For many people, London conjurors images of cold pints of beer sipped in dark pubs packed with friends and colleagues swapping stories, but there’s another beverage whose roots are just as firmly planted in British soil. Gin is a popular spirit in London, and Beefeater gin is its hometown hero. Adam and I have long been fans of gin, going so far as to serve a gin distilled in Oregon at our wedding, and when our vacation plans connected us with London we wasted no time booking a tour of the Beefeater Distillery to advance our knowledge of one of the world’s most recognized brands. If, like us, you enjoy gin or if you are curious about how gin came to play a role in London’s history, the Beefeater Distillery tour is an exceptional value and a great way to learn about London in a unique way.
Beefeater Distillery Tour: the History of Gin in London
Although gin was not initially distilled in the United Kingdom, the country owns quite a bit of the spirit’s history. Gin originated in The Netherlands (although Italy also claims itself as gin’s birthplace), and by the 17th century the spirit arrived in England. Popular as an alternative to brandy, gin was widely consumed because the government didn’t regulate its production and imposed heavy duties on imported spirits (particularly those from France). With England benefiting from economic protectionist policies that lowered the price of food and enabled more people to have disposable income, more people were able to spend their earnings on gin. Beginning in the late 1600s a “gin craze” consumed London, and poor-quality gin was easy to come by because it was inexpensive to purchase. By the second half of the 18th century London was burdened by increased public drunkenness, and more than half of the bars in London sold gin. For some, it was the best of times; for many more, it was the worst of times.
A series of Gin Acts were imposed over the course of 20 years, beginning with the Gin Act of 1736 that raised taxes and charged distillers for licenses at exorbitant rates. Gin was almost universally illegally produced after that point, as just two licenses were ever purchased, but demand did not subside, and supply continued to be produced from behind closed doors. A different and more deadly problem arose as there were more cases of illegal gin poisoning people, and the 1736 Gin Act was effectively repealed. It was replaced with the Gin Act of 1751. The new act made licenses available for a more reasonable fee, which promoted the distillation of higher quality gins that didn’t poison the masses. Although these steps helped to regulate gin production and consumption, many people believe rising grain prices were more responsible for the decrease in gin consumption than laws and regulations.
Beefeater gin made its debut more than a century after the “gin craze” rocked the streets of London. Tracing its own roots back to 1862, James Burrough purchased an existing distillery and formulated his own, unique gin recipe. The gin—which quickly became his flagship product when it was released in 1876—was regarded as a bold, flavorful gin that cemented Burrough’s reputation as an exceptional distiller and left a permanent mark on the gin industry.
Named after the famous Yeomen Warders (yes, the same Yeomen Warders who guard the Tower of London!), Beefeater gin continues to distill its spirits in London to this day.
Beefeater Gin Varieties
Beefeater currently offers several gin varieties, and during a Beefeater Distillery tour you will be invited to sample several of them.The most famous and recognized of the distillery’s gins is Beefeater London Dry, Burrough’s original recipe that uses nine distinct botanicals to achieve the characteristic taste. Juniper, angelica root, angelica seeds, coriander seeds, licorice, almonds, orris root, seville oranges, and lemon peel are steeped for a full 24 hours in order to maximize the flavors each produces and offers. Beefeater London Dry is the most awarded gin on the planet.
Beyond the classic recipe, Beefeater 24 is an extraordinarily smooth gin that infuses Japanese Sencha, Chinese green tea, and grapefruit with the nine classic botanicals. The end result is a crisp, premium gin that is so smooth and flavorful you don’t need to think about adding ice or a mixer to change the taste. London Pink gin has become a popular addition to Beefeater’s offerings; a refreshing strawberry-infused pink-tinted take on the classic London Dry recipe, it reminded me of summer cocktails in the sunshine. I was partial to a new addition to the Beefeater Distillery Tour, London Garden gin, which gives a nod to James Burrough’s connection to London and the Chelsea Physic Garden located near his home and the original Beefeater Distillery. Notes of lemon verbena and thyme enhance the recipe, giving it a nature-based characteristic that I really enjoyed. Beefeater also offers a small-batch reserve gin, Burrough’s Reserve, that is distilled in copper and finished in oak for a rich, complex taste.
Beefeater Distillery Tour: the Experience
We pre-booked a tour online for a Saturday morning, and our visit began with a prompt, warm welcome from Rosie who both confirmed our tour reservation and gave us an overview of our visit’s structure. We started with about 30 minutes inside of a self-guided museum complete with interactive exhibits, artifacts, and videos designed to give us a basic education of the importance of gin in London and the world. We smiled as we discovered large parts of the exhibit specifically detailed Prohibition in the USA, which impacted other parts of the world and led to the rise of “bathtub gin” that wasn’t so unlike the illegal gins produced during the “gin craze.”
We especially loved learning about Beefeater’s popularity and influence around the world. New Zealand is the country furthest from the Beefeater Distillery where the gin is exported, and it takes approximately two months for Beefeater gin to reach Australia. More than 21 million liters of gin are produced at the distillery annually, and well over 30 million bottles are sold annually around the world. In the USA, California drinks the most Beefeater gin. By the time our formal tour began, we felt far more educated about why gin is both economically important and internationally popular.
The second portion of our Beefeater Distillery tour furthered our education with an in-depth look at how gin is distilled. In addition to learning about the botanicals (including having the opportunity to see and smell samples), we started our visit with a few gin samples to taste the impact each ingredient has on the final product. We had the chance to see the distillery itself, which was quiet during our visit (gin is not distilled constantly, and not every still is used every day), but it was incredibly worthwhile to stand in the space where Beefeater gin gets its start and where a small but dedicated team bear the responsibility of producing consistent, high-quality spirits.
Our tour concluded with expertly crafted Beefeater gin and tonics in a beautiful, bright tasting area. We picked up our beverages and sat down to enjoy them at one of many tables in the room, and we savored both the cocktail and the fact our early tour meant we were having a gin and tonic for breakfast. While gin and tonics are a favorite for Adam and me, drinking them after the Beefeater Distillery tour made them taste a little more special. With our new education on the botanicals that contribute to Beefeater’s unique taste, we had an easier time both recognizing flavors and appreciating how they blend together to create a delicious, refreshing gin.
Learn More about the Beefeater Distillery Tour
This video from Beefeater Master Distiller Desmond Payne shares some additional information and provides a detailed look at how Beefeater gin is made.
Beefeater Distillery Tour: Tips for Your Visit
► Have something to eat first
The Beefeater Distillery tour allows you to sample several different gins. Be sure to have some solid food in your stomach before your visit, especially if you are easily impacted by alcohol. While the samples are not big and it is unlikely you will become intoxicated, know your alcohol tolerance and start with a good, carb-laden foundation.
► Don’t expect to see gin being distilled
Although it can be a lot of fun to see a busy distillery in use, Beefeater gin is distilled on a specific schedule that ensures every gin has consistent characteristics and flavors. Your visit may align with a busy production time, or, like us, you may find the distillery to be quiet and empty. There’s something special about seeing the distillery when it isn’t in use; we had the chance to walk around a bit and really appreciate the craft and technology responsible for the process, something that would not be as evident when the distillery is in use. Don’t worry about the distillation schedule; there will be a lot to learn and appreciate no matter what is (or isn’t) in production while you take your Beefeater Distillery tour.
► Don’t bring matches or lighters
The Beefeater Distillery tour takes you into their real, working distillery—and alcohol and open flames are not a good combination! Your guide will remind you that anything that might produce a spark or a flame must be left behind before entering the distillery, so consider leaving matches, lighters, and e-cigarettes in your hotel so you don’t need to worry about surrendering your belongings. If you do have prohibited items, you will have to leave them behind to enter the distillery, but you will be able to retrieve them before continuing the tour.
Enjoy the Beefeater Distillery Tour!
We had a fantastic time learning about and exploring the history of gin during the Beefeater Distillery tour. Beefeater is a highly-regarded cornerstone in the gin distillation world for a reason, and if you love gin or are curious about how it is produced the Beefeater Distillery tour is a wonderful way to learn and sample. We were glad we had the chance to visit during our trip to London, and we’re looking forward to sharing the experience with friends and family on future vacations!
More Information: BeefeaterDistillery.com
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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we toured the Beefeater Gin Distillery in London, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected the Beefeater Gin Distillery based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.