Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne MBE: Season Two, Episode Five

This week on the podcast we’re joined with a gentleman who may well have been distilling gin before you were even born.

In 2017, Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne celebrated his 50th year as a gin distiller and he’s still going strong today.

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I caught up with Desmond while he was in Australia recently to have a chat about his career to date and the many changes he’s seen in the gin category over that time.

Desmond truly is a legend of the gin industry and I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne
Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne MBE: Full transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Desmond Payne, thanks so much for joined me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

DESMOND PAYNE: Great to talk to you.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve been distilling gin now for 50 years. What did the industry look like at the beginning of your career?

DESMOND PAYNE: Oh, very different. I’ve just hit 51 actually and counting. I mean the first thing is there were nothing like as many brands as there are now, and a lot of that is in the last five to ten years so it’s increased hugely. I was down at Junipalooza in Melbourne over the weekend and they had a dinner for the distillers on the Friday night before it started and there were about, I don’t know, 100 people there or something. And I was commenting that when I first started, which is in 1967, you could have got the whole of the gin distillers of the world on one table. So that’s a large part of what’s happened.

DESMOND PAYNE: And a huge amount of excitement and new products, creativity, stepping outside the traditions of what gin was then.

JAMES ATKINSON: Who was the gin consumer at that point in time?

DESMOND PAYNE: It was the guy at the golf club, gin and tonic after a round of golf.

JAMES ATKINSON: The English gent?

DESMOND PAYNE: Yeah, the English gent very much. And also in the bars, in the pubs the ladies would’ve probably been in a separate bar almost in those days, and they would’ve drunk gin, probably gin and orange. A horrible mixture of cordial, squash, orange squash and gin. That was probably a bit earlier to be honest. But it was very much a sort of middle class G&T cocktail party thing.

JAMES ATKINSON: And so cocktails, gin cocktails were already a thing at that point?

DESMOND PAYNE: Well, they were, they had been. It was always an aspirational thing. But to get a cocktail was, if you were in London at one of the traditional, smart upmarket hotels like the Savoy or somewhere, cocktails were always available. But out in the sticks; no. If you had a gin it was a gin and tonic. But that was called a cocktail.

Beefeater Gin and tonic
Beefeater Gin and tonic

JAMES ATKINSON: Now as you mentioned, a lot of the change we’ve seen in gin has been in the last decade or really even the last five years that the most dramatic change has occurred. What was happening in the industry over the earlier stages of your career? Was the category in growth or was it up and down? Or how was it trending?

DESMOND PAYNE: It was down. Because what had happened to gin then was vodka. Vodka really, in Europe certainly, started to appear and become popular in the late 50s onwards and vodka was regarded as a kind of sexier drink, it was Russian and a bit sort of daring and brave. And it took a lot of the white spirit market, which was gin. So vodka became a fashionable drink and that really pushed gin into decline.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now, the first, as you said, 25 years of your career was at Plymouth Gin, how did working with Plymouth versus working for Beefeater compare?

DESMOND PAYNE: It’s largely a question of scale. I think Plymouth Gin had been a big important brand and after the war it kind of went into decline, they found it hard to get good quality neutral alcohol, but they struggled on with whatever they could get and it kind of lost its way. If you look in the original Savoy Cocktail Book from the 20s and 30s, virtually all the gin recipes are based on Plymouth Gin. But that was kind of in decline, so when I was there it was quite small but kept going. It still had a hugely loyal following, partly in the Royal Navy, hence the Navy Strength Gin that we do.

JAMES ATKINSON: In your time as a distiller, have you mostly been working with pre-existing recipes? And is it only really the last few years that you’ve had the chance to play around with some innovation?

DESMOND PAYNE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Plymouth Gin, I made Plymouth Gin to the Plymouth Gin recipe, that’s still what’s happening today and when I came up to Beefeater, although a much larger scale operation, much larger, the recipe was set in stone. And in fact in my office at the distillery in London, the portrait of James Burrough, the founder of Beefeater, hangs opposite my desk and he’s watching me to make sure I don’t change his recipe. So it was just, “Carry on doing the same and you better keep it the same.”

The Savoy Cocktail Book champions Plymouth Gin in its cocktail recipes
The Savoy Cocktail Book champions Plymouth Gin in its cocktail recipes

DESMOND PAYNE: And it was 10 years ago when I first had a chance, after 40 years of making gin, to make my own, which is Beefeater 24. So that was a huge learning curve. Turned the picture round to face the wall for a while.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, tell us about the process that went into creating Beefeater 24.

DESMOND PAYNE: Well, the first thing was, “Hooray, at last my turn to make a gin. Good. About time.” And then I started thinking, “Well, hang on a minute, what do I do? What do I do that’s different?” When I think about how gins are made, all the gins are out there now, 1000s of them, it comes down to two things. One is; what I call the what and the how. The what is the recipe, what botanicals you use, juniper plus whatever. That’s where the flavour comes from. And the how is actually how you make it and it’s a combination of those two things that makes all the gins different.

DESMOND PAYNE: One of the things with Beefeater, that’s a beautifully balanced recipe, tamper with it at your peril kind of thing. One of the things we do for Beefeater is when we put all our botanicals into the still with the neutral alcohol; we leave it there to steep, to rest for 24 hours and that really helps it develop the flavour, the complexity of flavour, giving it time. So I didn’t want to change that so my option then was to change the what, change the recipe and I scratched my head and I pulled stuff out of hedgerows and thought about it and waited for the inspiration to strike. All these things kind of happen at four o’clock in the morning, don’t they? You think, “Ah, eureka! I’ve got it, I know what to do, I know what to try.”

Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne enjoying a signature cocktail
Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne enjoying a signature cocktail

DESMOND PAYNE: First thing was to use grapefruit in addition to the orange and lemon that was already in Beefeater. That was already in a product we’d done called Crown Jewel, which was a duty free travel retail product, 50% and Beefeater plus grapefruit, it just puts the gin in a different place. So that was kind of worth looking at and the inspiration really came to use tea as a botanical. Tea is a really good flavour in terms of its ability to mix with other flavours. The combination of those two things was the process. But it took me 18 months to get this right, I was in no hurry but I think the marketing guys were, they were saying, “Desmond, where’s this new gin? We’ve kind of got the packaging design and there’s a date in the diary for the launch but …” “I’m not just ready yet, not just ready.”

DESMOND PAYNE: But I did it on my own, I had no … if I say nobody interfering that sounds bad, but it was definitely my project.

JAMES ATKINSON: There are distilleries around these days that are knocking out new gins every few weeks, do you ever feel like you would’ve liked to have had the shackles off to be able to really experiment with new products like that?

DESMOND PAYNE: Earlier than 24? Yes. But there wasn’t the market for it then. 24 was one of the first of the new styles of gin coming out and I’ve done a good few since, I mean some have just been limited editions. I did a summer gin, a winter gin obviously that was going to happen after summer, market gin, I do a barrel-aged gin. So I think I’ve done eight or nine gins since Beefeater 24.

Beefeater 24 was the first gin recipe created by Desmond Payne from scratch
Beefeater 24 was the first gin recipe created by Desmond Payne from scratch

DESMOND PAYNE: And it’s great, it’s really the shackles are off and the pressure’s on. We’ve just launched Beefeater Pink and that’s something very different.

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about the pink gin boom that we’re currently seeing. What’s the heritage of pink gin and what do you think’s driving the current interest?

DESMOND PAYNE: The first thing is I think none of us really saw it coming. Pink gin, traditionally pink gin back in the 60s, 70s a pink gin would be probably a Plymouth Gin with a drop of Angostura Bitters, that’s what made it pink and it was very much a naval tradition. But the fashion for pink gin now is very different, it’s a different thing altogether and it is fruit flavoured and coloured. The biggest market for gin outside USA is Spain and it’s a big market in Europe and it’s the biggest market by far for Beefeater and gins in Spain are just crazy, there’s I don’t know how many brands and a few more since we’ve started talking probably. And there are a lot of gins, lots of tonics and the Spanish are very experimental and they’re prepared to try anything with their gins.

DESMOND PAYNE: So what we say being really popular were pink gins. There were a few brands that sort of led it, there was one called Puerto De Indias which was the first pink gin, fruit flavoured, little bit sweeter. I think really to attract a younger consumer coming through onto something that’s a bit more fun, a bit more easy drinking and they became hugely popular and all the brands started to introduce versions in pink.

DESMOND PAYNE: We held back for a while to really kind of get a view on what was happening in the market. We didn’t want to just jump into something that was going to be here today, gone tomorrow but it became very clear this was here to stay for a while certainly. But we wanted to get it right and ours is … some of them just say red berry or fruit or something, ours is actually strawberry.

JAMES ATKINSON: Do all these new pink gins stay true to the category of what is gin?

DESMOND PAYNE: Oh, what is gin; yes. But they’re not London gin, London gin is not geographical, London gin is a method of production and for London gin you can’t add anything after distillation with the botanicals, that changes the flavour or colour. So anything that’s pink by it’s very nature can’t be London gin. So it comes into the category of distilled gin, there are some well known … one particular well known Scottish gin that adds cucumber and rose petal after distillation, it’s that same principle. Certain flavours don’t distill and colour doesn’t distill so if you want these things you have to add them after distillation which is still categorised as distilled gin.

DESMOND PAYNE: But the definitions on gin are honestly now they’re behind the times. But it takes a long time to change a definition legally and gin has overtaken that, the excitement in gin with flavoured gins and barrel aged gins and Old Tom gins, there’s no definition for them but everybody’s doing them. I was on the committee that made the definition for London gin 20 years ago and that took 20 years to get into European law and gins moving faster than that. It’s good to have an open category because it let’s people do what they want. If you tie yourself down too much on definition you limit your options for the future and you never know what the future is.

DESMOND PAYNE: I think about the French wine laws, where they dictate how you can prune and which branches you can prune and how much you can produce, however bumper the harvest is you can’t make more than that amount in your appellation and they’ve really tied themselves down. And I remember bringing a French wine maker to Australia 25 years ago and he was amazed that you can suddenly graft Shiraz on a Chardonnay rootstock because that’s what’s popular, you can’t do that in France.

DESMOND PAYNE: So what I’m saying is you need to keep your options open because don’t tie yourself down too far for the future. But there has to be some kind of ring fencing because there’s a point at which it stops being gin.

JAMES ATKINSON: And there’s some distillers that running a bit of a campaign at the moment against so-called fake gin. Hayman’s Gin has been the one spearheading that and there’s been other distillers making similar comments about the concern that a lot of the products that are out now; they’re not juniper forward enough. Is that a concern that you have?

Hayman's Gin is campaigning against gin without juniper
Hayman’s Gin is campaigning against gin without juniper

DESMOND PAYNE: It’s a concern in that how far it may go. The European definition of gin says, “Predominantly juniper by taste.” Well, that went out the door decades ago. “By taste.” Really? I mean the moment you put citrus in something it’s going to dominate. I mean for example Beefeater, if I buy 50 tons of juniper, I might be buying three tons of orange peel. But the orange is upfront, it always is, it’s got sharp elbows. What I do insist on and it’s something that I was keen on with Beefeater Pink was that, even though the top note is strawberry other wise you wouldn’t call it strawberry gin, the gin character comes shining through it and the juniper is there and all the other things are there.

DESMOND PAYNE: I think honestly that’s very much down to our 24 hour steeping because it kind of holds the whole thing together. The juniper’s there, predominant? No, if you call something a strawberry gin; the strawberry is predominant. Or rhubarb or whatever it is.

JAMES ATKINSON: You made the comment at the dinner the other night that you were very pleased to taste some gins on that night that were very juniper forward.

DESMOND PAYNE: Yeah, yeah, they were, which is refreshing. Gin is about juniper, but there are many ways of approaching juniper and delivering it and we need to keep it … keep some fluidity to it, if you like, keep it moving, keep some opportunities for … Gin of all the spirits can do that. You think of the other spirits, all the whiskies of the word, they’re very different but they’re all made from grain. All the brandies of the world; it’s just a grape, there’s nothing else in there. But gin gives us this opportunity to really approach it from different directions, look at different … Why did I put tea in Beefeater 24? Because it works. I don’t think anybody else was using tea, I wasn’t making a tea gin but it just changes the way the other botanicals relate to each other and produce something with excitement in a different way.

DESMOND PAYNE: And flavoured gins, orange and lemon gin were hugely popular in the 50s. So when we say, “This is not gin, this is not gin.” We need to actually as well as looking at what’s happening now, actually look back a bit and see what was happening then because there were a lot of flavoured gins around then. Nobody complaining.

JAMES ATKINSON: When was the moment that you saw that the tide was starting to turn and thinking to yourself, “Wow, gin’s cool again.”

DESMOND PAYNE: Gin’s always been cool to me. It’s funny, I moved up from Plymouth to London in ’95, there weren’t many cocktail bars in Plymouth, let me put it that way. But in London I discovered the wonderful Dukes Hotel and the American bar at The Savoy, and they’d been serving cocktails forever so I was kind of introduced to cocktails more, they’d always been there but it was new to me and the new gins beginning to appear. But really it’s in the last 10 years you suddenly see it escalating and all over the place. I mean how many Australian gins are there now? I mean whatever we say; there’s a few more.

Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne celebrates 50 years in the gin industry
Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne celebrates 50 years in the gin industry

DESMOND PAYNE: I was in Scotland earlier this year judging the Scottish Gin Awards and then there were 92 Scottish gins, same in Ireland, there’s gins everywhere. As there would’ve been back when people like James Burrough started. London gin originally was the London gin distillers, but there was gin in Plymouth and there’s gin in all the cities around the country, they all had a brewery and a gin distillery and whatever else. And then it kind of concentrated in the big cities of population like London, now it’s all coming back again.

JAMES ATKINSON: What do you think the quality is like overall with so many new distillers getting products on the market very rapidly?

DESMOND PAYNE: Quality, generally speaking is pretty good. I was really impressed in Melbourne talking to some of the distillers about their ethos for doing things that help the community or protected species that were dying out or looking after strawberries or whatever it was and that’s a really good, very contemporary approach to how people do business. That’s the great thing about this day and age generally.

DESMOND PAYNE: Some of the new gins are weird, honestly, honestly. I’m not naming any names but my message, if you like, or my philosophy is; for goodness sake keep it simple. You don’t have to go crazy to find something that nobody else has got. I use the expression; you don’t have to row a canoe up the Orinoco River, to climb the tallest tree in the forest, to pick that flower that only appears every seven years as your gin botanical because, A, you’re not going to find it next year and it’s not worth the effort. Keep it simple.

DESMOND PAYNE: The really hard thing in my job at Beefeater is to make sure every batch, every bottle is the same because all the things we’re using are variable. Right now we’re looking at juniper, the new crop of juniper is coming in now, mostly Italian and it’s not cultivated, it grows wild, so the one thing we have to have we have no control over. So they’re out there picking and they find … they get a license to forage and they find a juniper tree and they knock the berries off and they hit the branch with a stick, put them into a sack, sell them onto maybe the local cooperative, we deal through UK spice merchants we’ve dealt with for decades and decades. And we will look at, in about a months time, we will look at anything up to 200 samples of this years crop of juniper and what we do as well as just looking at the berries and crushing them and nosing them, which is the … to me is the ultimate test, for each sample we do a small lab distillation to collect the oil and the oil we put into a nosing glass with neutral alcohol so we can smell how it comes across in distillation.

DESMOND PAYNE: We go down that line of 200 samples saying, “No, no, no, no, yes, maybe, maybe. Ooh, that’s a good one. That’s only good if I add some of that one to it.” So we create a blend upfront with our basic materials and by having that many options to look at we can get it. Some years it’s pretty difficult, but I’m buying two years ahead always. Bottom line is; no juniper, no gin.

JAMES ATKINSON: The resurgence in gin has obviously been a great thing for Beefeater, but on the other hand there’s a lot of competition with so many new brands around. Has the company grown in spite of that?

DESMOND PAYNE: Yes. Quite definitely. The danger is when there are dozens of gins in some countries you might lose a bit of market share because it’s spread over a much wider base. But in terms of volume; yes, we’re up and new emerging markets are extraordinarily successful. I mean places where gin really was not significant like South America, Brazil has suddenly gone wonderfully crazy about gin almost overnight.

DESMOND PAYNE: I have to say part of that success is down to things like Beefeater Pink because that certainly produces some volume.

JAMES ATKINSON: You could’ve obviously gone from being a distiller to being a brewer or distilling whisky or doing something other than gin, what do you think it is that’s kept you in gin for your whole career?

DESMOND PAYNE: I don’t know, I just find gin fascinating. I actually started off in the wine trade in London when I left school and I worked in the Harrods Store, down in the basement, bottling wines and learning about different wines. And then I joined a wine and spirit company and as part of my sort of training month by month at different departments they put me in the gin distillery and I think what really attracted me was all these sacks and piles of different aromas and botanicals and roots and flowers and seeds and things and what you can do with it to turn it into something that people enjoy drinking. And that’s still the case, I do honestly enjoy the fruits of my labors.

JAMES ATKINSON: Obviously having been at Junipalooza last week you would’ve tried some gins made with Australian botanicals, what was your impression of those? Were they unlike anything you’d had before?

DESMOND PAYNE: It’s really interesting to see around the world the use of local botanicals in gin and it’s a really good and clever thing to do. The only thing is I think it kind of restricts it to a local market, or it has the danger of doing that. Because internationally people are not necessarily used to those flavours. I saw a lot of pepperberry around for example, lemon myrtle , these are quite, quite strong flavours. So it’s fine, it’s great to use them, but for me just it’s a delicate touch.

DESMOND PAYNE: I think one of the dangers we could be losing sight of is that from my point of view I’m very much aware that as a gin distiller, what I’m making is actually not what people drink. So in other words, something else has happened to it, I’m producing gin but people are drinking gin and tonic or a cocktail or whatever, whatever. So it’s that next step that gives the finished product and the final bit of excitement, if you like, to the drink. And for me a good gin should work in whatever direction the bartender or the consumer at home wants to take it and still work. So it should be … I call it a sociable spirit, it mixes well and if you’re too much about one flavour or very dominant in one flavour; you limit that ability and I think we’re slightly losing sight of that essential raison d’etre gin to be mixable and work in many different directions.

JAMES ATKINSON: I reckon we’ll leave it there, Desmond. It’s been a fascinating chat so thanks so much for taking the time to catch up with me.

DESMOND PAYNE: My pleasure. Great to talk to you.

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Author: James Atkinson

Accomplished freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®. Founder Drinks Adventures podcast.

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