The resurgent gin category gets another boost as one of its classic brands, Beefeater, enters the superpremium category with a new expression that at once brings new flavors to gin while revisiting the heritage of the company.
Beefeater 24 introduces tea as well as grapefruit peel to the complex list of botanicals that inform this storied London Dry Gin. Desmond Payne, Beefeater's master blender, says he hit upon the addition of tea when researching the history of the original blend, which was created in 1860 by James Burrough. Payne discovered that the company Burrough led had been tea merchants (specifically by appointment to the queen), and decided to experiment with adding tea to the mix.
"Juniper [as a flavor component] was proscribed. I could add anything else as long as it was decent, honest and legal," says Payne, a 40-year veteran of gin making. He alone was charged with engineering Beefeater's superpremium foray, and took 18 months to create it as he jiggered and rejiggered the different proportions of flavoring. Payne stresses his emphasis during the process on retaining the inherent balance of Beefeater gin, rather than creating a tea-flavored spirit. "It was a juggling act."
Gin is based on a neutral grain spirit (similar to vodka) and flavored with botanicals that must contain juniper. It typically also includes citrus rind, such roots as orris, licorice and angelica, and such herbs as coriander and cinnamon. London Dry Gin, as well as having a dry flavor profile typically attributable to bitter orange, is distinguished by the requirement that the botanicals be added in an extra distillation process rather than simply mixed into the spirit as is the case with compound gin.
The numeral "24" in the Beefeater superpremium's name honors a process also used in the standard Beefeater by which the botanicals are steeped for 24 hours in the grain spirit before the final distillation. Payne says that the base spirit is made with wheat in a column still and the flavoring distillation takes place in a pot still.
The new gin also bears the subtitle "Artisan Cut," referring to the practice of taking the center cut of the final distillation, ignoring the first and final parts—heads and tails—of the gin run. Payne says that for Beefeater 24 the cut into the tail of the run is done much earlier than usual and 30 percent of the gin is discarded in the process.
Beefeater 24 contains 12 aromatics, adding hand-prepared grapefruit and Japanese Sencha and Chinese green teas to its standard lineup of juniper, Seville oranges, lemon peel, licorice, coriander, angelica root, angelica seeds, almonds and orris root.
While Beefeater is known as a citrus-led gin, that flavor component had been previously contributed only by orange and lemon. "We hadn't used grapefruit," remarks Payne, "but I reasoned since it works well as an additive to gin cocktails it should work well in gin."
The distiller added that the choice of tea was also inspired by his discovery that the Japanese tend to eschew quinine-flavored soft drinks in favor of tea-flavored ones. One of his concerns, however, was tea leaves would introduce too much tannin to the gin, and the 18-month process was necessitated partially to his efforts to ensure that wasn't the case.
Prior to the launch, Beefeater worked with renowned mixologists to create mixed drinks based on the new gin. "We knew it had damn well better work with tonic and as a martini," says Payne, "but the modern cocktail culture was the aim." In the artisan-cocktail revival bartenders have more and more returned to gin for its superb mixability and new gins are recently entering the market to serve that need.
The beefeater24.com Web site lists a number of different concoctions that Beefeater's contracted mixologists have created. Of course, tea- and grapefruit-flavored drinks are among the efforts, but they also reach into some unusual combinations like The Everest, which includes coconut. Even the standards are updated: the Gin & Tonic is made with orange, lemon and lime slices and shaken and strained; the Martini is paired with Lillet instead of Vermouth (3:1) and includes Regan's No. 6 bitters and a twist of grapefruit.
On tasting it is easy to see the 24 as a bartender's darling. Payne certainly achieved his goal of creating a balanced gin. The expected juniper and citrus notes come on the front of nose and are trailed by the hint of tea. The mouth feel is particularly soft, giving a glycerin sensation even though the gin isn't sweetened. The tea is more forceful on the palate, but still not dominating, allowing all the typical Beefeater notes—fruit, bitterness and licorice—to come through. The finish is long and full of sweetness, and is also where you get the grapefruit taste.
An early-twentieth-century flask found in the James Burrough Company archive inspired the bottle design, with its leafy art nouveau motif. The bottle's base is colored in the signature Beefeater red, which is based on the uniform of the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London, nicknamed Beefeaters and used as the symbol for the gin.
The spirit is 90 proof (45 percent alcohol by volume) and retails for about $32 for a 750 milliliter bottle.