Desmond Payne is a man who knows the importance of gin like few others. While the industry has been booming in recent years for a new generation – 40 new UK distilleries opened last year alone – he is now celebrating a landmark anniversary, having honed his craft in distillation for a total of 50 years.
His spirited career saw him rise up the ranks at both Seager’s Gin Distillery and Plymouth Gin, and even try his hand with wine and whisky. But the last quarter of a century has seen him act as Master Distiller at Beefeater Gin, where he still oversees the production of the 154 year-old recipe (including a few variants of his own creation). GJ sat down with the seasoned ginsmith to learn why gin, more than any alternative, should be every gentleman’s drink of choice.
What about gin tempted you more than the other spirits out there?
For me, it was the sheer versatility of gin. I still enjoy wine, very much, but wine is all about the grape. And whiskey is all about the grain. And rum is all about sugar cane… But gin is about whatever you want. All the different botanicals mean far more complexity and variety in gin. I’m still very excited by it all.
As an expert on the subject, what’s key to making a great gin?
I think of botanicals as a family. We’ve got nine botanicals in Beefeater. And I think it’s a family that works: they’re all happy, they all get on together. Not all families do. And that’s exactly the principle for making gin: finding the right botanicals that are sympathetic to each other.
And is there a combination that can satisfy a master palette?
My go-to at the moment is a classic – not surprising after 50 years – the Gibson. Which is basically a martini with a little pearl onion in it. Three, ideally.
In your mind, what sort of gentleman orders gin at the bar?
The image is different now to what it would have been 50 years ago. I think the gin drinkers now are a younger generation. It’s an aspirational drink. It says something about confidence. They’re drinking what they like. It’s cool, it’s fun, it’s versatile. There are so many ways with gin – because there are so many integral parts to botanicals – and so many ways of drinking it.
And where’s the interest in gin going?
The interest is very much in premium, super-premium gins. That’s where the excitement is. And also the classics – like Beefeater. But we’ve been innovative as well.
The hard part actually is keeping Beefeater exactly the same, batch after batch after batch. This guy in the picture here is James Burrough, the founder of Beefeater, and he’s watching me to make sure I don’t change his recipe. When I make a new gin I just tell him to face the wall for a while.
You’ve had the chance to toy with the recipe on occasion.
Yes… Beefeater 24 was my first attempt to make my own gin. I’d made Plymouth gin to the Plymouth recipe, and Beefeater gin to the Beefeater recipe, but ten years ago they said they wanted a new expression of Beefeater. The problem is it’s a beautifully balanced gin already – why would I upset that balance?
I finally had that light-bulb moment in Japan, about a year beforehand. A lot of people were drinking green tea, so I added it to my gin as an alternative. And it really works beautifully well. Tea works with almost anything. It’s one of those flavours where the actual structure of tea means that it combines molecularly. I added the grapefruit as well as the orange and lemon you get in there, so it’s a real balancing act. But I think the art is not to overdo it. It’s all in knowing when to stop.