Wednesday 17 November 2010

G & Tea?

Beefeater 24's bottle looks like it belongs
among the Crown Jewels
Can booze and tea sit happily in the same glass? Oh yes.

You have to feel sorry for Desmond Payne. He’s a master distiller (formerly at Plymouth, now at Beefeater) who’s been at it for 43 years—but always charged with distilling to other people’s recipes. He lives with a portrait of James Burroughs, the Beefeater founder who developed the formula 150 years ago, glaring down at him from the wall.

Finally he was asked to make his own gin, a special edition that would end up dubbed Beefeater 24, and DBS and I were present at 69 Colebrooke Row for a celebration of it a few weeks ago. (Mind you, I notice that it isn’t so much his own gin as his own “expression” of the Beefeater house style. Always the bridesmaid…)

I’d heard a story that the “24” in the name referred to there being 24 different botanicals, but this turned out to be codswallop: the gin has 12. “But it is not about how many botanicals you have or how exotic they are,” says Desmond. “It is about how they work together. Getting the right balance is crucial.” In fact the “24”  refers to the 24 hours for which the botanicals are left to soak in the base spirit before the whole soup is redistilled into glorious gin. Mind you, the 24-hour maceration is common to all Beefeater gin*—so what makes Beefeater 24 different?

Desmond explained that he at first tried a host of likely botanicals, but without success. While he was in Japan he craved a G&T—but quinine was not allowed, apparently, so no tonic water. Seeking a similar dry, sharp hit, he tried iced lemon tea—and was inspired to try using tea as the direction for Beefeater 24. What could be more English, as English as gin? He found that green tea worked best as it imparted the aromatic elements he wanted but without an overwhelming amount of tannin. But the presence of the tea also changed the relationships of the other botanicals—back to the importance of balance again—so a lot of tweaking was required.

The raven lurking on the inside of the label
Finally he had an end result ready for testing by a panel of esteemed mixologists: people liked it—but didn’t really pick up on the tea. So he went back to the lab and added Japanese Sencha tea with a fresh, green, slightly seaweed quality, that brought out the top notes. He was afraid that his tea dose would oxidise during the regulation 24 hour steeping, but was relieved to find that the alcohol preserved it. (Round about this time he discovered that James Burroughs’ father had actually been a tea merchant with a Royal Warrant—would Burroughs have approved of Payne’s new direction all along?)

When a batch of gin—or the mixture of spirit and steeping botanicals that will become gin—is distilled, different elements of the flavour emerge in a certain order: the distillery will actually smell different at different times of the day. In practice the citrus notes come out first, then juniper, then coriander. With Desmond’s tea injection he found that the high aromatic notes emerged at the very beginning while the tannic elements arose after the juniper. It’s normal for distillers to discard the very first and last distillate from a batch, but Desmond ended up making a “cut” that was particularly picky—in fact he discards some 30% of the juice that comes out of the still.

So what does it taste like? You can immediately tell how careful Desmond was to stay within the Beefeater house style, which I always think of as rather ethereal in its construction, with a delicacy that makes me think of quiet civil servants in wood-panelled rooms, as opposed to some of the two-fisted gins strutting on to the market now. Yet there is a subtle tea perfume here too joining the orange notes in the midrange, and a smoky element, but much more delicate that simply adding a peaty whisky rinse to your glass as in some “Smoky Martini” cocktails.

The Earl Grey Martini knocked up for us at Purl
The bottle in which Beefeater 24 is clad has had just as much thought and attention lavished on it. The patterns in the glass are taken from Royal Doulton ceramic designs: back in the day the distillery, like most, also produced a range of liqueurs and these were bottled in just such ceramic containers. The distinctive red punt is a nod to the Crown Jewels (this is Beefeater gin, remember) and if you look through the “window” in the bottom left corner on the back you can see a raven printed on the inside of the front label. The legend goes that if the Tower of London’s resident ravens ever leave, the kingdom will fall. “So if you finish the bottle,” Desmond adds, “put the cap back on so the raven can’t escape.”

By interesting synchronicity, the idea of tea in booze seems to have cropped up quite a bit of late. At Purl a few weeks ago I came across their dry Martini served with an Earl Grey “air” (foam to you and me, though I gather there is a technical difference). This sits on the surface of the drink—looking rather as if the glass has just been washed up and not rinsed properly—and is actually one of the more convincing examples, in my opinion, of how molecular mixology can work. The tea flavour is all encapsulated in the foam: you hit it as you go in, but then strike crystalline Martini underneath, and the two elements are not just mixed all together. On a plate of food this separation of flavour elements is normal enough but it’s quite an achievement in a drink.

Two of David's homemade tea liqueurs
And of course how can we ignore Mr Bridgman-Smith’s recent experiments making his own tea liqueurs? I’ve tasted his lapsang souchong and his English Breakfast and I was mightily impressed. Homemade infusions have a tendency to fall into the “interesting, but…” category but I think he could convincingly bottle these and sell them at a farmer’s market somewhere. But the most interesting potential must be as a cocktail ingredient; at Graphic recently barman Adam took up the challenge and invented a smoky brew we dubbed the Fag Hag:

A Fag Hag cocktail
Fag Hag
30ml gin

20ml lemon juice

15ml lapsang souchong liqueur

10ml sugar syrup

20ml egg white

Dry shake the ingredients first to bind, then add ice, shake and strain into a glass.

You could probably achieve a similar effect using strong, cold tea and a little extra syrup.

Beefeater 24 is about £23 (or £29 if you buy it over the counter at Harrods)

* Beefeater claim that this 24-hour maceration is unique to them, but Hayman’s say their gin steeps for 24 hours, so do Berry Bros. and Rudd of their No.3 gin, Park Place about their SW4, and I have a feeling I’ve heard it about others too.

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