Spotlight Mini-Series: Desmond Payne & Beefeater Gin
From the hallowed halls of Plymouth Gin to the clinking, whirring glass at Sacred Distillery, our Spotlight series has covered the privileges (and pitfalls) of working with a huge legacy and the endless flavour opportunities open to modern distillers.
Now, though, having met two of them already, we turn to the role of the Master Distiller; what does it mean to be the figurehead of a brand? To be the person in charge not only of the gin that flows from the still, but the impression it gives to a potentially global audience?
There really is no better person to discuss this with than the Godfather of Gin himself, Beefeater’s iconic Master Distiller Desmond Payne. Regular Gin Foundry readers will know his name well; He’s halfway through celebrating his 50th year as a distiller and we’ve been along for the ride (check out the video HERE, or the profile over HERE for more), toasting his name, as well as his recent MBE (for services to the Gin industry, of course).
From the days where he was simply known as a Distillery Manager, to his current lifestyle jetting around the globe to educate bartenders and enthusiasts alike, Payne has observed the change in the industry from it’s centre point, Martini in hand…
Payne is almost certainly the most well known (and revered) Master Distillers on the scene, travelling the world (he is into his 70s by now, but still made his way to a dozen foreign engagements in the run up to Christmas alone) to share his wealth of knowledge and making himself known as the very face of Beefeater. When media requests are made or when trade education is needed, he is the de-facto figure head to roll out. And he’s not alone in this – brands large and small use their distiller as their representative
It is perhaps the biggest change we’ve observed in Gin since we made our way into the drinks industry some 10 years ago. It’s an understandable one, too: after all, no one better represents the sheer craft and artistry that goes into producing a spirit than the person in charge of procuring the ingredients and cooking them up into delicious spirits. Brand Ambassadors are helpful, but no one knows a product more intimately than the person who sweats over it on a day to day basis. This, of course, poses its own set of problems for newbie brands: Owners and distillers (more often than not to begin with, the same person) have to put themselves in front of an audience to sell their gin, but doing that takes up precious distilling time. It’s a conundrum that requires more hours than are available in the day as you need to make gin to sell, but you need to sell gin to make more.
It is more than likely a tendency towards more demands for transparency that has grown the role of the Master Distiller too. We live in an informed age, so when information comes directly from the maker, it’s taken as unfiltered, credible news, with no marketing mumbo jumbo blurring the lines. (That’s not to say that distillers aren’t well trained and well versed in selling themselves – ‘marketeer’ is certainly another string Payne et al can add to the bow).
This statesman like pushing of a figurehead does, of course, develop into a minor area of ‘celebrity.’ People in the trade are excited to meet Payne, bars are thrilled when he pulls up a pew. This is a two way street, though as Payne points out in the video; Distillers and bartenders (and by default) drinkers live in a sort of symbiosis, where one is influenced by the other, one is curious about the other and each constantly seek inspiration from the other.
With bar culture now at its own peak, this cyclical nature and revolving inspiration is playing itself out across the globe. The great thing about having distillers on the move and traveling is the unusual collisions of botanicals, ideals, culture, collaborations and ways of drinking it throws up. More exciting gins are emerging as a result of a closer interface and the results are better suited to the real demands out there, not some workshop’ed hyper focus group iteration of the real demand. Equally, the two way flow creates ever more informed barkeeps who know how to harness the liquid to best effect.
This isn’t reserved to the trade either – the shift towards the limelight for distillers has been of huge benefit to this new generation of drinkers, who get to share the enthusiasm of the maker in a one-to-one setting.
It also means that the spirits that these Master Distillers create can be better understood (and in a much fuller context). Drinkers can take in not only the production method, but the ideas behind the recipe and the personality of the individual who makes it. Gin is a storytelling spirit, with its different ingredients representing chapters. The narrative behind it is palpable, tangible even, when the drinkers knows what flavours to seek out.
While its unlikely that a Master Distiller will ever make it into the hall of fame of great artists, the status is at least growing to that of a Master Perfumer. You trust these figures so prominent in their field, and hold them aloft as a person from which instant credibility can be obtained. Whether this is justified or not is subjective, but we’re sure that in this new era of gin, a Master Distiller is – and needs to be – an individual that can command a room not just with the liquid they have poured in people’s glasses, but with the effortless charm and confidence they must exude when explaining it.
Distillers as ambassadors is no doubt a trend that will continue for years to come. It takes an awful lot of work to adapt to the shifting demands of this role; to get yourself in front of multiple markets whilst still doing the day job back home, but as Payne has deftly proven, it’s not an impossible task. Not even for someone five decades into their career….
We have no doubt that some newcomers will be granted the title and the role within a team specifically because they are adept at the new, media facing requirements that the job entails. Being a great distiller is as much about the precision of following day to day production tasks as it is being open to the changing nature of what you work with (botanicals change all the time, and dosages need to be adjusted as a result quite often). Because of that, regardless of being naturals in front of big crowds or at their best dosing out botanicals for a new recipe in a quiet room – they are all uniquely equipped to thrive in a multifaceted and ever changing role.
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