When I received an invitation to the Beefeater Gin School, it was like getting a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I adore gin. I have drunk it neat, mixed and on one evening in Paris, stirred into my soup.
Don’t try this last one as not only is it an awful combination, if you do it at a party like I did people will wonder why: a) a perfect stranger is making soup in their kitchen, and b) he is adding good quality gin to it.
It is a love which explained why I was eagerly trotting along Kennington Park Road early on a cold November morning. The distillery has no cast iron gates like Willy Wonka’s factory but has been occupying the site since 1820. To start with, an assorted group of us were introduced to Desmond Payne, the master distiller who has been involved in producing gin for over forty years. Although not as eccentric as Mr Wonka, he has the same amount of knowledge and passion for his product.
The day started with a tour of the facilities by which Beefeater gin is produced. Gin is a substance that has always been viewed with derision and seen as a drink of ne’er-do-wells and villains. From Hogarth’s Gin Lane to bathtub gin made during the American Prohibition of the 1920s, to the Rolling Stones’ ‘gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis’, gin has been accused of perpetrating the same kind of social ills for which other drugs are blamed today. This is based on the assumption that gin is a very crude drink to make compared to other spirits.
However, a great deal goes into a bottle of gin. Juniper berries are the main constituent and this is added to by such things as orange and lemon peel, coriander and a variety of spices going under the general name of botanicals. These are steeped in the neutral grain spirit for 24 hours before being distilled.
After a presentation on Beefeater’s newest gin, a spirit incorporating tea and grapefruit as one of its botanicals, the group took to the bar for gin-based cocktails. Here we were not only given a range of exquisite creations but Bartender of the Year Dan Warner gave an entertaining account of the history behind all of the drinks presented.
The day had to end some time and although I was not given the keys to the distillery like Charlie, I left with a greater appreciation of the intricacies of how the wonder that is gin comes to be produced.