Desmond Payne, the incomparable artisan behind Beefeater gin, one of the world’s most recognizable spirits, talks about a lifetime of distilling.
I wasn’t in the wine world for very long before I forayed into gin, but what I gained during that time was a better sense of vocabulary, which for wine is very developed. I tried many different wines, and that gave me the ability to taste things properly. As I travel more, I have learned to love aromatic whites. My guiding principal is drinking the right things on the right occasion.
Gin definitely has the ability to be versatile. The way it’s made hasn’t changed over the past 50 years, but what has changed is the sheer variety out there. It’s a great time to be making gin. Anything goes, people are fighting tradition, and there’s a huge sense of excitement.
But I don’t really get the argument between London dry and new Western gins—the two categories aren’t all that different to me. I think there’s as much variety in London dry as there is in more modern styles. You see some new Western offerings that are very juniper-driven, and that’s a very traditional gin flavor. Now, I can’t honestly say I love every gin that has ever been made. Around 15 or 20 years ago, there was a trend of low-alcohol gins. Without trying to promote alcohol, it’s important to hold flavor and aroma. The lower-proof spirits just aren’t gin. Thankfully, that trend is gone.
On the flip side, navy-strength gin can reach 57 percent ABV. A lot of them are gentle giants if the alcohol is balanced with the botanicals. You need to treat high-ABV gins with respect, though. When we distill, citrus is the most volatile. It’s the sharp elbow that comes to the front of the queue once off the still, and it needs less heat to bring across volatile flavors.
The downside is that citrus is also the first note to disappear, so you can’t go too low in proof or you will lose it. No one botanical is difficult to work with, but the art of gin distilling is that you have to make sure all the components are in harmony, that they are compatible and that the integrity and balance are there.
Barrel-rested and barrel-aged gins are a trending category, and Beefeater came on quite early with them. Burrough’s Reserve hit the market around four years ago. Now we see more and more of them, but it’s never going to be mainstream. We designed it as a sipping spirit, as we wanted to remove the preconception about gin being only for a Gin & Tonic or a Martini. With Burrough’s Reserve, we change the notion of when you drink gin. What if I want to drink it with my dessert? Any good spirit should work on its own. That’s what’s interesting about the category: It’s moving faster than the definitions can keep up with.
But in the end, it still has to be gin; you want those keynote characteristics of juniper and whatever else. Burrough’s is only aged four weeks, and it gets its color, character and notes from what was in the barrel. In our case, we use Lillet barrels. The fascinating thing is that it’s a wine-based product with hints of bitter orange peel and quinine, so there’s a logical progression between that apéritif and our gin.
I’m traveling a lot these days, and seeing what this fantastic generation of bartenders is doing is massively exciting. If I get spotted, I tell them to make me a drink with Beefeater gin, whatever original creation they would like to give me.
When I finish work and go home, I like to sit in my garden and drink a Beefeater & Tonic, as it’s a marriage that simply works. If I’m out, I order a Gibson, very dry (20:1), with Dolin dry vermouth and three little pearl onions. A dialogue with the bartender is always important. They should have the ability to interpret what you’re asking for to match your mood.
Big established brands like Beefeater can be as innovative as anyone else. We aren’t stuck in concrete and are always working on new stuff. My advice to new gin distillers is not to overcomplicate things. Maintain clarity. The cocktails that win at competitions shine with the clarity of what they’re trying to do. It’s very tempting to do something that no one else has done, but at the end of the day, it has to damn well work. With the new product developments I’ve done (seven in the past seven years), I realize it’s a gentle touch and a subtle change, adding nuance rather than a sledgehammer.