The Weasel: That's the spirit

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape