Felicity Murray talks to a true icon in the gin world, Beefeater’s master distiller Desmond Payne, who is this year celebrating his golden anniversary as a gin distiller.
How did you first get into the distilling and gin business and what made you take this up as a career?
I started my career at Harrods, in the wine cellars before becoming a trainee with Seager Evans & Co, a London based wine and spirits company that also had a gin distillery. The sheer mixture of flavours and aromas from the botanicals fascinated me. I enjoyed learning about the various techniques involved in distilling and, from that moment, I was hooked.
I moved to Plymouth Gin where I spent about 25 years, and this was ultimately where my love of great gin was nurtured. After which, I moved on to Beefeater, which is where I’ve stayed to this day. It really has been the dream job.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
There is so much variety to it, because I’m able to be involved in every aspect, from buying the juniper berries and assessing the quality of the botanical through to the distillation process. I’ve also been trying my hand at more product development recently, which is very exciting! It’s rewarding when you get to a point where you’re satisfied with what you’ve achieved and what you set out to do. When I’m not testing our botanicals or innovating, I’m likely to be travelling around the world to our different markets or helping to judge international competitions. So, really in answer to your question, everything!
What is a typical week for you at the distillery?
There’s no such thing as a typical week at Beefeater. At certain times of the year I am very focused on the assessment of the current year’s crop of various botanicals. For example, with juniper berries, we can analyse up to 200 individual samples to give ourselves the best option for blending various batches. It’s a vital process as we need to ensure that the end result is consistent, to keep our signature Beefeater taste. My job is very varied which means that no two days are ever the same.
You have developed a number of new and special edition gins. How do you find these new recipes and how long does it take to develop them and bring them to market? Which has been your favourite?
I always joke that it takes about as long as a piece of string. Beefeater 24 took the best part of 18 months to develop and is definitely one of my career highlights. To develop
my own gin was a good learning process for me and was an amazing opportunity to be creative.
It’s very important to be creative with what we do as gin makers, especially when it comes to new botanicals. As you develop a new gin it’s about looking at the options available and achieving the best flavours and ultimately the best end product. You can’t rush a good thing, it takes a lot of time and patience.
How do you judge the quality of the spirit and what is the best way to discover a gin’s unique aromas and flavours?
Ultimately, the best way to judge a gin is with the nose and palate. But, there are also various processes during production that can bring out different flavours and aromas. The bold taste of Beefeater, for example, is enhanced by our 24-hour steeping process. This process helps to extract the maximum amount of flavour from the botanicals into neutral grain alcohol before distillation.
What are the key botanicals and how do you select the best and then get the balance right?
We hand select our botanicals every year with a close-knit team of experts, who understand Beefeater and our products. Our experts use the nose and palate technique to pick out the exact botanicals and juniper berries. I think visitors to the distillery are often surprised by how small the team at Beefeater is!
To make sure you get the best gin, I think firstly, the base spirit must be neutral. There is a different character, rather than flavour, from different base materials but I do not want to taste what the spirit was made from. I want the real taste to come from juniper and the other botanicals. For Beefeater, we use grain spirit produced from wheat, which I believe is what has made it so successful. This, along with the 24-hour steeping process, gives the gins a great complexity of flavour and balance.
What is your view on the many new ‘gins’ that have a botanical content that is not dominated by the traditional juniper?
Personally, I think they’re great for the gin category. New gins are appearing all the time, which of course is very exciting. People have a misconception that our gin is slightly industrial, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. We do everything hands-on. We weigh botanicals by hand and we do exactly what craft distillers do but on a larger scale. Overall, the most important thing is how the flavours balance, so it doesn’t matter how many botanicals you use as long as they work together.
Do these new small batch craft gins justify their high prices and will they all survive? What advice would you give to someone wanting to be a master distiller or start up a distillery?
Consumers today appear to be aware that making gin is about craftsmanship, skill and quality. If smaller craft gins can help to change consumers’ perception that gin is a worthy investment, that can only be a good thing. In my opinion, the growing popularity of gin will be long-lasting and high-end gins will continue to excite the market. As people become more aware of the time and effort that goes into producing gin, I believe they will also be willing to pay a slightly higher price for the privilege.
It’s a real challenge for distillers around the world to stand out in the market. Only gins of the highest quality will stand the test of time. That’s why I believe that Beefeater continues to be successful; the recipe that makes Beefeater what it is hasn’t changed.
As a distiller, your aim is to produce something that is well balanced and has the potential and ability to work in the hands of a good bartender, in whichever way he or she wants to take it. If I was going to give advice to someone looking to start their own distillery, it would be to love the work that you do. Do what you’re passionate about, but don’t rush, take your time, gather your own inspirations and develop a good sense of taste to understand how flavours work together. Patience is an invaluable skill. Don’t try to change the world overnight as you won’t be able to, spend the time to master your craft and the particular ingredients.
How and when do you enjoy a glass of gin?
A Negroni cocktail is a definite favourite. However, a well-made Gin and Tonic is also hard to beat, or a chilled glass of Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve, sipped neat. It really does depend on what mood I am in!
Will you ever retire?
There will, of course, come a moment when it’s time to pass the reins on to the next budding master distiller, but I have no plans to retire just yet. I still enjoy every single day on the job and with the growing popularity of gin these past few years, there are certainly exciting times ahead!