Meet the Distiller
Desmond Payne MBE: Beefeater
50 years, eight gins, one Lifetime Achievement Award from The Gin Guild, and now an MBE, Beefeater’s Master Distiller Desmond Payne still isn’t ready to put his feet up. We chat to ‘Mr Beefeater’ about spending five decades in the gindustry…
THE GIN GUILD: 50 years! How does it feel?
DESMOND PAYNE: “Well, it is a long time, that’s for sure, but I tend to live in the present and concentrate on the exciting things that are going on today. This is not to say that I do not have many fond memories of the past five decades.
THE GIN GUILD: How did it all start for you?
DESMOND PAYNE: I started in the wine trade, I first worked in the cellars at Harrods learning from the bottom up. I applied for a job with Seager, Evans & Co. who were wine shippers, but who also had a gin distillery at Deptford in South East London.
As a 19-year-old management trainee I was expected to spend some time in every department but it was the distillery that fascinated me. Seagers owned the Plymouth Gin distillery and that was my next step in training.
The sheer mixture of flavours and aromas from the botanicals captivated me. There seemed such a wider range than appeared in wine.
THE GIN GUILD: You must have some great anecdotes from over the years. Any you can share?
DESMOND PAYNE: The move from London to Plymouth was an eye-opener at the time. Aged 21 and living on the King’s Road, Chelsea in the swinging 60s, life seemed idyllic. It was the centre of the universe, it seemed.
My first memory of Plymouth was seeing a clerk at the distillery sitting at a high desk and dressed formally in black coat and striped trousers, it transpired he was about to attend a formal council event. I had gone from Dylan to Dickens overnight!
My bosses in London took pity on me and kindly offered me a return rail ticket to London once a month ‘to keep abreast of things’. They apologised for the fact that it would need to be second class!
THE GIN GUILD: What are the highlights of your career?
DESMOND PAYNE: Many highlights, but mostly during my time at Beefeater. The development of Beefeater 24 is one of my proudest achievements, along with the various other gins I have introduced since. It is such a terrific time to be involved in gin production. There is a real excitement and buzz around the category.
THE GIN GUILD: Beefeater is such an iconic and recognised brand, what makes it different to all of the other gins on the market?
DESMOND PAYNE: All gins are different in some respect or other. It all depends on what the recipe of botanicals is – that’s where the flavour comes from, and how the gin is produced – that’s where the character comes from.
Sitting in my office at the Beefeater Distillery, I am watched over by the portrait of James Burrough, Beefeater’s founder. He is making sure that I don’t tamper with his recipe! What Burrough achieved was a gin that had balance and complexity.
The 24 hours that we allow for the botanicals to steep in the still before distillation are a crucial element in achieving this.
THE GIN GUILD: How long does it take you to develop a gin recipe?
DESMOND PAYNE: About as long as a piece of string. Beefeater 24 took me the best part of 18 months but I learned a lot during that process. First of all, you need to get inspiration from what can be done differently, especially in the use of new botanicals.
Once the original idea is set, then it is a question of looking at all the options of how to make it happen. I’m getting faster, but you can’t rush a good thing.
THE GIN GUILD: Which neutral grain spirit do you prefer and what are the attributes it provides?
DESMOND PAYNE: The answer is in the question – it must first of all 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 taste to come from juniper and other botanicals. For Beefeater we use grain spirit produced from wheat.
THE GIN GUILD: How many gins have you developed in total now?
DESMOND PAYNE: Eight gins in the past nine years – and none in the previous forty! That indicates the popularity of gin today.
THE GIN GUILD: What’s on the horizon for you?
DESMOND PAYNE: Well, there are always new concepts and ideas in my mind. I haven’t finished yet, that’s for sure!
THE GIN GUILD: What is your favourite way to drink gin?
DESMOND PAYNE: It depends on my mood. Gin and tonic is a marriage made in heaven, but I am fond of a well-made Beefeater martini, and I have been known to sip a Negroni or two. Earlier this year we celebrated the international finals of the Beefeater MIXLDN global bartender competition.
I have tasted superb cocktails from thirty-two countries around the world, the standards are incredibly high and the enthusiasm of the bartenders is inspirational and infectious. The great thing about a great gin is its ability to be mixable.
THE GIN GUILD: So how are you going to celebrate your 50th anniversary?
DESMOND PAYNE: Well, probably not with my feet up and a nice cup of tea…