There’s not much Desmond Payne doesn’t know about gin. Little wonder really, he’s been working in the industry since 1967. After 28 years at Plymouth Gin, first as Assistant Distillery Manager then moving on to Distillery Manager, he took over the top job at Beefeater Gin as Master Distiller in 1995. Besides taking care of James Burrough’s original recipe, Desmond has created four Beefeater expressions of his own, including the award-winning Beefeater 24 and the recently-launched Burrough’s Reserve.
How and when did gin lure you in?
Way back in 1967, when I realised that the wine and spirits company where I was working had a gin distillery.
Do you remember the first time you tasted the juniper spirit? If so, when was it, what was it and what were your initial impressions?
My first gin and tonic was at the Holbrook Hall hotel in Scarborough. The hotel has since spectacularly slid off the cliff top into the North Sea, but I have somehow managed to keep going. I remember the drink as being the height of sophistication. It still is.
Describe what being a Master Distiller entails.
Everything from choosing botanicals, developing new products and ensuring consistent quality of the gin, through to tasting cocktails. It’s a dream job.
How does one become a Master Distiller?
There are not many opportunities to become a Master Distiller in the gin business. You may have to wait a while… However, my old boss at Plymouth Gin used to remind me that graveyards are full of indispensable people!
What’s the single most important factor of being a Master Distiller?
You need to develop a good sense of taste and understand how flavours work.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt on the job?
Don’t rush it.
If you were starting out all over again, is there anything about the industry that you’d change?
This is a fascinating and absorbing industry. I would probably like to have prevented the minimum strength of gin descending to 37.5% though.
Why do you think gin has gone from being Mother’s Ruin to the tipple of choice in the trendiest bars?
It’s all about the quality.
You’ve got 24 hours to show a martian how to drink, understand and appreciate gin, where would you take him/her and why?
I would take it to the tasting room at the Beefeater distillery and let our brand ambassadors, Tim Stones and Seb Hamilton-Mudge, demonstrate one or two cocktails. That would leave 22 hours free for the return journey to Mars. Job done.
It took 40 years before you showed Desmond Payne off in liquid form with Beefeater 24. Why so long and was it an exciting or nerve-wracking experience?
The craze for new gins was just beginning in 2007 when I started work on Beefeater 24. We had recently been acquired by Pernod Ricard and there was a fresh approach to innovation. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking but it gave me the confidence to go on and develop other new gins for Beefeater.
What were the high and low points of creating your first Beefeater gin from scratch?
The low point was about an hour before I presented my new gin to an independent tasting panel made up of the great and good of the gin trade. I couldn’t taste anything from the samples! Fortunately, the high point came an hour later when my new gin received top marks from the panel. Another high was taking the IWSC gold medal for Beefeater 24 in its first year.
You’ve created Summer and Winter editions of Beefeater, which is your favourite and why?
These were designed to be seasonal gins, so I prefer the more floral Summer Gin in summertime and the spicier notes of Beefeater Winter gin in colder weather.
Your latest addition to the portfolio is Burrough’s Reserve, how did the idea for this unique product come about?
I was interested in the effect that wood could have on gin. Not only does it change the flavour profile of the liquid with the subtle introduction of sweet oak notes, it also challenges the established idea of when gin should be drunk. Burrough’s Reserve is designed to be a sipping gin.
How does it differ to other gins on the market and who is it aimed at?
The main difference is that Burrough’s Reserve is rested in oak casks for a period of time. This changes the way the flavours work and integrate and it challenges the status quo of gin. It is aimed at free-thinkers who are prepared to look at a traditional product in a new way.
Liquid treasures aside, this year sees the long-awaited opening of the Beefeater Distillery Visitor Centre. What can we expect to see?
Still a well-kept secret, but prepare to be wowed!
Beefeater gin is very much associated with London, if it were a postcode (other than Kennington) where would it be?
We are very happy and proud to be where we are in SE11 thank you!
What’s your favourite gin cocktail and who serves the best one?
It’s the Negroni for me! It is such a simple cocktail with only three ingredients that it is hard to get wrong. Just don’t mess about with the classic recipe and I will be happy.
Name your favourite London bars…
No way! I’m not about to a) upset half of London’s great bartenders, or b) give away my drinking secrets!
The Beefeater Distillery Visitor Centre is scheduled to open in Kennington, London later this year. See beefeatergin.com for details.
Taken from Issue 9 of The Cocktail Lovers magazine.