London will gain a new museum on Thursday as the historic Beefeater gin distillery in Kennington opens its brand new visitor centre to tell the story of gin, the spirit’s part in the history and evolution of London, and show exactly how our favourite accompaniment for tonic is made.
Londonist got a sneak preview of the centre, and we’d recommend it to anyone interested in stories from London’s dark past, as well those with a penchant for booze.
The experience starts with a self-led tour through a series of rooms variously decked out to resemble the streets of Victorian London, spice-laden Covent Garden Market, secret speakeasies and plush cocktail bars. On entering, guests are handed iPads to guide them around the exhibits, with detailed information, images and videos cleverly pulled up on screen when held in front of any of the displays.
The rooms tell the story of gin’s origins in Holland through to the devastatingly drunken ‘gin craze’ of 18th century London that makes a Friday night out in Shoreditch nowadays look very tame indeed. There are mock-ups of prohibition-style bars and discreet gin delivery methods — such as this cat with a pipe in its paw, shown right — from when the authorities clamped down on illegal distilleries, and more recent displays of how gin has gone from drunk juice to craft spirit, including an interactive map pinpointing all the distilleries in London over the past few hundred years. While most (such as Gordon’s) had left the capital by the turn of the Millennium, the likes of Sacred and Sipsmith have prompted a resurgence in small scale distilleries and carefully created products since their arrival in the last five years.
A small section on the history of Beefeater itself, its phenomenal worldwide sales (over 21.5 million litres a year) and the awards it has won rounds off the first part of the tour. It is not entirely uninteresting, but perhaps an unwanted reminder that this is an exhibition linked to one very big brand indeed, rather than an independent museum.
Still, branding is kept firmly to a minimum in the second half of the experience, when we are met by a tour guide and taken into the distillery itself to look (through glass) at distilling in action, smell and taste the different botanicals that go into gin, learn about how it’s steeped and ‘cut’ to be bottled and finally given a G&T to round things off.
We’ll proudly declare our massive fondness for this kind of social history of London, as well as our penchant for a G&T, but there’s no need to be a nerd or a gin freak to partake in this exhibition. The centre is put together very well indeed, with high production values making a far more impressive stand-alone museum than we’d have expected from what is in effect a small add-on to a busy working distillery. The iPad app used for the first half of the tour also means that a wealth of information is available at every stage of the story, yet doesn’t overwhelm those who just want an overview.
And is it all a big advert for Beefeater? Not at all. The distillery has been around since 1862 and the team are rightly proud of its heritage as the only major gin brand to have stayed in the capital since the early days. We think it also puts them in a pretty unique position to be able to tell this story.
Our only criticism is that tickets are a bit steep at £12, especially given the world’s biggest selling premium gin brand is bankrolling it. But at least you get a G&T thrown in.
Visit the website for more information and opening times.