Meet the Distiller ~ Desmond Payne

They say you should never meet your heroes because you’ll come away disappointed, but when the opportunity arose to meet and interview Desmond Payne, Master Distiller of Beefeater Gin, I couldn’t resist.

The word ‘Legend’ in relation to people is overused in my opinion, but Desmond is the real deal and revered in the industry by bartenders and distillers alike. It’s easier to see why. Jolly, intelligent and eager to share his knowledge, it was an absolute pleasure to meet him.

Meeting Desmond Payne, Master Distiller, Beefeater Gin
Meeting Desmond Payne, Master Distiller, Beefeater Gin

How long have you been in the industry?

I started making gin in London in 1967. I was in the wine trade and I joined a company who were a wine and spirit merchant. They had a gin distillery called Seagar Evans and I became a trainee. I found it fascinating. They also owned Plymouth gin so I then spent quite a lot of time down there, about 25 years. After which I moved to Beefeater where I’ve been for the past 20 years.

How much has the industry changed?

If you went into a bar, there’d be three whiskies and probably one gin, Now, I was in a bar in Valencia, Spain, about 10 months ago, and they had 624 brands of gin. That’s what’s changed. It’s a great time for gin. The consumers are better informed, everyone’s reading back labels. They want to know what’s in things that they’re consuming.

People are much more inquisitive. They want to know about things that they’re eating, drinking, what clothes are made of, where they come from.

Do you feel like you have to defend Beefeater, because the perception is it’s not made in the same way as ‘craft’ gin?

It’s funny that somehow, gin got a reputation for being slightly industrial like vodka. Gin comes out of a big factory somewhere. It’s absolutely not true. We do everything. We weigh things by hand and we do exactly what they (‘craft’ distillers) do but on a larger scale.

Craft is not enough. You actually need a combination of craft and skill and various other things. It’s about how you do things and how all the decisions are made by people and not machines. We use computers, of course, (they send us damn emails!) but the decisions are made with the nose and palate. When we look at our juniper crop each year, we’re looking at something like 200 samples of juniper berries from each year’s crop. Consistency is something that’s much easier to achieve on larger scale.

What is the best thing about your job?

It’s the sheer variety. I’m very lucky in that I’ve pretty much always been in a situation where I’m involved in everything from buying the juniper berries and assessing the quality of the botanicals, right through to distillation and lately a lot of new product development. Gin is on a roll! I’ve made six new gins over the last six years. In the previous forty, none!

How do you feel about that there are some gins having only four botanicals and others so many it’s difficult to remember them all?

I think honestly it doesn’t matter. There’s one gin we all know with four botanicals, it’s good gin. It’s how they complement each other and how they balance, and how work in the simplest gin and tonic. Not all gins work perfectly in all cocktails.

You know, a good gin should be versatile, but it should have enough integrity to work on its own. Which is why the Burrough’s Reserve is a sipping gin. It’s pure gin. You don’t have to do anything with it.

Do you welcome that kind of innovation?

Yes, but be careful. I think some of the new gins are trying almost too hard. When I talk to the botanical suppliers they say, oh I’m getting people phoning all the time saying, “What have you got that nobody else is using?”, which is fine, but what impact does it make on the flavour? The thing I’ve really learned over the mistakes I’ve made in the last 45 years, is it’s a gentle touch.

With Beefeater 24, what I had to do was to create a new balance but in a different place, but it still has to be balanced. It has to have its own integrity. It’s like making a cocktail, that extra drop of lemon juice or whatever would just change the character. There’s always a tipping point of which, “whoops, gone too far”. There’s no way back. It’s about balance.

What is the most challenging thing about distilling gin?

It’s finding a balance, in creating a gin, and maintaining that gin as being consistent. I’m very aware as a gin distiller that I make is not what anybody drinks, hardly ever. There’s always something else done to it, I’m kind of halfway. My job as a distiller is to produce something that is well balanced and has that potential and the ability to work in many directions in the hands of a good bartender. Whichever way he or she wants to take it.

Are you going to be doing more new gins?

I’m sure I haven’t finished. I was fortunate enough to receive a life-time achievement award the other day. I said, “Thank you very much, I’ve very pleased to have it, but actually, I haven’t finished yet.”

How did you go about selecting which additional botanicals or what flavors to use when you made your new gins?

Beefeater 24 was my first, and it took a while. A year and a half!

The marketing guys are saying, “Come Desmond, we’ve got the packaging done, and the launch party, we’ve got a date. How’s the gin coming on?” and I’m saying “I’m not ready yet!”.

You kind of wait for inspiration. There are two things that make all these gins different. One is, what botanicals? That’s where the flavour comes from. The other is how you make it. The rest is marketing, equally important. It’s about putting packaging and everything else on a bottle. What I didn’t want to change with making Beefeater 24 was the ‘how’. That 24 hour steeping period that comes from the name. I try to tell people it’s my age, but obviously it doesn’t work! That 24 hour steeping period is so important in integrating all these flavours. I didn’t want to change that, so I changed the botanicals.

Beefeater’s a great, well balanced recipe and James Burrough’s picture’s in my office watching me to make sure that I don’t change his gin!  That’s why I’m the custodian of that. The inspiration came to use tea in Beefeater 24 because I had been in Japan about a year beforehand. You work quite hard in when you’re in Japan and I’m ready for my gin and tonic at the end of the day and Beefeater’s number 1 everywhere, but Japanese tonic water is different or was then. They weren’t allowed to use quinine as it’s considered a medicinal drug, and you can’t put drugs in food stuffs (although I think they can do it now). So the Japanese tonic was different, so my gin and tonic is different. I’m not really happy, so what to drink?

What sort of things were around? Tea, Iced lemon tea, green tea, and I thought ‘will that that work?’. And wow, yes it does. The molecular structure of tea means it works very successfully with other flavours. I thought, okay, tea works as a mixer. How would it work in distillation? I started experimenting with different teas. That’s how I started. It’s just that light bulb moment when you think, ah, that’s something worth pursuing.

What about the Garden gin?

There is a wonderful garden in London, the Chelsea Physic Gardens. Which was planted, I don’t know 300 years ago. It’s filled with medicinal herbs for apothecaries and with James Burrough starting life as pharmacist in Chelsea I thought it would be a fascinating place to visit. I saw this lemon verbena there, and I thought, I love citrus notes, and I love to use citrus in a different way. I used the kaffir lime leaves in another gin and the summer gin I made was more floral, with hibiscus and black currant leaves while the  winter gin I made more spicy. I hadn’t really looked at herbaceaous flavours so I went with adding thyme and lemon verbena to the nine Beefeater botanicals because that is always my starting point.

Do you think there are too many gins on the market?

You know, they won’t all survive I’m afraid. It’s not easy to get something off the ground and then on somebody’s shelf. I kind of have a suspicion that when that happens people will come back to the classics. Classic, to me means something that’s been around for a while. Why has it been around for a while? Because it works, because it’s good.

It’s really fascinating. I do see, now, a lot of gins, using local botanicals. In Australia, South Africa, and all over the place, which is really nice to see. But don’t do it just because it’s local, do it, number one, because it works. That’s the whole thing about gin. English gin, London gin, none of the botanicals come from London, the art is the skill of putting it together. It’s what we do well in England. We bring things in from the world and turn them into something else and send them back again. Like marmalade.

Who/what inspires you?

I travel a lot these days. Which is great. You pick up inspiration everywhere you go. I think this generation of bartenders, and I’m not saying this because we’re sitting in the middle of Tales of the Cocktail, are better at their game than the ones we all give reverence to, Harry Craddock and the rest of them. I think this generation are better than them. They are so creative.

They understand their art and they’re passionate about what they do. They’re producing great things. They’re a great inspiration to me. The thing that persuaded me to do Burrough’s Reserve as an aged gin was having an aged negroni in Clyde Common in Portland Oregon. What a difference that made!

Your favourite gin cocktail and why?

Oh, there’s so many. I’m a negroni fan, but I discovered about a year ago I’m diabetic so I’m watching the sugar. I’m kind of back on dry martinis. It’s gin. It’s what I’m saying about balance, not overdoing things. It’s that little bit of vermouth, and good gin. It’s that combination that just changes that balance. When you have a twist or olive, or the thing I love, is onion.

Which are your favourite bars (anywhere in the world)

Oh my goodness. Every time I go somewhere I find new ones.

In London, classic Dukes Hotel, their martinis and that mad Italian bartender.

What is it about their martinis?

It’s the theatre!

In London, Happiness Forgets is a bar making good drinks. In Athens, Gin Joint. What a fabulous bar.

LA, I’d never been there before, and I went to a bar there a couple months ago called Melrose Umbrella Company, which was great.

What was it that you liked about them? What sort of makes a good bar for you?

You can see that they love and they’re passionate about what they’re doing. It’s like any great restaurant seeing the chef working. It’s a passion you see that really makes it work. In Barcelona, there’s a bar called Boadas. Just off the Ramblas. It’s been there forever and they have making been making these cocktails forever. The Elderly bartenders do it the way they’ve always done it and they throw the drinks. It is just magnificent. I’d say I’d want to die there.

What’s next? Any future plans?

We’re bringing back Crown Jewel. It was originally made for duty free but when we launched Beefeater 24, we stopped Crown Jewel. Every time I speak to bartenders, somebody says, “I’ve got a question, why did you stop Crown Jewel?” I said, “Look, it’s finished, get over it.” But, last year we brought it back, as a thank you to the bartenders.

There’s always something about their mind bubbling away. Whether it ever ends up being a new gin or not I don’t know. I’m working with this David Munoz at DiverXO  in Madrid to produce a gin for and with him. That’s an interesting experience.  He’s an incredible guy. I have so much admiration for these people. It really stretches the brain. I see bartenders at the top of their game. They love to show you want they’re doing. “Oh try this, try this.” You think, wow, the care you go to do these things. It’s great.







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