It’s a rainy Monday when I arrive in Kennington, a quiet little area of London south of the Thames better known for cricket than booze production, to tour the Beefeater Gin Distillery. There’s a very English vibe. With the Oval cricket grounds clearly visible through the distillery windows, Master Distiller Desmond Payne greets me for our tour and to chat about all things gin.
Payne spent 25 years at the Black Friars Distillery as Master Distiller of Plymouth Gin before coming to Beefeater in 1995. He was tempted away from Devon and the English seaside to join the ranks at Beefeater because, for the first time in his career, he was given the chance to make his own gin. And that he did. Payne’s baby is the lovely, citrusy, floral Beefeater 24.
Crafting the recipe for Beefeater 24 took Payne 18 months. He played with a lot of additions and combinations, and ultimately settled on a blend of grapefruit peel, Chinese Green tea and rare Japanese Sencha, which he tried to balance by tweaking the proportions of Beefeater’s original botanical formula.
Despite his many years spent as a caretaker of much-beloved, historic gin recipes, he was nervous about how people would react to his creation. “I was the only one who had tried it,” he recalls. “What if I was the only one who thought it was any good?”
So blind tasting panels were arranged in London and in Manhattan, with six or seven other gins thrown into the mix. They were sampled straight (with a few drops of water to open up the flavor); mixed in gin and tonics; in a martini; and as a Collins. The new product placed first or second in the tests across the board.
But he really knew he was on to something when Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club—a widely acknowledged “gin ambassador”— came to him two months after it was out and said, “I get your gin, I like it.” “Winning double gold in San Francisco [at the World Spirits Competition in 2010] was great, but hearing Audrey say she liked it…well, I’m happy,” he says.
By the end of 2004, Beefeater 24 was available around the world in 45 markets, and Payne has gone on to produce other special edition Beefeater gins, but none quite as big as the 24.
I ask him if he’s playing with the trend of aging gin at all. “Not really. There is a real difference between aging and storing. You know, before stainless steel, gin was kept in wood, and I’m sure gin tasted different. What wood would you use?” he asks, then changes tack. “My favorite gin drink is the negroni. I visited a bar in Portland that had an aged negroni, and it gave the negroni a richness.”
Before we walk through the distillery itself, he looks at the portrait of Beefeater’s founder, James Burrough. “With everything I do I know that James Burrough is watching. It’s about being well made.”
You can read more about the history in our robust guide on the topic.
More about gin on Food Republic.
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- 5 Artisanal Tonics to Mix With Gin
- Improved Saffron Gin Cocktail Recipe