The Weasel: That's the spirit

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The Independent Online

Somewhat to my surprise, I encountered a concentrated whiff of the festive season round the back of the Oval cricket ground ("No admittance with alcohol or musical instruments"). I turned right at the magnificent gasometer whose daily detumescence was avidly recorded by the late Brian Johnston, then left and left again.

A puff of steam from the roof of a large, otherwise anonymous building indicated that I had reached my goal. Unusually for a Kennington back street, a pair of blazing gasoliers flanked the entrance. Greeted by a commissionaire clad all in black including top hat, he resembled a genial Dracula I made my way to the annual media lunch at the Beefeater gin factory or, if you prefer, a piss-up in a distillery.

Very well organised it was too: ceviche of sea bream, fillet of beef and honey and pine-nut tart, accompanied, as you might anticipate, by aperitifs, wines, digestifs and post-lunch cocktails. But the Weasel, ever the hard-bitten pro, eschewed such seasonal jollifications. More or less. Instead of taking a sharpener in the bar, I enjoyed a personal tour of the only distillery in London that still manufactures a major brand of London dry gin. Since, in the world of gin, London refers to a style rather than the place, London dry gin can be made anywhere, rather like Cheddar cheese. Gordon's and Booth's are manufactured in Scotland and, just to complicate matters, Bombay Sapphire is made not in the subcontinent but exotic Warrington.

"I must say it seems rather a shame," said Beefeater's master distiller Desmond Payne with appropriate dryness. "We've been making gin in London since 1820, first in Chelsea, then in Lambeth and here since 1958. This used to be a pickle factory and don't you dare say it still is." We were walking through storerooms where fragrant sacks of the botanicals used to flavour Beefeater are stored. The gin is still made according to the 1863 recipe of James Burrough, who invented the brand. "People think of gin as industrial, but it's a handmade product," declared Mr Payne. "Juniper, the one essential ingredient in gin, comes from wild bushes in Italy and Macedonia. People hit them with sticks and pick up the fallen berries. They get something for nothing, but I wonder how much longer it will continue." Every year, Beefeater requires 50 tons of the pungent little taste-bombs.

Other ingredients caused problems this year. The coriander crop failed in Russia, so Mr Payne had to pay top dollar in Bulgaria for the 20 tons he required. Trying to buy Florentine orris root, the fragrant rootstock of the iris, he found himself competing with an haute couture house. "Chanel No 19 contains a lot of it," shrugged Mr Payne. "As a result, orris root has doubled in price." Fortunately, other ingredients in James Burrough's recipe are somewhat easier to obtain. "We use both the root and seed of angelica from Belgium. Powdered liquorice comes from ..."

"Pontefract?" I interjected.

"China," continued Mr Payne. "Beefeater has a particularly strong citrus element. We use Seville orange peel. They pick the fruit in February and a couple of guys peel them with knives and dry the peel on washing lines. We buy three tons it's a lot of dried orange peel and slightly less lemon." There is one more essential ingredient that does not have to travel too far. Alcohol spirit at 96.5 per cent ABV comes from Greenwich, a couple of miles away. Uniquely in the gin world, Beefeater steeps its botanicals for 24 hours before redistilling the alcohol. Mr Payne opened a big still where the steeping was underway and I gingerly inserted my nose. A potent hit of oranges and spices, it was the 12 days of Christmas in a single sniff.

After seven hours distillation, when each of the botanicals from compliant orange peel to recalcitrant angelica makes a sequential contribution, the result is 30 million bottles per year of Beefeater. I asked the master distiller how he intended to celebrate New Year with his product? "I like a Martini 5:1 [five parts gin to one of Noilly Prat], but my favourite cocktail is the Negroni [equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, stir with ice and strain, serve with slice of orange]."

Though the recipe has remained unchanged for almost 150 years, there has been some tinkering with the packaging. Once a white-haired fellow, the Tower guardian on the label is now a virile youngster, apparently taking a purposeful stroll on the surface of the Thames between the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. It should be stressed that consumption of even this excellent spirit does not endow the drinker with miraculous abilities. The landmarks are a reminder that both name and product come from the heart of the capital. It is hard to think of anything more profoundly associated with London and I'm sure the owners Pernod-Ricard would be the first to agree.