There are a mere handful of gin distillers left in London and of those the Beefeater Distillery at the Oval is the most central and best known.
Founder James Burrough was born in Ottery St. Mary, Devon in 1835 and trained as a pharmacist in Exeter before setting off to seek his fortune in Canada. In 1855, a year after leaving England, he entered into partnership with a Mr Bentley to open a chemist shop in Toronto. He stayed there for a further five years before returning home.
Back in Blighty and as ambitious as ever, in 1863 James paid £400 to purchase John Taylor & Son, a firm that specialised in the rectification of gin and liqueurs. Originally established in 1820, the company's premises were at 56 Cale Street in London's Chelsea. The firm, which he renamed 'James Burrough, Distiller and Importer of Foreign Liqueurs', had a good reputation and its customers included the likes of Fortnum & Mason.
James used his Chemist's training to help perfect gin and liqueur recipes and the company still has his early recipe books, including one from 1849 which predates his purchase of the distillery, listing a recipe for blackcurrant gin. His studious efforts paid off and by 1871 he had expanded to such an extent that his family home behind the distillery in Marlborough Square was used to house the company's offices.
By 1876 the company's portfolio of liqueurs and imported spirits also included more gin brands and it was in this year that company papers first record the existence of Beefeater gin, alongside other brands such as James Burrough London Dry and Ye Old Chelsea gin.
In 1897 James Burrough died and his sons took over the running of the business. They continued to prosper and in 1906, with only two years left on the Cale Street lease, the Burrough family purchased a premises across the river at 26 Hutton Road, Lambeth. They took the two years they had before needing to vacate the old distillery to equip their new premises with the latest stills from J Dore & Sons (successors to Aeneas Coffey). They named the new site Cale Distillery in memory of their old premises.
In 1911 Beefeater Gin was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal at the Festival of Empire Exhibition at Crystal Palace and six years later Eric Burrough began exporting to the United States. By 1958 the business had outgrown the Lambeth site and moved to its current home in Montford Place near the Oval Cricket Ground, a site which had been vacated by Haywood's Military Pickles due to war damage.
The building's 1950s architecture still overshadows the surrounding Victorian terraced houses. It was expanded in the mid-sixties with a second still hall that more than doubled its capacity and today lines of Carterhead stills which were originally required to purify the base spirit stand idle. However, the distillery's five impressive pot stills, three with a fill capacity of 3,200 litres and another couple at twice that size, are all employed in the distillation of Beefeater with only the smaller ones used for Beefeater 24 and special limited Beefeater editions.
The Burrough family sold the company to Whitbread in 1987. In 2005 Beefeater was acquired by the French Pernod-Ricard Group.