Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Trip to the Beefeater Distillery

My world seems to be a gin world lately. I go to Martin Miller's Gin cocktail contests and to Plymouth Gin events. During my recent trip to attend the launch event for the new Beefeater 24 product, I had the opportunity to tour the fabled Beefeater distillery—the only gin distillery still operating within the borders of old London town. (It was founded in 1820.)

Guess how many people it takes to run this place? What do you think? 100? 200?


I about fell over when I heard that one.

One of those seven is Beefeater's master distiller Desmond Payne, and it was he conducted the tour.

We met in Payne's splendid little office, when hangs a portrait of Beefeater founder James Burrough, and Payne made many deferential comments of quintessential English self-effacement about how he felt Burrough watching him at all times. There were a number of old Beefeater products on display. Like Heinz 57, which once produced many foodstuffs, but now is only known for ketchup, Beefeater once rolled out a whole line of alcoholic beverages, including Sloe Gin, and aniseed, black current and clove-flavored liquors. None stuck except the London Dry Gin.

Also on display was Beefeater's latest innovation, Beefeater 24. Already part of the family. It's released in the U.S. in March.

Payne took us to a room where visitors can sample the botanicals that go into regular Beefeater. These include: Juniper, Angelica Root, Angelica Seeds, Coriander Seeds, Liquorice, Almonds, Orris Root, Seville Oranges, and Lemon Peel. Also available to touch and smell were the three extra things that go into Beefeater 24: Japanese Sencha tea, Chinese Green teas and Spanish grapefruit peel.

Then it was on to the distillery itself. The incredibly long-necked pot stills were quite a sight to see. Beefeater does something interesting that other ginmakers don't, in that it lets the botanicals steep in the neutral spirit for 24 hours before the distillation process began. I got to stick my head inside one of the stills where the soup of herbs and berries had been soaking for a few hours. It's an intense, fragrant odor one isn't likely to forget soon. It knocks you back a bit. Desmond said he sometimes took the raw, yellowish alcohol inside these still and mixed himself a drink with it.

We then walked into a further room where the distilled spirit is collected. Payne keeps track of every batch, checking it regularly to decided where to cut it off and what parts of the distillate to use. We were able to sniff Beefeater gin collected at 10 AM, 10:30 AM, 11 AM, etc. The differences were remarkable. The first carried mainly the citrus elements. The second was noticeably more mature. Payne said that each botanical comes through at different times in the process.

The the worlds of wine and spirits, there's nothing like seeing how the stuff is actually made at the place where it is made. I came out of the tour feeling I understood Beefeater gin, and gin in general, much better than I had going in.

No comments: