How did Beefeater become the highest-selling gin in the world?
James Burrough establishes the business
James Burrough (1834 – 1897) was born in Ottery St Mary, Devon, the son of a baker. He served an apprenticeship to a chemist and druggist in Exeter.
Burrough emigrated to Canada in 1855 and traded as a chemist. After five years he returned to Britain and established himself in London.
Burrough acquired the Cale Street distillery in Chelsea from John Taylor & Son for £400 in 1863. John Taylor & Son was principally known for its fruit liqueurs.
Burrough’s gin, later to become known as Beefeater, was developed by James Burrough in 1876. It contained nine botanicals; juniper, Seville orange peel, bitter almonds, orris root, coriander seeds, angelica root, liquorice, angelica seed and Sicilian lemon peel.
Burrough described himself as a compounder and rectifier of whisky in the 1881 census. Whisky appears to have represented his main trade in the 1870s and early 1880s.
James Burrough dies and the business continues to expand
James Burrough died in 1897. Management of the business passed to his sons, Frederick Burrough (1869 – 1941), Ernest James Burrough (1871 – 1953) and Francis Thornton Burrough (1879 – 1940).
The business had been registered as a limited company, James Burrough Ltd, by 1907.
The business was relocated to larger and better located, purpose-built premises on Hutton Road, Lambeth, from 1908. The site was named the Cale Distillery. The expansion of production capacity allowed exports to begin in earnest to markets such as India.
A prominent image of a London Beefeater was added to the Burrough’s gin label from 1909.
The United States market was entered, in a modest way, from 1934.
Eric Burrough grows sales in North America
Burrough’s gin began to be advertised in Britain following the Second World War.
Rudolph C Kopf (1905 – 1985), a buyer for Macy’s department stores, was appointed United States distributor for Burrough’s gin in 1946, at a time when sales were negligible.
The Beefeater name had been added in small lettering to the bottle by 1952.
Eric Lewis Burrough (1900 – 1970), a grandson of James Burrough, was appointed company chairman from 1953. He was to develop sales in export markets.
Annual sales in the United States sales increased by 165 percent to $1 million in 1956, aided by the popularity of the dry martini cocktail. Encouraged, Eric Burrough undertook an extensive tour of North America in order to promote sales in 1957.
Burrough’s gin had been rebranded as Beefeater by 1957. Beefeater was a premium gin, a rival to products such as Tanqueray and Booth’s House of Lords.
Expanding sales saw the company relocate to the former Haywards pickles factory at Montford Place, Kennington, from 1958.
James Burrough was the second largest gin exporter in the world by 1961, with 65 percent of production destined for overseas markets. Beefeater held three quarters of the United States imported gin market.
Beefeater sold nearly a million three gallon cases in the United States in 1962. Sales grew with little advertising, spurred by word-of-mouth promotion and the increasing popularity of the martini cocktail.
Eric Burrough explained that English gin was well-regarded in the United States due to, “the knowledge gained by British distillers over many years” and explained that it was valued for its “softness and delicacy of flavour”. Juniper berries were harvested from a single district in the Italian Tyrol; angelica root came from Flanders; coriander seeds came from Essex. The distillery used its own spring water.
Beefeater was the leading premium gin in England and the United States by the mid-1960s.
Beefeater increased its share of British gin exports from two percent to over 50 percent between 1953 and 1966. Over 12 million bottles of Beefeater were exported in 1965. James Burrough received the Queen’s Award to Industry for export achievement in 1966, 1969 and 1971.
Export sales are pursued
Eric Burrough retired from executive duties following a stroke in 1967. Alan Burrough (1917 – 2002), a grandson of the founder, was appointed chairman. Alan Burrough was a shy man who had lost a leg in the North African campaign during the Second World War.
Alan Burrough recognised that the United States market had probably reached capacity, and pursued sales in Europe and Japan.
James Burrough was the largest manufacturer of gin in the world by 1970, with annual production of 20 million bottles. Beefeater was sold in almost every country, with just a handful that it was excluded from for political or religious reasons, such as China, Rhodesia, North Korea and some Arabic nations.
James Burrough preferred to produce its gin in England, where quality control could be closely monitored. However distilleries were established in South Africa and New Zealand, following the erection of prohibitive import tariffs in those markets.
James Burrough employed nearly 500 people by 1977.
Beefeater was the third highest-selling gin in the world by 1982, with five percent of the market.
Alan Burrough retired in 1982 and he was succeeded as chairman by his brother, Norman Burrough. Norman Burrough doubled profits between 1982 and 1984.
Beefeater was the third highest-selling gin by volume in Britain by 1987, with a market share of six percent.
James Burrough is sold to Whitbread
The Burrough family, with a 70 percent stake in the company, believed that the business would benefit from lower distribution costs if it was a part of a larger concern. James Burrough was sold to Whitbread, the third largest brewer in Britain, for £174.5 million in 1987.
Whitbread incorporated James Burrough into their existing spirits business, Long John, which produced Laphroaig single malt Scotch whisky.
The James Burrough bottling facility in Kennington was closed with the loss of 300 jobs in 1988. Bottling was relocated to the Long John plant at Westthorn, Glasgow. The Burrough head office and distillery, with a staff of 75, was retained.
Allied Lyons acquires the business
Long John was highly successful, but Whitbread lacked the scale to become a significant player in the global market, and the business was sold to Allied Lyons for £542 million in 1990.
Bottling of Beefeater was transferred to Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven in Scotland from 1992.
By 1992 the raw spirit was diluted with filtered and deionised municipal water, with an unspecified proportion of artesian well water added.
More than 2.5 million cases of Beefeater were sold in 1995.
Pernod Ricard acquires Beefeater
Pernod Ricard of France acquired Beefeater in 2005.
30 million bottles of Beefeater were produced in 2007, using 50 tons of juniper from wild bushes in Italy and Macedonia, 20 tons of coriander seed from Russia and Bulgaria, orris root from Florence, angelica roots and seeds from Belgium, powdered liquorice from China, three tons of dried Seville orange peel and “slightly less” dried lemon peel. Alcohol spirit was sourced from Greenwich. The botanicals are steeped for 24 hours before seven hours redistillation.
2.9 million cases of Beefeater were sold in the 2017-18 financial year.
According to Pernod Ricard, Beefeater is the third highest-selling premium gin in the world as of 2019. Its major markets are Spain, the United States, Canada, Japan and Britain.
The Beefeater distillery continues to operate in Kennington as of 2022.