Beefeater Gin Distillery Tour: Discover London Gin History
Beefeater Gin Distillery & Museum, Lambeth, London
Beefeater produces over 30 million bottles of gin every year and exports to 127 countries. Few Londoners realise that every single drop is distilled down a quiet lane in Stockwell, just south of the river.
Discover the history and story behind the iconic Beefeater brand
Beefeater gin has been distilled in London since 1820. It’s why I chose the Beefeater gin distillery tour as my first London gin tour when I began The Foodie Travel Guide. Whether you’re a Londoner or a gin-loving tourist to the capital, London’s oldest gin distillery is the perfect place to start.
It offers a good combination of gin education and tasting. You can take a stroll down Gin Lane in the Gin Museum and trace the history of both gin and gin drinking in the capital.
I found a few hours soaking up the Beefeater brand and its story a relaxing way to spend the afternoon and enjoy a G&T.
It’s perfect for a rainy day in London town and excellent value for money. Even better, follow it with dinner. Try Skylon restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall, just two stops along the Northern line. Book a table overlooking the River Thames and watch the city light up at night. It’s a magical way to end your gin tasting day out in the capital.
The Foodie Travel Guide
Take a Tour of the Beefeater Gin Distillery
Like most Brits, my gin drinking habit started with two iconic brands. Ordering a G&T in a bar or buying a bottle of gin at an airport duty free shop, it was always a choice between Gordon’s gin or Beefeater. Both are still ubiquitous although, thanks to the latest gin craze, they’ve now been joined by hundreds of new kids on the block. In response to this and the rise of boutique London gin brands such as Sipsmith, Beefeater opened a shiny new visitor’s centre back in 2014.
I’m quite sure that most gin-loving Londoners have no idea it’s there. The distillery building was once an old pickles factory, damaged during the Second World War. It’s hidden away in an unassuming location in the shadow of an old gasworks and the Oval cricket ground. When you arrive, you feel like you’ve discovered one of London’s best-kept secrets.
Good to Know
The Beefeater gin tour is cleverly divided into two parts and starts with a 30-minute self-guided tour through the Gin Museum. This is followed by a guided tour that takes you through the process of how Beefeater gin is made. Happily, it finishes in the bar where the guide pours everyone a generous G&T. Tickets are £15 each with tours running several times a day (Monday-Saturday). Allow 1.5 hours for the whole experience.
Discover the History of Gin in London
The museum display begins in 17th century London when William of Orange and James II’s daughter Mary, became co-rulers of England, Scotland and Ireland. It’s really thanks to them that gin became such a popular drink in Britain because they outlawed imported French brandy. The museum is interactive but if you want to delve deeper into gin history, there’s the option to use an iPad app that provides visitors with more detailed information.
Individual exhibits include a reproduction of Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane engraving which depicts a child in the arms of her drunken mother. The picture represents London’s seedy and sordid past when gin took hold of the city and became known as ‘mother’s ruin’. Curious objects that caught my eye included an eighteenth-century door knocker carved in the shape of a cat. With a spout cleverly concealed under its paw, it was once used to dispense black market gin to drinkers in Kew. Moving further through the exhibits you pass a retro 1920s American cocktail bar and teacups which tell the story of the Prohibition era when Americans flocked to London to drink cocktails at the legendary American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand.
The first part of the tour is self-guided
A copper still in the Gin Museum
Meet James Borrough, the Founder of Beefeater Gin
You’ll discover that it’s thanks to a pharmacist called James Borrough that Beefeater Gin was founded. He made gin and liqueurs (and his fortune), by selling them to customers including Fortnum & Mason. Beefeater gin is still made today using his original recipe although the family sold the firm in 1987 first to Whitbread and then to Pernod Ricard.
Unlike the other Victorian gentleman distillers who used their family names or distillery location, James Borrough decided to name one of the gins he created after the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. They earned this nickname because of the large portion of beef they received. Nowadays, they are also given a bottle of gin. One of my favourite displays in the museum is dedicated to the iconic Beefeater label and brand. Visitors walk through an illuminated tunnel lined with old Beefeater bottles and retro posters.
James Burrough, Founder Beefeater Gin
Admire the collection of vintage posters
Learn How London Dry Gin is Made
For the second part of the tour, a guide takes you to the Botanical Room and introduces the group to the botanicals used to flavour the gin. Juniper is, of course, the most important. It’s sourced from the steep hills of Italy, Macedonia and Serbia. Coriander seed comes from Romania, Russia and Bulgaria. There’s also Seville orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root, angelica seed, bitter almonds, liquorice, orris root (and secret ingredients they won’t reveal). We were encouraged to touch, smell and taste the botanicals.
Through a large roof light, you can look up to see the different copper stills used to make the four varieties they produce but you can’t get close to them like on other gin distillery tours I’ve done. There’s an original Victorian mini still that’s used for small batch production and giant stills capable of holding 2,000 litres. Amazingly, only four people are involved in the production of Beefeater gin. These include master distiller, Dennis Payne, one of the few people to know the secret recipe.
The guide explains that gin is essentially a mixture of alcohol, water and botanicals. Both the neutral base spirit and water are sourced from Scotland. The botanicals are steeped in the neutral base spirit for 24 hours before being diluted with water and distilled. The gin is then further watered down to produce a delicious London dry gin.
Relax With a G&T at the Bar
After all this gin education, you’ll be literally gasping for a G&T at the bar. It comes generously poured by the guide (with Fever Tree tonic) and there’s the opportunity to taste the range of gins. Handy tips and tricks are shared as you sip. I learnt that to make perfectly crisp ice cubes, you should boil the water twice before freezing.
Buy Beefeater Gin Gifts
The tour ends with the obligatory route through the Beefeater gift shop. There are Beefeater-branded accessories and bottles of gin to take home with you (including interesting summer and winter editions).
Gin Tasting Notes
- London Garden Gin is exclusive to the distillery and inspired by the Chelsea Physic Garden where James Borrough trained as a pharmacist. It was launched in 2014 to mark the opening of the Visitor’s Centre
- Burrough’s Reserve is a gin that should be sipped neat. It is aged in oak barrels previously used for storing the aromatic French liqueur, Lillet
- Beefeater London Dry Gin is a classic example of a London dry gin – citrusy fresh with peppery notes
- Beefeater 24 Gin is flavoured with 12 botanicals including rare teas including Chinese green tea and Japanese Sencha tea. The botanicals are steeped in alcohol for 24 hours, hence the name. The gin was created in 2009 for the Asian market where it’s popular to drink your G&T with tea rather than tonic
- Beefeater Pink Gin is a strawberry flavoured gin. Add fresh strawberries and tonic water to make a refreshing Pink & Tonic.
- If you’re visiting London for a few days and are planning on visiting several attractions, buy the London Pass. It includes entrance to the Beefeater gin tour
- Oval tube station is the closest to the distillery (5 mins) but if you fancy a slightly longer walk to Kennington tube station (10 mins), take the route through the beautiful Georgian Cleaver Square. You’ll often see people playing ‘boules’ there and you can stop off in the Prince of Wales pub for a drink
- Visit Borough Market, London’s famous food market which is just a few stops away on the tube
- To visit one of London’s new gin distilleries, I recommend booking the Sipsmith gin tour in Chiswick
Mr Hendricks says, “Please check with the Beefeater Gin Distillery”.
How to Find the Beefeater Gin Distillery
Beefeater Gin Distillery and Museum, 20 Montford Place, Lambeth, London SE11 5DE
The Beefeater Gin Distillery
Beefeater Gin Distillery Tour With The London Pass
- Buy a London Pass which includes entry to over 80 top London attractions and activities
- Includes the Beefeater gin distillery tour
- Download the pass and beat the queues
- Highlights include priority entry to glorious Westminster Abbey, a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and a visit to Kensington Palace
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