand uses to striking effect in its new “Forever London” advertising campaign together with the iconic image of the Yeoman Warder, popularly known as the Beefeater, that has been on every bottle since 1883.
Beefeater 24, created by Payne from 12 botanicals with a rare blend of teas at its heart, is the new London gin dedicated to the city and pays homage to its 24-hour glamorous lifestyle.
With its complex flavours, Beefeater Gin can be the star of a drink or combined in cocktails.
“Gin is a sociable drink, it mixes well,” says Payne.
This gregarious nature of England’s national spirit started way back in the early 17th century, when English soldiers and sailors acquire Dutch courage in the form of genever, a Dutch juniper-flavoured grain spirit, as a confidence booster before battle. They bring home the taste for genever and the drink later becomes fashionable in the royal courts.
When England’s Distilling Act of 1690 bans French imports of wine and brandy, and later allows anyone to take up distilling, spirits become cheaper than beer for the first time.
In 1730, in some parts of London, especially the area around Oxford Street once known as St Giles, one house in three sold gin. As the Gin Craze takes hold, London, in particular, falls into shambles. Judith Dufour kills her baby so she can sell the child’s clothes for money to buy gin, a case William Hogarth graphically illustrates in his famous engraving Gin Lane and becoming a rallying point for anti-gin crusaders.
But by 1751, legislation effectively controls the production of cheap gin and paves the way for respectable companies to begin making quality products.
The invention of the continuous still in 1832 gave birth to a more gentle and purer gin compared to the sweet, heavily flavoured spirit that fuelled the Gin Craze. It came to be known as London Dry because most of the distillers who made this style of gin were based in the city.
Instead of drinking it to get drunk as the slum-dwellers did before, gin found new fans in a more genteel class. Makeshift drinking dens made way for Gin Palaces, which introduced the idea of a drink as a social pleasure.
And that is how it has remained to this day.