Desmond Payne – Beefeater
To get a better idea of life behind the scenes and the people who are at the heart of our favourite spirits – we decided to launch a Meet the Maker micro series. Here, we catch up with one of the world’s most experienced and respected ginsmiths – Beefeater Gin’s Master Distiller, Desmond Payne.
Gin Foundry – Hi Desmond, it’s difficult to find a good place to start as there are so many questions that come to mind, perhaps we go from the beginning… How long have you been distilling and what made you choose it as a career?
Desmond Payne – I have been distilling for 47 years now. I started my career in the wine trade and, after my basic training, joined a company that operated as wine merchants but also had a gin distillery. That got me hooked.
GF – Five decades at the helm of a still – what’s your favourite part of making gin?
DP – In recent years I have been really involved in creating new styles of gin which is such a rewarding process. It is hugely exciting to get to the point where you think: “Yes! That’s it. This is what I was l was planning to produce”.
GF – Absolutely, especially as it’s your baby from inception too. What’s a typical day in the distillery like?
DP – There’s no such thing as a typical day. At some times of the year I am very focused on the assessment of the current year’s crop of our various botanicals. With juniper, for example, we will analyse up to two hundred individual samples to give ourselves the best option for blending various batches. This process is vital as we need to ensure that the end result is consistent. Developing new gins also takes a large time investment and precise attention to detail. If I’m not doing either of these, I may be visiting our markets or helping to judge international competitions. No two days are the same, which helps to make my job a very interesting and satisfying one.
GF – It’s such a recognised brand name and a household spirit for so many bars, but from a flavour perspective, what do you think makes Beefeater unique?
DP – One of the things that we do in the production of all expressions of Beefeater Gin is to steep our botanicals for 24 hours prior to distillation. This gives the gins a great complexity of flavour and balance. Beefeater is seen as classic London Gin.
GF – You have been busy over the past years with limited edition gins. Typically, how long does it take you to fine tune your recipes and what’s your process when creating a new Beefeater expression?
DP – It largely depends on the nature of the gin. My first, Beefeater 24, took me 18 months to develop. I’m probably a little quicker than that now as I’ve become more experienced in understanding how various flavours work together but there are still no short cuts – you must explore every option.
GF – You’ve made a few variants ranging from Beefeater 24, Burrough’s Reserve, the two seasonal editions and the new distillery exclusive. From a creative perspective, have you done everything you wanted to do or have you got some ideas for gins you’d really like to make next?
DP – For me, Beefeater 24 was a really special project and a creative experience that I will always cherish. However, I’m still as keen to innovate as ever, so watch this space!
GF – Exactly what we wanted to hear! We can’t wait for the next one. You’ve got a long while to go before retirement, but given you make such an iconic gin and that you are already considered one of the most experienced distillers in the UK, do you ever think about what legacy you will leave behind? If so, what do you think that would be?
DP – I guess my ideal legacy would be two-fold. Firstly, that I maintained the classic quality of two great gins on my watch – Beefeater and Plymouth Gin – and secondly, that I introduced new gins of true quality to a very crowded market.
GF – Gin is in a very different place today, compared to when you began in the 1960’s. Do you think the category will contract a little over the next few years?
DP – I think that the gin market overall will contract a little but, importantly, I believe that the effects of the ‘Ginaissance’ will be long-lasting: an underlying interest in new, high-end gins will continue to excite the market.
GF – Agreed. One of the big changes in our opinion is the level of access consumers get to brands and how much they can see in person. This is particularly true for Beefeater. How has having a visitor centre changed life at the distillery? Does it make any difference to how you go about your day?
DP – The visitor centre at the distillery has proved to be very successful in educating consumers about the way that gin is created and how complex the process is. Our visitors go away with an understanding of how big brands like Beefeater take enormous care over the smallest details of the daily production cycle. I was very involved with setting up the visitor centre but the daily management is left to a small and dedicated team of hosts. I like to pop in and chat to visitors when I have time; somehow this tends to coincide with the moment they are offered a Beefeater and tonic at the end of the tour – strange how that happens…
GF – Very nice! Do you have “the usual” at the bar? What’s your favourite way to drink Beefeater Gin?
DP – A well-made gin is a very versatile drink so it depends on the company I am in, the mood I am in and, often, the bar I am in. Having said that, there are three serves that never disappoint: a well-made Gin & Tonic, a mouth-watering classic Negroni and, for a treat, a chilled glass of Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve, sipped neat.
Thank you for talking to us Desmond, it’s been a privilege for us and we look forward to tasting what you come up with next. For those keen to visit the Beefeater Distillery, you can book a tour here – www.beefeaterdistillery.com – and who knows, Mr Payne may even join you at the bar…
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