BEEFEATER GIN: 24 HOURS OF LIGGING DANGEROUSLY
You want to know if there is a God? You want to know if he is a good God? You want to know if he is a loving God?
Well, yes there is and yes he is, and yes he does.
How do I know?
Well, I will tell you.
How, if the world was not watched over by a loving God, could someone like me get invited to an event like Beefeater Gin’s “24 Hour in London”
Although this was only the second one, this event is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends in the bar world and, when I was fortunate enough to spend time in the company of the estimable Sue Leckie at The London bar Show, she was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to join the proper writers and journo’s next time the event was held.
As luck would have it, the next “24 Hours in London” was going to be just a few days before I headed off to Japan on the next leg of the trip. Just what I needed to get the old motors running after the last few weeks of virus induced misery.
The idea originated from the fact that Beefeater, unlike any other gin, allows the botanicals to steep in the spirit used for 24 hours before it is distilled into gin. So, the brainwave went, you could bring some people in to the distillery, show give them the tour, let them help in the steeping of the botanicals and then, take them on a 24 hour tour of things that make London special before bringing them back, weary and bedraggled the next day, to open the stills and begin the distilling process.
It must have seemed like a good idea to Sue at the time and, indeed, for those on the receiving end of the largess of the good people of Beefeater, it is a splendid idea. For Sue and her organising colleagues however, it must be the stuff of nightmares. A handful of journalists expecting to be kept entertained for a whole day. Personally, I would rather have Larry Olivier work on my teeth.
Still, as ever, she and her chum, Abi approached the whole event with admirable enthusiasm and determination and, as the day approached, I kept getting little whiffs (no giggling at the back) from various sources about what was to come. I was a good boy though and made sure that, whenever anybody wanted to talk about it, I put my hands over my considerable ears and went “LA LA LA” at high volume. I wanted this to be a surprise.
Well, if it was surprises I wanted, I got plenty of those.
The morning of the 12th arrived with me already up and at ‘em by 6am, bags packed and ready like a six year old waiting to go off to Disneyland. My cab arrived at 7.30am to take me to the start of what was going to be one of the most fun days I can recall for a long time.
First stop, the distillery itself. Nestled next to The Oval Cricket Ground, The Beefeater Distillery has been here since the 1950’s when it moved from Chelsea and it remains the only major gin still to be distilled in London.
It has quite a history and, after we were treated to the first of many meals, in this case some excellent eggs Benedict
accompanied by some “Red Snapper” the gin original of The Bloody Mary, we were taken on a tour of the plant by Beefeater Master Distiller, Desmond Payne.
Now to say that Desmond has been doing this for some time is like saying that paris Hilton has trouble keeping her nipples under cover. Twenty Five years at rivals, Plymouth and a further twelve here, he is considered one of the finest in the business.
Gin, he explained is simply a base spirit to which botanicals (bits of plants to you and me) are added, the only compulsory one being Juniper which gives gin that unmistakeable aroma and taste.
Within those regulations, all sorts of things are possible. Modern distillers such as Hendricks use cucumber which imparts that wonderful summery note that makes it the perfect BBQ gin & Tonic. And, around the world, people are using all sorts of things in their gins to give it a different spin.
Beefeater, though is sticking to its original recipe. A recipe decided by the founder, Mr Burroughs back in the 19th century. Of course, Desmond was not going to let us in on family secrets, but he did take us down to the room where the botanicals are kept and show us the range from which they choose. Perhaps, most unusually, is the use of the dried peel of oranges and lemons from Seville which are handpicked and peeled by farmers specifically for Beefeater every year. Tons and tons of them.
It is this peel which gives Beefeater its unique citrus notes, notes that are retained because, unlike some of their competitors, Beefeater did not lower their strength to 37.5% to avoid duty but kept it at 40% because, as Desmond explained, as strength reduces aromas are lost and at 37.5%, the predominant aroma is nothing but Juniper.
It has had a few problems over the years, mainly of the image variety where people still thought of it as being the gin the Queen Mum had mixed with Dubonnet. But, that is all changing. An ultra-hip marketing campaign and a huge effort to win over the Mixologists of the World has seen Beefeater right back up there where it belongs to be as the gin of choice both at home and in any self respecting back bar.
And, they have done this without throwing the baby out with the bathtub gin by sticking to their traditional recipe one that has served them for over a century.
Now, it was our turn.
We were each given a rather fetching apron and a bucket and told to go and scoop up a range of botanicals. Then to the stills to add them to the base spirit, and that was it.
To see the difference it makes, Desmond talked us through a "noseing" and then a tasting of a variety of gins including the competition and a supermarket value brand. The results were very interesting with Beefeater standing up well against its rivals
Our work done for the day. Now the fun could begin.
And, how does a day’s fun begin with the good people of Beefeater? You may well ask. It begins with a drink in their well appointed bar. But these were not any old drinks. These were drinks prepared by Dan Warner and Charles Vexenat, the last two year’s Theme Magazine Bartender of The Year winners. Each took it in turn showing us classic cocktails for which Beefeater is perfectly suited. From a proper Cosmopolitan ( from the 1930’s for those of you who think it was created by Dale DeGroff for Sex in The City) made with fresh raspberries to the legendary Bramble, the creation of Dick Bradsell.
I was being good at this point ( it was after all, barely ten in the morning) so merely took a taste of each although I could have quite easily started knocking them back until the whole thing ended in tears.
After cocktails, it was time for lunch, we we had not eaten for a good couple of hours and we were ushered down the steps to the back of the factory to where two of the most beautiful vintage Rolls Royce Phantoms and one glorious 1932 Bentley were waiting to take us for a bite to eat.
I grabbed shotgun in The Bentley and cannot remember a time when I have been photographed so much since I last had a set of mug shots taken. Everytime we stopped at a set of lights, hordes of tourists and locals alike gathered, whipped out their cameras and mobile phones and started clicking away. There is not, nor will there ever be a car as magical as an old Roller and it was for me on e of the great thrills of the day to be able to ride in one.
If that was one of the thrills, then one of the surprises was that lunch was rather good too. Not because I thought that Beefeater would organise it badly, but because it was at The Inn in The Park in St James’ Park. It is run by Oliver Peyton whose restaurants I usually dislike intensely without visiting because it saves time.
In this case, however, a simple meal of grilled meats and salads was very enjoyable indeed, particularly when they offered more of Brambles to wash them down with and followed that up with the largest selection of puddings I have ever seen on one table in my entire lifetime.
I may say this again during the course of this post, but, if that had been the end of the day, I would have still considered it huge fun. But, of course, this was “24 hours in London” and we were only five hours in by this point.
Back in the vintage cars then to take us to Covent Garden and into the inimitable hands of “H.B” H.B is one of London’s more eccentric tour guides and that is saying something. But, he is known for his knowledge of matters gin and, for the next hour or so, he gave us a tour of Covent Garden and St Giles explaining the Hogarthian history of mother’s ruin, Gin Alley and the growth of the gin palaces.
I thought I knew a lot about London, but H.B showed us more thinks in eighty minutes than even I would have thought possible. All I can say is, be sure to look up the next time you pass Hawkmoor’s St George’s church in Bloomsbury.
So, we had done Rolls Royce’s, so what was going to be next? Well, what could be more London than a double decker bus? Not one of these modern pieces of junk either, a good old fashioned route master and all for we happy few.
Everyone seemed to be getting jolly excited by this point, so I knew something good was going to be happening soon. My heart sunk a bit when we pulled up next to The London Eye. Don’t get me wrong, it is a thing of beauty and has been the five or so times I have been on it, but it was cloudy and, well, been there done that.
How wrong I was. We detoured around The Eye and I found myself in the unlikely situation of having to put a lifejacket on as we prepared to step into a rather flimsy looking boat. Called, a “RIB” apparently, it appeared to be made almost entirely out of one sheet of plastic and it bounced most worringly as I took my first step from solid ground to water. I was even more alarmed when the captain’s only words of advice were “don’t fall in”
When it set off, I was thrown back in my seat and washed with spray from the lovely Thames. At least it woke me up which was no mean feat as, by 4pm, I was flagging and beginning to realise that we were only half way through the day.
I also realised that, as fast as this boat was going, it was only a means to an end, the end being a mo’ fo’ of a powerboat which awaited us under Tower Bridge.
No one said anything about speedboats. Well, if they did, they never said anything about them to me. They also never said anything about me being first up so the rest of them could see “ how bad it is”
Bloody hell. Bloody hell. First of all was the improbable sight of me squeezing my lugs into a crash helmet, then the equally improbable sight of my considerable arse squeezing into a small boat which was, to all intents and purposes, a tea tray attached to a jet engine.
Four minutes later, I returned, drenched in adrenalin sweat and very close to tears. What can I tell you. It was probably the very best fun I have had that did not involve the words ‘leave the money on the counter deary”
While the rest of them took their turns and went out in trepidation and came back in pant wetting excitement, I sat and caught my breath and also tried to catch a sneaky 40 winks. Not a chance. We have places to go and people to meet.
The bus picked us up again and whizzed us up to The Zetter Hotel where rooms had been booked for us all. Not that we were going to get much chance to use them, but we all took the opportunity to go and hose ourselves off and change before heading out again. I showered, did my obligatory naked version of Rick James’ “superfreak” in front of the mirror and got dressed. I looked at the bed. I looked at it longingly. As longingly as if it were a black pudding sandwich. But, I knew I had to be strong. If I had laid down for even a second, it would have taken more than a swift peck on the chops from someone calling himself Charming to wake me up.
So, I staggered down to the lobby where the rest of the weary throng were gathered, cleansed but withering inside.
However, the mention of more cocktails cheered us all up no end and we whizzed by taxi over to Hawksmoor, currently one of my bars of choice where half of us would have supper while the other half would do a bit of time travel before meeting up and reversing the process.
Well, if you did not know the history of 18 Folgate St and somehow stumbled across it by accident, you would be convinced that you had stumbled into the 18th Century by mistake. Either that, or you would be appearing in a series of Dr Who and would probably be killed off by episode 4.
18 Folgate St was the passion, obsession and folly of an American, one Dennis Severs. He bought the ancient old house in Spitalfields and proceeded to turn it into a home that looked as if an 18th Century family of weavers have just left. Food on the table, fires alight, wine in the cups. It was no museum though, he lived this way and now, even though he has been dead for some eight years, friends and trustees open the house once a week so people can come in and experience the madness of it all.
It is a freaky experience. Sound loops play giving the feeling that the family is still around. There is no electricity and everything is lit as it would have been in a house of the day.
There is a guide, but you are not guided nor are there any written aids. You merely experience it as if you were walking around someone’s home.
As an intense experience as that was, it pales next to the guide himself. A friend of Sever’s he really lived the part referring to the 18th Century as if it were the present. So much did he freak us out that, when we emerged blinking into the daylight, we all agreed that we had been huddling together for safety. A very, very strange experience made even more so by coming out into the bright light of a summer’s evening and walking the short distance to the ever bustling Hawksmoor for supper and a much needed stiff drink.
There is no need to dwell on supper at Hawksmoor. Superlative as ever. Great steaks, good chips, lovely wines and, this time complimented by some Neal’s Yard cheeses. My idea of perfection.
The group split up again at this point. For some, the lure of the cocktail was too strong and they headed back West to The Dorchester. Me? I had my tourist head on and joined Desmond and a few of the gang to go and see the Ceremony of the Keys at The Tower of London. In all my years in London, I had never been. In fact, I had not set foot in the Tower itself for over 20 years. Great fun it was too. The link with Beefeater means that Desmond has a very special relationship with the Yeoman Warders so we got to sneak in early and have a little chat before the ceremony itself.
A very fun little diversion and one added to by the next mode of transport. Karma Kabs. Perhaps the maddest form of transport in London. Three old Hindustans which looked like they had come straight of the set of a Bollywood film set. Equipped with loudspeakers playing bollywoods finest wailing at the tops of their voices we got even more attention than those beautiful vintage cars had done in the morning.
I was rather pleased when they plopped us out by our next port of call, the newly opened Pinchito. A lovely, small, hip Spanish bar where the Co-owner, Jason was going to instruct us on the ways of the “thrown” Martini. Inspired by the bars of Barcelona, Jason has been working on this new technique for some time now. It involves tipping your drink from a great height rather than mixing or stirring.
I am not convinced about the end result, but the process is fun to watch and, as I found out, fun to do. In fact, we all had a go with greater or lesser success. I like to think I did quite well. I think it may have been the bartender’s waistcoat I was wearing or it may have been that no one was looking. In any case, I managed to get most of it in the glass and little of it on me, Jason or the floor.
By now, I was dead. The rest of them seemed still full of beans, but me? I was ready to drop. So, to my shame, I cried off and headed back to the hotel for an all too brief three hour sleep while the rest of them headed off to Shoreditch House for even more cocktails and, rather worryingly, a bit of a swim in their rooftop pool.
It may be a cliché, but it is true that the moment my head hit the pillow, I was out like a light and just as soon as I put my head down, my alarm went off and I had to get up again.
It was time for breakfast and a very good one it was too. Smiths of Smithfield is the brainchild of chef, John Turode (now well known too for hosting Masterchef) and they have become very well known for their breakfasts. Well, I can see why.
To say that we were a weary crowd by this point would be the understatement of the, well, you get the picture. Some of us were head in hands. Others still seemed to be dressed in their bathrobes and some were still missing in action. It tells you all you need to know that I was one of the more sprightly of the throng and wolfed down my scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding and toast along with a large cup of tea without batting an eyelid. Bloody amateurs, the lot of them.
So, what was our final mode of transport? It probably wont come as any surprise to you when I use the words, Horse & carriage with liveried drivers.
Yep, to top it all, we headed outside and climbed into some rather lovely looking carriages and headed back to the distillery the old fashioned way. Also, the long way. It must have taken a good hour as we went all the way through town as tourists looked on bemused as a group of rather grubby looking folk many of whom were snoring, slumbered in the back of their regal looking transport.
Back at the distillery, our 24 hours were up and we stood by the stills and turned the valves to begin the distilling process which takes up to seven hours. We could have waited I suppose, but by this point, I am sure Desmond never wanted us to darken his distillery again. So, we left with promised of a bottle of our batch to be sent on afterwards.
What a day. Great fun, hugely well organised and efficient in showing a disparate group of mixers and journalists alike that Beefeater is both a true London gin, but also a gin for all tastes and seasons
Mind you, I have always loved it so they were preaching to the converted. But, as sermons go, it was one of the best