The Beefeater Twisted Cocktail Challenge

London has always been at the cutting edge of cocktail fashion and we want you to help us choose the next big thing.

Beefeater gin is challenging the capital’s top bars to come up with a new gin cocktail. But this isn’t just any old competition: the bartenders must twist classic gin cocktails by taking London itself as their inspiration. This might mean anything from using flowers that grow in the city’s parks to mixing together ingredients that reflect the diversity of the capital’s population.

They will put the gin cocktails on their drinks lists this summer and you, the readers of Square Meal, are being asked to try as many as you can. The scores you give them will determine the winner. You don’t have to pay anything to take part in the challenge, you can take a friend with you when you visit the bars and you’ll also be entered into a free prize draw to win a bottle of Beefeater when you sign up.

Places, however, are limited, so register right away by emailing beefeater@squaremeal.co.uk

Think about it: as summer stretches before you, what could be better than sampling cocktails made by the best barmen in the world, using the best gin in the world, in the best city in the world?



THE GLORIOUS HISTORY OF GIN

Gin is to England what Cognac is to France, rum is to Jamaica and whisky is to Scotland. It’s the country’s national spirit, both literally and metaphorically – the embodiment of Englishness as well as our contribution to the lexicon of global drinks.
Yet the English didn’t invent gin. Like many alcoholic drinks, it began life as a medicine. Juniper, gin’s key flavouring, was long held to have health benefits, and preserving its berries in alcohol created a heavily flavoured spirit.

Dutch courage
The Dutch went big on this, calling it genever (after the French word for juniper), and by the 16th century it was hugely popular in the Low Countries. British soldiers came across it as they marauded around northern Europe in the Thirty Years War and found it much to their liking. They often took a goodly slug before battle, hence the expression ‘Dutch courage’.
When it came to England, it was picked up by William of Orange as a good, homemade, Protestant drink – an alternative to foreign, Catholic interlopers such as brandy – and drinking it became a sign of patriotism. It was also less heavily taxed, so it was a lot cheaper.
The population loved it and by the mid-1700s were drinking an astonishing litre of gin per head of population per week. Unsurprisingly, this created enormous social problems, famously captured by the artist Hogarth in his apocalyptic painting Gin Lane.
By the 19th century, legislation had chased off the purveyors of cheap gin, leaving only the more reputable distillers. London, with its easy access to exotic botanicals and a good supply of spring water, set about becoming the world’s centre of gin production.
Initially, these gins were sweetened and heavily flavoured as a way of masking imperfections in the spirit. But as distillation technology improved and the spirits became both cleaner and lighter, the sugar and the heavy-handed flavourings disappeared, leaving us with the London dry style.
This was a far classier drink than its predecessors and it was picked up by the Victorian middle class as a fashionable social tipple, not merely a quick ticket to oblivion, as it tended to have been seen until then. The upmarket, ornate gin palaces served it with tonic water, a drink that had come back from the burgeoning empire.
It was about this time that chemist James Burrough moved into the world of drink, distilling and blending his own products at premises in Chelsea. He started with liqueurs and fruit brandies, but as the phylloxera louse ripped through the French vineyards, sending brandy production into a nosedive, he moved into other spirits, such as whisky and gin.
While brands including Black Cat and Ye Old Chelsey have long since gone, Beefeater – the first gin not to be named after the family who made it or the place from which it came – thrived.
Not only was the gin itself rapidly appreciated for its balance and finesse, but its launch coincided with a creative drinks boom on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cocktail heaven
Cocktails had first arrived in the UK in the 1860s with American tourists. Their barmen soon followed, and before long, top hotels in London and Paris began to offer toddies, flips and fizzes almost as a matter of course.
By the turn of the century, the boom was in full swing. Spurred on by the increasing fashion for travel, barmen were exposed to influences from all over the world, adding new ingredients and ideas to products with which they were already familiar.
It was the golden age of the cocktail and gin was at the heart of it, spawning classic drinks such as the Martini and Negroni. And when the Roaring Twenties came along, and cocktail parties and cruises were all the rage, it was gin again that was the spirit du jour among the fashionable and moneyed.
The drinks boom in Europe was partly fuelled by a mass migration of American barmen, who, with the advent of US Prohibition in the 1920s, headed east to practise their trade – think Harry’s Bar in Paris or Venice.
From the mid-20th century onwards, cocktails fell rather out of fashion. But they burst back onto the scene in the 1990s, as serious bartenders mixed up dozens of ultra-chic creations to an adoring urban audience in highly stylish surroundings.
So where is cocktail-making heading in the early years of the 21st century? The answer is in two different directions. Just as with food, there is a molecular mixology branch, dedicated to involved, scientifically influenced creations, and a keep-it-real arm, driven by a commitment to locally sourced ingredients.
Nick Strangeway was at the heart of London’s ultra-chic vodka explosion in the 1990s, when he worked at Che. Now at Hawksmoor, he grows different strains of mint and lemon verbena in his garden, which he uses to add a twist to various drinks. He also mixes in typically British ingredients, such as gooseberries, rhubarb and elderflower.
‘We do certain juleps that use different versions of home-grown mint – like chocolate mint,’ he says. ‘You can cheat when it comes to seasonality, of course. If I want raspberries in the middle of winter, I can buy raspberry purée and it’s fine. But I don’t think it’s necessarily correct to do it. Rather than having a completely set menu, I prefer things to be seasonal.’
The move from global to local is taking on an added twist, too, with a growing movement towards rediscovering the past, as Henry Besant, founder of consultancy the Worldwide Cocktail Club, points out.
‘You hardly see a bar opening now that doesn’t have some lost and revisited cocktails on its list,’ he says. ‘People are using old books and researching a lot more to recreate drinks from the mid-19th century.’

Traditional approach
This approach is most clearly in evidence at Lonsdale, where Charles Vexanet offers five pages of traditional English cocktails dating back to the early 1900s. His oldest creation, Gin Summer Punch, was once served at the Garrick and dates from 1841.
The drinks have to be slightly adapted to fit today’s expectations, and because herbs such as borage, which was hugely popular with barmen 130 years ago, are only available six months of the year. But this is a chance to get a true taste of drinks history, including a tipple endorsed by Charles Dickens.
‘Charles Dickens was a big fan of punches,’ says Vexanet. ‘He drank a lot in punch houses and made up his own recipes. He wrote a very good book on punches.’ Harking back to Britain’s glorious cocktail past is sure to put the spotlight back on gin, the white spirit that was here 200 years before vodka. Here’s to our Great Expectations