Desmond Payne: A lifetime in gin

28 November, 2017

If gin legend Desmond Payne was any kind of cricket fan the headline might read ’50 not out’, but despite working next door to The Oval, one of the most famous cricket grounds in the world, Beefeater’s master distiller has only been to one game in more than 20 years.

2017 has been a special year for the industry veteran as it marks his 50th year working with gin, and right at the very end of December he will turn 70.

“The parties have been fun and I’ve seen faces that I haven’t seen for years,” Payne told DI.

The soon-to-be 70 year-old pin-balled around the UK when he was a child, from his birth in Dublin to his schooling in North Yorkshire and then his cellar training at Harrods in London.

From Harrods he joined Seagar Evans and as part of his training he worked with Plymouth Gin, which at the time was owned by the London-based wine merchants.

Whether he intended it or not, he spent the next 25 years in the west country working for Plymouth Gin until returning to London in 1995 to work for Beefeater, where he remains today.

“It’s a bit weird really, it just kind of happened. I kept doing what I love doing and here we are, it’s a long time.

“The only time it really hits me is when I see an old group photograph and think ‘who’s that? Oh wait, it’s me.’ To be honest, I don’t remember anything that happened in the 80s.


“I’m turning 70 so I guess it’ll have to end at some point. But I don’t want to just stop, so I’d love to stay involved in cocktail judging and mentoring. I’m sure I’ll keep judging the International Spirits Challenge, I mean, why wouldn’t I?”

Payne has been on the judging panel for gin at DI’s ISC for more than 10 years and adjudicated Beefeater’s MIXLDN cocktail competition since its creation, and a Negroni is Payne’s go-to mixed drink.

In collaboration with his 50th anniversary, Beefeater released an academic paper named ‘Cocktails: The New Golden Era’, to increase the brand’s presence and knowledge in the rapidly growing industry. The paper, researched by professor Richard E. Ocejo, City University of New York and author Chantal Martineau, explores the effects of globalisation, millennials and the evolution of global bar cultures on the cocktail scene.

But despite all of this, Payne admits: “I don’t often make cocktails at home, I’m much better at standing on the other side of the bar.

“The sea-change in the professionalism of the sector as a whole has been dramatic and great for both gastronomes and lay-drinkers alike.” 


It’s not just gin that fills Paynes’ glasses. “The first thing I did when I left school in 1965 was go to Bordeaux and pick grapes in the harvest. It wasn’t a good year but it’s not my fault, I promise.

“I like to keep my nice bottles in a cellar downstairs in the distillery so that I’m not tempted to pen them, but they’re for drinking so I enjoy them on special occasions.

“But I still enjoy a good pint of beer with my Sunday pub lunch.”

 Travelling has always been a big part of Payne’s life, even since moving from Ireland as a child – ironically from near the hometown of Jameson Irish Whiskey.

But it’s now he’s got the travel bug. The industry veteran spent just 10 days at his home in south west London in November and admitted the secret is to have “lots and lots of shirts”.

“I love travelling,” says Payne. “But I wish I could spend more time in places – last year I went to South Africa for the first time but I only got one and a half days there.”


Looking back on his illustrious career, Payne pondered on some of his most memorable days in charge of Beefeater.

“I remember before we launched Beefeater 24 we hosted a blind tasting event in London and New York with some of the top bartenders and gin producers in the world, such as Peter Dorelli and the likes.

“I remember just before we sent the flights out containing the prototype I wasn’t getting anything out of it, I’d spent 18 months working on it and it had gone completely dead. That was such a low moment.

“But what had happened was I got to close to it, I’d been working with it daily for so long that I couldn’t recognise anything. When the scores came in it was voted top two out of all the gins right across every category. So to go from such a low to a high was terrific.”

When he’s not travelling, Payne gets stuck in with the production and selection processes that go into Beefeater Gin.

Payne adds: “We look at up to 200 varieties of juniper berries and then pick around five that match the beefeater style. The team and myself spend a few days crushing and nosing different berries to ensure consistency.

“That’s one of the advantages of being large-scale is that we get the best options for blending, and we use our five pot stills to create our consistent gin, it’s very important for any brand to maintain its characteristics.

“It’s much harder to stay consistent with small-scale gin production because the two or three bags of juniper berries will give off different aromas and taste profiles every year. The easiest thing for smaller producers to do is make a new gin with local botanicals, and it’s much more fun that way.

“There aren’t many jobs in the world which give you the exposure and satisfaction right the way through the process, from juniper berry to glass.”

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.