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!