Talking gin with the master of mixing
More than a decade ago Desmond Payne was sat at a bar in Japan. But he had a problem. Tonic in Japan tastes different and it was ruining his gin and tonic.
“So I looked around me,” he says. “And I thought: ‘What are people drinking?’ Tea. Green tea mostly.
“Does tea and gin work? Yes it does. So I drank gin with green tea. So when I made a new gin I thought: ‘Tea works with gin, does tea work as a botanical in gin?’ It's that eureka moment, when the lightbulb turns on. You never know where these inspirations will come from. This was 10 years ago.”
Inspirations for a new gin might not be something which cross everyone’s mind. But then everyone is not the Master Distiller for Beefeater gin.
For many years Mr Payne has been creating new and interesting blends of gin for Beefeater. Among them are the Beefeater 24, which was the product of the aforementioned tea eureka moment, and this summer’s Beefeater Pink.
Blending the botanicals which go into making a good gin is not easy. And it is, in Mr Payne’s very educated opinion, more art than science.
“When I think about the botanicals in a gin recipe I look at them as a family,” he explains.
“In some families everyone gets on great and that's fine; but in some families they don't and people clash. Beefeater is a family that works, but if you introduce a new member to the family, like the strawberry here or the tea in 24 or any of the others I have done, first of all that new member has to be accepted by the rest of the family or there will be a fight.
“But once it is accepted it changes the relationship with all the other flavours. Two plus two doesn’t necessarily make four; things realign and work differently. That's the art of making a cocktail and that's the art of making gin. It's a very similar process.”
Gin is hugely popular at the moment and its ascension has come alongside a rejuvenation of the cocktail market. The art of blending to create something original is a big part of both and Mr Payne says the upward trajectory of one is linked to the other.
“What really fascinated me about gin is what you can do with it,” he enthuses. “It's funny because gin, of all the spirits, you hardly ever drink gin on its own, so the relationship with the bartenders is hugely important.
“It's interesting to see how a good bartender can take a quality gin in whatever direction they want to take it and it works. It's all about balance. However contemporary or traditional you go, those principles still stand. Flavours have to work together and balance together when you're making cocktails.”
The setting for our chat could not be more perfect for this line of discussion. Mr Payne and I met at the launch of Beefeater Pink and there was a range of cocktails on offer. Mr Payne grabbed a Bloody Mary with a sprig of rosemary to illustrate his point.
“That little sprig of rosemary really brings it out,” he says, urging me to taste it.
“The way this generation of cocktail bartenders brings drinks together is just amazing.
“Of all the spirits gin is the one that has the ability to be versatile to be contemporary to change its image.
The really hard thing when making a brand like Beefeater is to keep the base spirit the same. All you have to do it buy a different batch of lemons and you can change the balance so being consistent is quite difficulty.
“Making a new gin, not to say it’s easy, but all you have to do is change one thing and you have something new. But it still has to work.”
Mr Payne has been in the industry for many years. He started out bottling wine in the Harrods wine cellar and he became familiar with the different flavours. “When I bottled, I tasted,” he chuckles.
From there he moved to work for a wine merchant which also had a gin distillery. He was fascinated by the blends of botanicals which go into making a gin. While whisky, brandy and rum are each made from one base ingredient, gin is different.
He explains: “With gin it's anything you want. All these things like juniper berries and cinnamon go in there. All the wonderful flavours and aromas are like being in a Middle Eastern market or souk somewhere.”
And that variety and excitement is why he thinks it appeals to younger drinkers. Millennials, in his words, don’t like being told what to drink, or eat or wear.
“[They say]: ‘I want to make my own mind. I know what style I like, I am going to try this first and see what it is,” he says. “That just fits the bill of gin.”
The veteran Master Distiller shows no sign of slowing down and says he is always on the lookout for his next eureka moment.
Just don’t ask him how much the gin costs.
“I've never bought a bottle gin in my life,” he laughs. “I've never had to.”