Interview My Gin Life

My Gin Life with… Desmond Payne, Beefeater

Desmond Payne, Beefeater master distiller

Today’s My Gin Life interview is with Desmond Payne – master distiller at Beefeater, Gin Magazine Hall of Fame inductee, and world-renowned master of all things juniper. Having worked for more than half a century in the distilling industry – including 25 years at Beefeater – there are few who deserve the title of ‘legend’ in the gin world more than Desmond. The organisers of the Queen’s Honours list felt so too – he was made an MBE for his services to the spirits industry in 2018.

Desmond Payne, Beefeater master distiller
Desmond Payne MBE. Credit: Addie Chinn

Gin Magazine (GM): Tell us how you got into the distilling industry, and how you got to your current position.

Desmond Payne (DP): I have been master distiller for Beefeater for 16 years, having started my career in the wine cellars at Harrods. I had intended to make a career in the wine trade but, when I left Harrods, I joined a company that, as well as dealing in wine, had a gin distillery.  I worked there as part of my training and that is where my interest in gin comes from. After spending 25 years in charge of production at Plymouth Gin, I joined Beefeater in 1995 and was named master distiller in 2005. 

GM: Beefeater is a world-renowned brand with an enviable heritage – how does this affect the way you distil and innovate at the distillery?

DP: My job is custodian of Beefeater and its heritage of more than 200 years, but we look for new expressions of it, too. The number one responsibility of the job is to maintain the quality of Beefeater. We are very proud to say that we are the world’s most awarded gin. The thing that presents the biggest challenge is the sourcing of botanicals. If I take juniper as an example, we will assess anything up to two hundred samples of each year’s crop to select not only the best, but those that display true Beefeater character. We may only choose three or four to be blended together to achieve this.  

GM: Tell us one thing you are proud of in your career, and one thing that you may do differently if you had the chance again.

DP: The first gin I made was Beefeater 24; by that time I’d been making gins for 40 years, and that was the first opportunity to put my own stamp on it. In my office at the distillery, the portrait of founder James Burrough is watching me to see I don’t change his recipe – we still have his invoices for Seville oranges bought at Covent Garden – but that doesn’t stop me looking at things on my own. The important thing is to get a balance that excites. Whisky is about the grain, wine about the grape, but because gin has so many component parts in terms of botanicals, it has to be able to work to what’s required of it. It’s a chameleon that changes with its environment and reflects the mood of what is going on. I began working with gin in the 1960s and throughout my sense of smell has been so important in what I do. An aroma can take you back to very specific times. But, really, there’s so much to enjoy. I love what I do, and I love the results.

Since Beefeater 24, I have developed half a dozen new London gins, some as limited editions, and lately the huge demand for flavoured gins is keeping me busy. There’s probably lots of things I would like to do that I haven’t done but I haven’t finished yet, watch this space! 

GM: What is the best piece of career/life advice you have been given?

DP: Enjoy your drinking experience. Don’t settle for second best. Treat everything with respect – and have fun! Cheers!

GM: What do you find most exciting about the modern gin industry? What part of the industry should we be watching for interesting developments in the near future?

DP: The gin wave continues to roll out and flavoured gins are an exciting part of gin’s evolution. This has been an exciting year for us in terms of innovation, with new packaging across the Beefeater range, a new flavour with Beefeater Peach & Raspeberry and our ready-to-drink cans rolling out to more markets. Innovation is at the heart of what we do, so look out for more news from us. 

GM: If you were a gin style or gin cocktail, what would it be and why?

DP: A good G&T. I don’t like too much ice or garnish – I want to taste the gin. I use a rocks glass – three lumps of ice, Beefeater gin and cold tonic. Lemon wedge garnish (not squeezed and definitely not rubbed round the rim of the glass!). Beefeater is a perfectly balanced gin and therefore works well in all mixed drinks and cocktails. It is particularly good in a G&T because if its classic citrus notes temper the bitter notes of quinnine in the tonic.

Read more from our My Gin Life series here.

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