The Beefeater Distillery
Considering the ongoing love affair that I have had with gin for some years now, it seemed only natural that I would end up exploring a distillery in one of the countries that this majestic drink became rather famous in. The Beefeater Distillery is situated in a quaint building in Kennington, London, and offers a unique experience with what was once known as Mother’s Ruin.
At only £12, which at the time was just under R200, the tour was a unique and affordable experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The start of the tour was self guided, with interactive videos and displays which were highly entertaining. We were given an iPad which we used to unlock bonus material, offering a wealth of knowledge previously unbeknownst to me.
A display of James Burrough's distilling items
A copper still and various botanicals on display
The drink has become so popular in recent years, it is easy to forget the myriad of stigmas and largely negative connotations that gin once held, particularly in London during the 1700s. The ‘gin craze’ of the 18th century was not a happy period. Known then as Genever, the poorly distilled drink was cheap and thus ideal for the lower income earners. The affordability helped lead to its wild popularity which soon had negative societal effects. With most of the city pickled in alcohol and morals at an all time low, Parliament was forced to pass five major acts in order to control gin consumption.
I was particularly disturbed by a copy of a print by Henry Fielding titled ‘Gin Lane’ which depicted the depravity of the city at that time. The image includes a gin crazed prostitute reaching for her snuff box as her infant falls from her breast to its death, another mother silencing her child with a shot of gin, a crazy man holding an impaled baby, a barber hanging himself in his shop because no one can afford him and a pawnbroker inspecting items that a desperate couple is attempting to sell. Rather dark I must say. And a far cry from the drink I have come to adore.
'Gin Lane' The disturbing print by Henry Fielding
The self-guided half terminated in a passage lined with Beefeater ads, some of which were a little worrisome I have to admit. Along a different part of the wall was a world map dotted with tiny bottles of Beefeater, in tribute to that fact that there is only one Beefeater distillery in the entire world. If you think about it, that means that any bottle of Beefeater that you purchase and buy from any country anywhere else, is from this petit distillery in the heart of London. A sticker above the gin-African continent stated that over 30 588 000 bottles of Beefeater gin were sold globally in 2013. The maths is mind blowing, making every bottle a unique masterpiece.
Various vintage Beefeater adverts
A map of Africa dotted with gin bottles
My appreciation for the distillery intensified as we were led to the guided section of the tour. After being requested to turn flashes off phones and remove all flammable devices due to the nature of a working distillery, I was set slightly on edge for fear of accidentally igniting something by walking too quickly or some other odd imagining of my overactive mind. Fortunately no such incident occurred and I managed to snap a few photos without destroying everything. Our guide showed us old and working stills, a batch of gin that was currently being distilled as well as the pièce de résistance--the original copper still which had been used by the founder of Beefeater gin, James Burroughs himself. Establishing himself at the same time as Alexander Gordon and Charles Tanqueray, James opted for the iconic protectors of the crown jewels, the Beefeaters or Yeomen of the Guard, to represent his gin. I think the first title was probably able to fit on the label a little easier.
Giant stills that are no longer functioning
James Burrough's original still can be seen in the far right corner. The tiny copper thing next to the window
The master distiller himself - James Burrough
Anyone wishing to purchase the gin that is distilled in the original still should be on the lookout for Burroughs Reserve Edition 2 which is rested in red and white Bordeaux oak casks, giving this magnificent creation various and complex notes including oak. At over a grand a bottle, it was unfortunately out of my budget. Instead I opted to purchase a bottle of Beefeater London Garden which is distributed only at the distillery and contains thyme and lemon verbena (which is a lemon flavoured plant) as additional botanicals.
Once we had sniffed some lemon rinds that had been soaked in alcohol for botanicals, along with the heads and hearts of one of the batches, it was finally time for the tour to come to a close.
Distilled gin runs through these contraptions. The heads and heart samples are on the right hand side
We headed back out to a fancy bar where we were each made a lovely gin and tonic and allowed to reflect on the wonder of all we had seen in the past hour. Obviously I squeezed in a few selfies while savouring the delicious drink made right there in the factory.
A tasty G&T at the lovely bar
I think I am awed by history and the magnitude of things, which is why I came away from the tour so happy and satisfied. I can say for certain that I will never look at Beefeater gin in the same way again. Or any gin for that matter. Leaving London, I found myself having a far greater appreciation than I had before entering that small brown building on Montford Place.
If anything, my love for gin has only increased and I have begun to procure some rare bottles not easily found in South Africa. So thank you, London, for allowing me to gain such luxuries to enjoy now that I am back home, getting into the thick of things and existential crises once more.