27 August 2015

Gin - The Spirit of London at the Beefeater Visitor Center

Lobby and shop, Beefeater's Visitor Centre.
During a recent trip to London your correspondent and her DH toured the newly opened (2014) Beefeater Visitor Centre [sic], located at the Kennington distillery, near the Oval tube station.

I must hasten to add that this post is in no way intended to promote the consumption of alcoholic beverages in general or Beefeater gin in particular.  There may also be questions of how this relates in any way to textiles, the purported theme of this blog. There are days when the sewing machine needle has broken three times, or the knitting ends in tears - at those times,  a single icy gin-and-tonic can help untangle knotted nerves.

Beefeater is the last large-scale distiller of the type of gin known as London Dry still located in London.  In 1862, James Burrough, trained as a pharmacist, bought an existing distillery and produced his first gin a year later. A brilliant brand strategist, he grasped the value of heritage and patriotism in product promotion.  Burrough established an affinity between his product and an English icon - the Beefeaters, the nickname for the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London. (Note: if you visit the Tower, don't call them Beefeaters; they prefer their proper title.)  While the design of the label on the bottle of London Dry Gin has evolved over the decades, an image of a Beefeater remains the dominant design element.


Exterior of distillery.

The visitor tour, which cost 12 pounds (about $18) has two parts: 1) a self-guided tour through an exhibit on the history of gin and the Beefeater brand, and 2) a guide-led exposition of the distillation process, and a glimpse of the stills.  And of course, no visit to a distillery would be complete without a sample of the product so at the end of the tour we enjoyed a complimentary gin-and-tonic (a non-alcoholic option is available.)

The history of food and beverage provides an alternate lens through which to examine society and culture, and the history of gin is particularly rich in connections to economic and political events, beginning with the ascension of William and Mary to the English throne in 1688. Originally from the Netherlands, the home of gin ancestor genever, William relaxed the rules for distilling spirits from grain, thus providing a welcome market for the surplus wheat and maize produced by English landowners, and winning their enduring political support.

William Hogarth and Henry Fielding, campaigners against cheap gin.

However, the availability of cheap gin created a population of binge-drinkers, an issue with which reformers would grapple until the government began to tackle the poverty and hopelessness which underlay public drunkenness.

While reformers tackled this issue, products from the colonies began to make their way to the port of London in the 19th century, including herbs, spices and fruits which a new cadre of gentlemen distillers, interested in a consistent, refined product to sell to the middle class, blended to make the gin we recognize today.

Gin really came into its own with the advent of the cocktail, in the early 20th century.  After a period of decline during the 1970's - think rum-based drinks served with paper umbrellas - gin has made a comeback.  All this history is on display at the tour or, if you aren't planning a trip to London, in the engaging book Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin became the Spirit of London by journalist Olivia Williams (ISBN  978 1 4722 1534 5).

Captain Bradstreet's wall-mounted gin dispenser.

Early attempts to curtail the availability of cheap gin only served to push the trade underground, or in the case of one Captain Bradstreet, who surfaced in London in 1736, to invent an early form of vending machine.  To avoid detection as an unlicensed purveyor of gin, Bradstreet bought a wooden sign of a cat, fitted it with a small lead pipe and mounted the assembly in the wall of a house leased by an acquaintance. Thirsty customers fed coins into the cat's mouth, whispered "Puss" and waited for an answering "Mew".  Now safely acknowledged, the customer would request "twopennyworth of gin" and hold their vessel up to Puss's paw.

A very popular cat!

The design of the visitor's center is delightful; the stairwell is a lively billboard of key gin-related words and phrases, in the Beefeater palette of red, black, gray and tan.

Visitor Center stairwell.

The exhibit also celebrates the career and contributions of master distiller Desmond Payne, and rightly so, as Mr. Payne, with his innovative but very potable special edition gins, is a major contributor to what author Williams labels the Ginnaissance. 

Video and images of distiller Payne.

After looking at the displays, we went through the door below, for an inside look at the ingredients and process of spirit distillation. By the way, the name "spirit" was applied to fermented alcohol as medieval brewers thought the fermenting grain, bubbling and fomenting, was inhabited by spirits.

Entrance from exhibit to the distillery.

Once inside, our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide Rosaria led us over to nine large orange cylinders filled with the botanicals used in Beefeater. The exact proportion of these ingredients is a secret known only to master distiller Payne and three other distillery staff; when they travel they must do so in at least two separate vehicles.  By law, gin must feature juniper berries and, for export to the US, be 40% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 80 proof. Besides these two criteria, the rest of the formulation is up to the distiller; the selection and combination of botanicals makes each gin distinctive.

Beefeater London Dry uses essentially the same formula perfected by Burrough, with nine botanicals: juniper berries, coriander seed, lemon peel, Seville orange peel, almonds, angelica seed, angelica root powder, licorice, and orris root powder.

Display of botanicals.

Once the botanicals are sourced, they are placed in the copper pot still with the alcohol to steep for 24 hours. (In the image below the mechanical gizmo at the top is an air-conditioning unit; ignore it.)

Step 1: steeping the botanicals in neutral grain alcohol.

Once the botanicals are steeped, the mix is distilled by boiling - step 2.  Some of the condensed vapor will become gin.  The volatile oils in the botanicals vaporize at different rates - the citrus notes release easily, so the early condensate will feature citrus aromas and little else.  In contrast, the juniper oils, pine-y resins, don't release from the berries until heated for some time, so at the end of the distillation there will be a preponderance of juniper.

During distillation, some of the condensing liquid is funneled into a metal and glass "spirit safe," allowing the distiller to monitor the progress of the distillation. The early, citrusy part of the distillate - the "head" - isn't used for bottling. Likewise, the last portion of the distillate  - the "tails" - isn't used either. Just the middle portion, where all the botanicals are in balance, is used, or "makes the cut," in distillation parlance.

Tour guide Rosaria next to spirit safe.

The "middle cut" distillate, essentially highly concentrated gin, is shipped, in discreetly labelled tanker trucks,  to Scotland, where the gin is blended with water, bottled, then shipped throughout the world.

A glimpse of the stills.

We viewed the stills through large glass windows, and DH thinks he saw Mr. Payne himself.  At the end of the tour Rosaria poured excellent gins and tonic for us, with Beefeater's garnish of choice, a lemon slice, and Fevertree brand tonic - delicious.

Various Beefeater gin products.

Our gin expert and gracious hostess Rosaria.

Colorful ads for gin.

07 August 2015

Blueberry summer

Blueberries ripening on the barren.

In mid-July DH and I visited friends with a camp on Lake Sennebec, near Camden, Maine.  The blueberry harvest was imminent.

We walked up a country road to the blueberry field - properly, a blueberry barrenWild blueberries are cultivated differently from their domesticated cousins; "wild" is a bit of a misnomer, as the barrens are in reality actively-managed stands of lowbush blueberry. Every two to three years the barren is scorched in a controlled burn; this stimulates new growth followed by a new crop of berries. In the image above the blackened rocks testify to the role of fire in regeneration.

DH, with our friend Steve, on the barren.

Some of the blueberries will become breakfast.

 On our walk to the blueberries we enjoyed typical Maine scenery.

Rural mailboxes.

A white horse - make a wish!

Where the horses live.

Beautiful Greek revival home.

A vintage A-frame - not many of these left.
Black-Eye Susan.

Lichen-covered rock.

For a contrast to the rural sights, our kind hosts Steve and Lisa took us into Camden, a delightful coastal town with lots to do and see. It's worth the trip just to see landscape architect Fletcher Steele's outdoor amphitheatre, occupied by arts festival vendor's tents during our visit.  In beautiful weather the vintage automobiles and trucks are part of the fun too.

Restored postal truck.

Camden harbor - the yacht is the Bella Vita.

Shopping for things you didn't know you needed.

After the hustle and bustle of Camden, and a wonderful dinner at the Youngtown Inn, the lake and the loons - Maine's iconic bird - returned us to a slower pace.

Lake Sennebec.

Two symbols of summer - straw hat and Adirondack chair.

Steve and Lisa's camp has been updated and improved by their daughter, landscape architect Emma Kelly - how handy to have such expertise right in the family!

24 July 2015

An Apple a Day: exploring health through art

An Apple a Day: Saturday. Phoebe Ann Erb.

Recently, DH and I enjoyed a local art exhibit with the engaging title of Healthful.   Eighteen artists, all affiliated with the community arts organization Unbound Visual Arts, explored the theme of physical and mental well-being in various media, including, but not limited to, painting, quilts, and photography.

The exhibit was curated by John Quatrale.

My friend Phoebe Ann Erb presented a series of collages celebrating the folk wisdom of eating an apple a day, but with a twist - on Sunday, just rest under an apple tree! It's a palatable message (pun intended) as portrayed by Phoebe's seven engaging collages, in which she melds her gouache painting with vintage fabrics and paper.

A collage a day...work by Phoebe Ann Erb.

The work below, by Ruth Rieffanaugh, offers advice even more directly. The density of the text is reminiscent of those package inserts which accompany medications, but the warmth of the wood and informal quality of the lettering suggests the inner monologue of someone confronted with, but not conquered by, illness or other challenges.  One of my favorite lines in this work: "You can become off balance seeking stability."

Musings, Ruth Rieffanaugh.

Musings, detail.

The fascinating pen drawings in the image above were begun by Dianne (Iyan) Freeman while she recuperated from surgery.  Beauty can rise from the most unpromising of circumstances.

Reflection, a Self-Portrait, Dianne (Iyan) Freeman.

I Have Hip Dysplasia, Grace Luk.

Humor was in evidence too. We are all familiar with the Snellen eye chart; a standard, reliable method of measuring visual acuity.  In the digital print above, artist Grace Luk uses the familiar chart to communicate information about another condition which may not be so easily "seen."

Seattle Garlic Cluster, Francis Gardino.

Since this blog began with an apple, why not end with another food associated with a healthy diet and good nutrition?  Garlic was historically used both as a food and a medicine, and the plump bulbs in the photograph above, glowing in their purple net packaging, look ready for the kitchen. 

15 July 2015

Time Travel aboard the Frigate L'Hermione

Rigging of L'Hermione.

L'Hermione in port.

Just in time for Bastille Day, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Boston aboard the 32-gun, three-masted frigate L'Hermione. Say "The hair-MY-knee" in English, or impress your friends with your grasp of French pronunciation and say "LAIR-me-own."

All right, all right, reality must intrude. The tall ship which visited in Boston on July 11 and 12th is a replica of the original frigate which brought the young Marquis de Lafayette to Boston in 1780.  The Marquis, a great friend of General Washington, proved an invaluable asset during the Revolutionary War.  Learn more about the L'Hermione project at http://www.hermione2015.com/index.html 

A crew member, dress as the Marquis, is shown below, with one of the many helpful volunteers who assisted visitors.  L'Hermione is visiting several North American ports, including Boston and New York,  this summer, and then will "rentrez chez elle" - return to her home port - in Rochefort, France.

Marquis de Lafayette and volunteer.

So, how does this have anything to do with fiber?  Well, in addition to the acres of sail canvas, furled while she was moored in the harbor, there are literally miles of rope - more properly called lines - used in a myriad of ways on board. The lines are twined from natural fibers such as jute and, in a concession to modern requirements, polyester filament.

Originally rope was made outdoors in areas called rope walks; later extremely long, narrow buildings housed the manufacture of rope in which lengths of manila, sisal or jute filament were twisted together.

The humble rope is essential.

Exterior of the ship.

Stern of the ship.

The ship was quite a popular attraction; we arrived at Rowe's Wharf early in the morning and were able to board after just a short wait. One hundred and twenty visitors were allowed on at one time.

On deck.

The lifeboats.

Looking up.

Ship's bell, and crew member's footwear.

The co-ed crew dressed in period costumes; we chatted with the crew member in the image below, and, using Franglais, learned that the timbers for the massive masts came from Oregon, and that most of the constituent parts of the ship were made not only from traditional materials but using traditional techniques as well.

Able seaman.

In addition to the French ship and crew, a contingent of Minutemen from Lexington were part of the celebration, including the father and daughter depicted below. Their wonderful period costumes were developed and made by fashion designer Ruth Hodges, of Lincoln.

Minuteman and daughter talk the helm.

Everyone gets a turn.