Desmond Payne imparts wisdom applicable not only to work, but to everyday life. No other man has done more to ignite the gin craze we’re seeing in bars, restaurants, and homes across Hong Kong today, than the Beefeater master distiller.
A true idol of the drinks world, Desmond Payne began his career in 1967, the year “Rolling Stone” hit magazine stands for the first time and the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Desmond’s work at London’s oldest distillery, where he has maintained the outstanding quality of Beefeater Dry and created famed new gins, like Beefeater 24, is at the heart of this big bang.
Tell us about your role at Beefeater Gin.
I’m the master distiller of Beefeater which means I’m the primary person responsible for the quality of the gin. Lately, I’ve been traveling and this year, I am celebrating my 50 years of making gin in the industry. What’s happening now is that Gin is making a buzz around the world. The usual and traditional gin market has evolved from Asia, South America, Mexico and everywhere else. It’s becoming a fashionable drink.
You are a master distiller. What is that exactly? And how did the act of distilling alcohol initially come about?
Being a master distiller has no particular definition. Distilling alcohol has been around forever. Gin started with the Dutch adding juniper oil to the spirit. There are two reasons for this. Juniper was medicinal and still is. By adding juniper to crude alcohol, juniper diffuses the bad flavor of the alcohol, and alcohol, in turn, preserves the juniper and it has gotten better through time.
How did you start in the industry?
I started in the wine trade. I started in Harrods bottling wines and then moving on, I joined a company in London. They were wine merchants and had a gin distillery and as part of my training, I was introduced and I was fascinated with all ingredients, botanicals, spice, and fruits.
You are celebrating a remarkable Golden Jubilee, can you tell us what makes Beef Eater gin so special and popular after all these years?
Beefeater is a classic gin and classic means it’s been around for a while because it works. So, I take my inspiration from our founder, the gentleman James Burrows. His portrait hangs on my wall watching me to make sure I don’t change the recipe [laughs]. So when I make a new gin, I turn my face away from his image for a while [laughs].
How are you inspired to make new gin?
Inspiration is something you have to wait for. My first one is the Beefeater 24 which was 10 years ago. Just before the massive gin renaissance started, they wanted a new expression of gin and that was great because it was my turn at last.
There are certain principless in making gin. And it’s important how the gin is combined because that makes it different. Gins work like families. Some families get along fine but not all members are alike. And if you add a new member or ingredient to the recipe, there are questions raised. First of all, it has to be accepted by the rest or there will be a clash of flavors. And again, if it is accepted not just an additional element, it changes everyone and how they relate to each other.
The cocktail bartenders know this well. When a combination really works, it’s not something new but the sum of individual parts and it’s the same with gin. The great inspiration for my first creation was to use tea and botanicals. I used Japanese, Chinese green tea and grapefruits as well orange and lemon. It took me a year and a half to perfect it.
In the process, you realize what’s going to work or not. You learn so much and at my age, what I feel now is that I could almost imagine what certain flavors would work together, what would complement each other.
What do you wish you knew then about making a gin that you’ve learned along the way?
Honestly, I wish I’d known how popular gin was going to get. I should have spent a lot of time doing experiments and learning about new flavors. It’s only in the last 10 years that it has taken off. It has been a great experience and I find it unparalleled when it comes to the new generation of bartenders. I think it’s important to create the next step for association of bartenders, education, learning, supporting and understand the emerging industry
What major changes have you noticed in the gin scene over the years? Why has it come back into popularity?
It’s a combination of many things. Maybe because this new generation of bartenders is at the top of their game. There’s also an entrepreneurial aspect combining fashion and art. Gin is in fashion. It’s also a lifestyle thing. People are much more innovative, trendy, experimental, and less traditional these days. Gin has so many flavors that it’s great to mix in many different ways.
Whats the best part about your job?
I oversee the job through from buying, creating, judging cocktail competitions and doing diverse aspects of things surrounding the industry. There is a variety in what I do and I love traveling, exploring and innovating. Making a new gin is a creative experience. I am fascinated with finding a new ingredient in my travels.
Finally, what is your drink of choice when you have some time off?
I’m a gin drinker. I drink and enjoy wine too. After a busy day, I go home and just sit and have a gin tonic and that hits the spot.
To learn more about Beefeater gin and the company history, visit their website: www.beefeatergin.com