Anonymous friend J.D. McLawyerpants & I were recently allowed to interrogate Beefeater's wonderfully affable Desmond Payne for a full hour. A more edited version will go up on Bostonist shortly, but here's the whole, enormous geeky thing.
(It could be more polished. You have been warned.)
Desmond Payne: I think what we tried to do, not just in the packaging but in the product, is all about balance. Getting the balance between the heritage of Beefeater gin—it's been around for a long time in London—but also, to give it contemporary, modern style as well.
J.D. McLawyerpants: How does that work in a distilling approach?
Payne: It's about balance. If I go back a step, really, I suppose—I've making gin for just over 40 years now. It's always been somebody else's recipe. In the case of Beefeater, James Burrough founded the business, gave it the Beefeater name, he put together the recipe and we use that recipe still. It hasn't changed.
His portrait hangs in my office opposite my desk, and if ever I'm tempted to throw in a bit more orange peel or juniper berries, his eyebrows start twitching.
And before that I was with Plymouth gin for quite a long time and, again, the recipe goes way back. So I got the call, if you like, to make a new gin, my own gin, at long last, after all this time. Which was great. The challenge is, okay, what do you do that's different, that produces a different gin? And to make it sort of contemporary and modern so that—the great emergence of interest in cocktails, all over the world, really, you know, gin is definitely back.
There are really only two things that make one gin different from another. One is, what are the botanicals that the flavor comes from? The other is, then, how you make the gin. And anything else does have such significant impact as those two things.
So I thought, great, here's my chance. Help! What do I do? Where do I start?
[Four or five years ago], I was visiting southeast Asia, doing presentations to bartenders [and so forth]. You know how it is at the end of the day, you like to relax with your favorite gin and tonic. And the trouble was, it wasn't the same, because the tonic water is different. In Japan they don't allow quinine, and that's what gives tonic its bite, its bitterness. So I was kind of looking around for something else to put into my gin—there's more to gin than gin and tonic. The soft drinks that people were drinking were things like iced lemon tea. So I was putting that into my gin instead of tonic water, and it was a really nice balance—they work together, those flavors.
So the inspiration for [Beefeater 24] was, why not use tea as a botanical rather than as a mixer? That was where I started.
I went on tea tastings courses and really tried to understand what teas were about, which was great fun. Not quite as much fun as gin, but great fun... I found that the green teas were the ones that worked.
Bostonist: Lately there's been a proliferation of black tea-flavored products—Absolut Boston, which is vodka with black tea and elderflower, and there's this baffling profusion of sweet tea vodkas. So what was it about green teas?
Payne: The lack of tannins. And they have the right fragrance.
My obvious, first thoughts were teas we're used to drinking—darjeeling and assam. But I didn't want to make a tea gin. I just wanted to use tea as a botanical. I wasn't particularly interested in whether tea was fashionable or not—turns out it is—but I used it because the flavor works...
To me, in gin, that little bite should come from the juniper. And tannin is a different bite. When I assess any of my botanicals, whether it's juniper berries or Spanish orange peel or whatever it is I'm using, when the crop becomes available each year, I look at samples—juniper will be ready when I get back to London. I look at about 150 samples each year of the available crop—it grows wild, it's not cultivated—and I crush them and sniff them and distill the oils out of them and put together a blend that will give me a consistent style, year in, year out. I assessed the teas in exactly the same way.
I got all these samples of leaf tea, distilled them with alcohol, so I could see, smell—mostly, actually—and taste how it came across in distillation, and how I could recreate a balance. If I just take the Beefeater recipe and add tea to it, you're going to throw it out of balance. You know the circus act with all the spinning plates on sticks? If you just add something on the edge of that plate, it's going to fall off. So the art is to create a new balance of flavors—in a different place, but still balanced.
Bostonist: Do you use different juniper berries for Beefeater 24 and classic Beefeater?
Payne: I've used the same, because we have a particularly good blend on Beefeater. But, when looked into having tea, I knew it worked as a flavor, but I had to then look at all the other botanicals to see what-if, if you like. Because as well as tea, I also added grapefruit peel, a lot of citrus. Grapefruit is very complementary to gin, as is most citrus, actually, but in a different way.
So, one of the botanicals used in Beefeater is angelica seed, which has brought that kind of hoppy, bittersweet note to it. It's the nearest thing to tea that we use already. So, the what-if was, if I'm putting tea in the gin, does the angelica seed complement the tea or get in the way of the tea, should I take the angelica seed out? If I put grapefruit in, do I cut back on the lemon?
I actually ended up using all the botanicals that are in Beefeater—not necessarily in the same proportion—and then identified a Chinese green tea, and the grapefruit peel, and—that just totally, it's very strange—tea almost acts as a catalyst. It changes the relationship between all the other botanicals, so that they work together in a different way. It took about 18 months, I suppose, of experimenting.
I then kind of needed some feedback, because I'd sort of done it on my own. Which was great, but it was a bit scary as well. So we put together two tasting panels, one in London, one in New York, of the sort of top gin experts. People like Audrey Saunders and Gary Regan and Sasha Petraske.
We did a blind tasting of about six or seven gins, including the prototype for Beefeater 24. We looked at them as gin, which is hardly the way anyone ever drinks it, but you have to look at it in its own integrity. And then there's a gin and tonic, and then there's a martini—with a twist, with olive, without—there's a Collins, all your basic cocktails. Quite a hefty session, the permutation of all those. And we scored them out of ten for balance, complexity, all these things, and [Beefeater 24] needed to come out in the top two across the board. I think a gin needs to work on all sorts of levels.
All the flavors in gin are introduced, unlike other spirits, which come from the fermentation. That's why it's so versatile and mixable with other things in cocktails.
So, very good results from that, and a big sigh of relief from Desmond. The comment I got was, yeah, we like it, but we don't really get the tea from it. Which I don't particularly mind, but—so I went back and found another tea, a Japanese sencha tea—sencha teas are green teas where they steam the leaf to [keep?] the chlorophyll green, and they have these beautiful aromas to them.
I'm still learning about tea.
Bostonist: Were there any botanicals that you tried out that didn't work at all?
Payne: Oh, yeah. List as long as your arm.
The history of tea and gin in England is absolutely parallel. The Dutch were the first people to bring gin into England, they were the first people to import to into Europe from Japan and China, and they both came into England from Holland about the same time. Tea [was] a very expensive, rare commodity that the lady of the house would keep locked away to keep it away from the servants. And the gin came in for the servants, to keep them away from the tea. And then gin became fashionable with cocktails, and then tea, for a while, became regarded as a working man's drink, and now teas are fashionable. So the whole thing is intertwined. James Burrough, the founder of Beefeater, his father was a tea merchant.
McLawyerpants: There's a range of gin styles—juniper up front, or slightly sweeter gins… Where do you see Beefeater 24 in the spectrum of styles? Is it more of a mixing—
Payne: I think all gins need to be mixing gins. There are a lot of new gins coming to market and... quite a lot of the new style gins are adding things after distillation. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, distillation is quite a barrier to certain things happening. You can't get color, obviously. You can't get sweetness through distillation. But if you want your gin to be, for instance, blue and sweet, you've got to do something to it after distillation.
Bostonist: But that makes it not London Dry Gin, right?
Payne: That's the thing. The London Gin definition changed halfway through the development of [Beefeater 24]. Beefeater, if anything, it's authentic London Gin. Not only are we London Gin by definition, but we're in London. We're the only major brand of London Gin that's still made in London. All the rest are made somewhere else. Scotland…
Bostonist: How did the London Gin definition change?
Payne: I have to say, this is European definition, but it doesn't change a great deal around the world. Without wanting to bore you —
Bostonist: We're very curious.
Payne: There are three levels of gin definition. The basic level says that gin is a spirit drink that is made from a base of neutral alcohol of agricultural origin—doesn't say what, so it can be grain, it can be molasses, the French are making gin from grape alcohol, and so on. It's 96% alcohol; at that strength, you've almost got ethanol. So the original material that was fermented doesn't have much influence, tt doesn't change the flavor, but there still is sort of a style you get form different material.
So, it's made from neutral alcohol of agricultural origin that is flavored so that juniper is the predominant taste. It's a rotten word to use in the definition but that's what it says. So gin should be predominantly juniper by taste. Well, we could taste fifty gins within three square miles and not find juniper predominating, probably. And what that allows some gin producers to do is to buy neutral alcohol and just buy flavoring essences, tip them in, give it a stir, and there you are. Cheap and easy. Never great, I would say, as a gin distiller.
Distilled gin, then, is again neutral alcohol—the difference is that the flavor should came from natural botanical materials. So if you use juniper, you must then use juniper berries. Orange peel. The way that those botanical flavors are introduced to the neutral spirit is by a further process of distillation. So it's a mcuh more crafted method, if you like.
Until a few months ago, it said that London Gin is a style of distilled gin. So it added absolutely nothing; if you distilled gin, you may as well call it London Gin. And lots of people did.
But what had begun to happen was what I call further enhancement, adding things after distillation to bolt on another dimension. And the new London Gin definition says, if you want your gin to be London Gin, beyond just being distilled gin, all the botanicals you use must go into the still at the same time—one shot. You can't do combinations and add things afterwards. So it's the classic method of distilling of all the original London Gins. So, one shot distillation with the botanicals, no further enhancement. You can add water to get the bottling strength right, or more neutral alcohol.
Beefeater, we say a lot about our London-ness, so we'd better be a London Gin, that's for sure. And the new product is made with the classic London Gin method, but we've given it a more contemporary flavor profile. That's the art of it I think: to use traditional methods, but to create a new style. So, luckily, I was already down that road when the definitions—I was part of the definitions committee, so I guess that may have something to do with it!
There are some gins now that have taken the London Gin claim off their labels. Because they were doing something else. For better or worse.
McLawyerpants: How did you get involved in distilling? What is it always gin, or —
Payne: Pretty much always gin. It is a long time ago, so I'll try to wind that reel back a bit, but, I started off in wine trade, in fact, London, when I left school. I worked in Harrod's store, in their wine cellars. In those days, we bottled all the wines about three floors down, under Knightsbridge, which was great fun. Learning all the wines, doing a bit of tasting, surreptitiously here and there—have to check what we're putting in the bottle, I would say, before you put it in.
And then from there I joined a London wine and spirits company, and they also had a gin distillery. As part of my training with them, I spent some time in the gin distillery and really found it fascinating… I went down to the Plymouth gin distillery and pretty much stayed. I was there for twenty-five years. I did spend a couple years in Scotland, on whisky distillation, as part of my training.
So I slithered across from wine to gin a long time ago.
McLawyerpants: Did you have an aptitude for tasting, or smelling, or did that develop from experience?
Payne: I don't know. I think my initial training in the wine trade was a great asset. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, to be honest. And the wine vocabulary, even today—there's a much better vocabulary around wine than there is about spirits. Especially gin. There's more vocabulary about whiskeys, perhaps.
So that was a great help. I'm so very fond of drinking wine as well. Most things, really, when I think about it.
McLawyerpants: Where do you see the future of gin? Do you see more distillers having their own take on it?
Payne: I hope so. I do from time to time meet my opposite numbers in other gin companies and, without naming any names, I met one distiller of a big brand of gin, and in conversation, I said soemthing like, how are you finding this year's juniper harvest? And he said, oh, goodness, I don't get involved in that. That's all down my our procurement department.
I thought, oh, how sad. If you're not in control of what you're doing, and don't have that influence, it's very hard to get to the right end results.
So I'm involved in buying all the botanicals. That's the crucial thing with gin. The hard thing is to be consistent. It's easy to be different each time. But you're making a brand and it needs to be the same, so we blend together various harvests of juniper berries. Juniper grows wild, and the oranges we use, Seville oranges from Spain, they're all hand-peeled. they pick the fruit off the trees—I was down there in March this year—and they just take them back to their depot and they take a knife and they peel it into a ribbon, like peeling an apple. So you get this long curly ribbon of orange peel, and they hang it out on a line going cross the yard. it takes five days to dry in the warm Spanish sunshine. All the oils are captured inside there, so when we distill it—the whole thing about the name, Beefeater 24, is that we steep our botanicals on the spirit twenty-four hours before we distill, to get more complexity out.
Bostonist: I was going to ask about how the twenty-four-hour steeping schedule works. I mean, do you have to go in on the weekend, if—
Payne [laughing]: Okay, I have to let you in to a little secret, then, don't I?
First of all, the reason we do it is that we do get more complexiy of flavor, and it holds together better. The flavors really stay there; they don't disappear too quickly, like they do sometimes when gin's made other ways.
But, yeah, the weekends. Thank goodness, we go home, and have fun, and drink gin.
So, ah, if we're going to make gin on a Monday, we've got two options. Someone goes in on Sunday and charges up the stills—no thank you. Or, we charge them up on Friday—which is what we do. So, umm, the gin we make on a Monday is slightly richer in flavor, because that's steeped for seventy-two hours or whatever it is. Then, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, what do—at the distillery we've got five gin stills, big pot stills. We alternate between steeping and distilling in each still, three and two, two and three. What we do for every distillate that we collect—we blend together a whole weeks production. So that "Monday gin" element is factored into the blend.
Sometimes our bottling friends jump up and down with excitement—sometimes—and say, oh, what about Monday gin? Wouldn't that be great? But you can't, because if you take that out of the blend, you're changing the blend.
Bostonist: Does anybody swipe little bottles of it and bring it home?
Payne: Certainly not.
It's a batch process, and every batch is slightly different. We've actually got two distilleries, back to back, as we've expanded over the years, and the two stills in the newer distillery are twice the size of the stills in the old distillery, and I can always detect a slight difference, a tiny, tiny difference. I can always say, that's the new distillery, that's the old distillery, but by blending, the same way we blend the juniper berries and everything else—it's all about keeping the end result the same. But by blending things together I also think you get more vitality about a product.
Bostonist: If juniper berries grow wild, does that make them susceptible to shortages? What happens if the juniper harvest is just terrible one year?
Payne: It does happen. What I do is I work two years ahead. We deal through merchants in the UK we've dealt with for a hundred and fifty years or so, so we have good relationships with our suppliers, and they send me in samples. I don't go to Italy and say, I'll have four berries from you, and… Because it's hard work. They just go up over the hills and find the juniper trees. It's a thorny shrub, and they grab hold of the branch and tap it with a stick and the ripe berries fall off. […]
If I look at 150 samples, I might find one that's exactly what I want for Beefeater, but there's not enough of it, so I have to put together a blend. And I might only use four or five, out of all those samples, to blend what I want for Beefeater each year. Some years, if it's been very wet or very dry or not very warm […]—every five or six years you get a very poor year. If you've ever seen juniper berries, they've got quite a thick skin on them, and that keeps the oil in there. As long as the oil is the same inside, you've got the same contribution, and they store—we've got big, cold room storage at the distillery and we keep them for two years. They're in hessian sacks so they breathe and they're fine for up to three, sometimes four years. So I've always got enough up my sleeve, as it were, to see me through a bad year.
Now, if we get two bad years in a row, we're all in trouble.
The last one I can remember was, scarily, six years ago. I know some brands ran out of juniper, because they couldn't get it. And we're all doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same people. So you've got to be pretty quick to get the ones you want, and accurate to get the style you want from a blend.
So it's a fun time, when I get back [to London]. And then coriander will be the next thing. That's commercially grown, but it's a cash crop, you know, so if wheat prices are high, people aren't planting coriander.
When I chose teas [for 24], I had to be very careful. I chose teas that were likely to be the same year after year, because it's no good me saying this Japanese sencha is wonderful, but, oh, actually there won't be any next year. So it's a bit of a tightrope sometimes, but it's great fun.
That, by far, is the most enjoyable part of [the gin-making process], and the next I suppose is enjoying the end product.
Bostonist: What do you find are your favorite cocktails to use the 24 in?
Payne: It has to work across the board. Gin that doesn't work with tonic water you may as well forget. But particularly, we see it as being used by this great modern generation of bartenders that are being innovative and experimental, and looking sometimes at classic cocktails but maybe with more of a modern twist to them, using fresh ingrediants—we see it very much working there.
I call gin a sociable drink—it mixes well, having the ability to work with new flavors and not clash. If a gin has its own integrity of flavor, it's easier to work with other things. I think some of the modern gins are very much about one flavor particularly, which is very exciting but it's difficult perhaps for a bartender to use it across a range of drinks.
Bostonist: So what's your go-to drink?
Payne: My favorite drink? Well… [pause] This works beautifully in a martini. At the distillery we actually tend to use Lillet rather than vermouth, so it's not strictly speaking a martini.
Bostonist: That's closer to a martini than lots of martinis nowadays.
Payne: My favorite cocktail, actually, is the negroni. It's a good, serious drink.
I had a negroni last night with 24. It's different than making a negroni with Beefeater dry, but it really works well, because it's that relationship between all the flavors, that's what makes it exciting...
I think what a gin needs to do is keep its tail up and have something to deliver after the juniper, and with Beefeater it's the licorice that gives it that smoother finish. With 24, right behind the juniper, I get some of the softer tannins coming through and then it picks up again. I think that's the trick, or the art, if you like, of making a decent gin, that you can give it that complexity, so it's not just a one-shot flavor.
I think we should taste a drop, just to compare.
And that is where I ceased to transcribe.
Photograph by Justin Ide.