Beefeater: a brand history
As the quintessential London Dry gin, Beefeater has stayed true to its roots as the only big gin brand left in town. Tom Bruce-Gardyne traces its history.
*This feature was originally published in the January 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
“We used to joke that we were the only gin drinkers left,” says the author Geraldine Coates about her friend, Desmond Payne, Beefeater’s master distiller, whose gin career began in 1967. It was the Summer of Love, and the young Payne headed not for San Francisco but east London’s Deptford Bridge, where he joined the old distilling firm Seager Evans.
“I remember thinking: ‘This is fine, I’m 23, I’m going to be making gin, but I don’t think it’s going to see me out’,” he recalls. Coates, who has been writing about gin for longer than almost anyone, must have felt the same way on occasion. But that was before the incredible and seemingly unstoppable gin craze of today.
“I wish I’d foreseen it,” says Payne, who has been with Beefeater since 1995, after many years at Plymouth Gin. “I imagined it heading in the other direction and fading away. How wrong could I have been?” With UK gin sales smashing through the £1 billion (US$1.33bn) barrier in 2016, and exports to America up by 553% over the course of the previous decade, he can say that again.
For Payne, “Beefeater is a classic London gin before anything else”, and it has always been distilled in the UK’s capital. It was one of a bevy of gins and liqueurs produced by James Burrough at the Chelsea distillery that he bought for £400 in 1863. The distillery passed to his sons, crossed the river to Lambeth, where it was expanded, and eventually settled in Kennington in the former Haywards Military Pickle factory in 1958. Beefeater remained a family business until 1987, when it was sold to Whitbread, then Allied Domecq and later Pernod Ricard in 2005.
Under the founder’s grandson, Alan Burrough, Beefeater boomed in the US, accounting for 75% of all gin imported there by the mid-1960s. “Those were the days of the three-Martini lunch,” says Payne, and that meant gin. But its nemesis – the vodka Martini – was soon on the scene. Payne explains: “It was the time of the Cold War, when anything Russian was slightly daring and a bit sexy. Girls at parties drank vodka and orange, thinking no-one could smell it on their breath, while their parents sat at home drinking G&Ts.”
Still made to James Burrough’s recipe, Beefeater London Dry Gin contains nine botanicals steeped in neutral alcohol for 24 hours to add complexity. This inspired the super-premium extension, Beefeater 24, which was launched in 2008, with Chinese green and Japanese Sencha tea added to the mix. “We’ve repackaged it in a red bottle with much better standout on the shelf,” says Payne, who accepts that these outer cues are ever more crucial in today’s crowded gin market.
The mother brand once promoted itself as ‘the gin of England’, with a cheery Beefeater appearing in adverts, mirroring the likes of Johnnie Walker’s striding man. Yet all along its greatest asset was its hometown. It is the only international brand of London Dry gin left in the capital, and Payne had to fight hard to keep it there. He was tasked by Allied with finding somewhere cheaper, and returned saying: “I’ve got good news. I’ve found a site and it’s actually in London. And, even better, we already own it!”
Before buying Beefeater, Pernod Ricard circulated a note explaining the company ethos. “It said something like – ‘What we do is acquire brands that have their own local roots and interest, and we build them up to be international, but their terroir is important’,” recalls Payne. “It was such a relief to read that.” Before long, the new parent had fixed the leaking roof and installed a multimillion pound visitor centre. The press was invited to hear Pernod’s vision for the brand while the old distillery rocked to the sound of The Clash’s London Calling.
Payne believes that “gin is in revolution at the moment”, although the category is “moving faster than the definitions”. This was something he explored in a subcommittee of the Gin & Vodka Association soon after joining Beefeater. “I remember saying: ‘It’s easy, London gin comes from London’.” But by then, like the proverbial horse, the other big brands had bolted. Gordon’s and Tanqueray, for example, now reside in Fife, though happily describe themselves as London Dry gin, a style only defined about 10 years ago, says Payne. But there are no definitions for flavoured or barrel-aged gins such as Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve, which was launched in 2013.
While Beefeater is still growing, with global sales of 2.76m cases in 2016, according to Brand Champions data, you could say craft gin has eclipsed the old guard in sheer numbers, if nothing else. At a recent gin symposium in Tokyo, Payne was told there are probably 6,000 brands out there. However, he takes issue with the word ‘craft’, saying: “I know the implications that small is beautiful and handmade, and how attractive that is. Well, I’d say we’re a craft gin. We’re big, but we weigh up the botanicals by hand, and judging the cut is all down to the stillman’s nose and a hydrometer, so it’s human judgement all the way.
“And as you get larger it’s much easier to be consistent. We were just looking at the latest crop of juniper, and took about 100 samples of berries to distil off the oils to get a nosing sample. If you’re very small you might be buying a couple of sacks of juniper and then it’s quite hard to match that to next year’s crop.”
It is a good point, although consistency may never be as sexy as craft, which, rightly or wrongly, is associated with scale. Then again, a rising tide has the potential to lift all brands, and if the gin-loving Desmond Payne once felt like an endangered species, he has nothing to fear now.
Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Beefeater’s brand history.
1876 – James Burrough launches Beefeater gin
1908 – Production shifts from Chelsea to Lambeth
1958 – Beefeater moves to its current home in Kennington
1963 – The brand is chosen as the only gin on the QEII’s maiden voyage to New York
1987 – James Burrough Ltd is bought by Whitbread
1995 – Desmond Payne becomes master distiller at Beefeater
2005 – Pernod Ricard acquires the brand
2008 – Beefeater 24 launches
2013 – Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve barrel-aged gin launches