Interview: Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne on 50 years in the drinks industry

We were lucky enough to catch up with master distiller Desmond Payne of Beefeater gin as he celebrates 50 years in the drinks industry, and to find out what he thinks about the current gin boom.

Published 23rd Sep 2017
Updated 18 th Sep 2023

Surviving 50 years in any industry is an achievement in itself, but to find yourself at the top of as competitive a business as the gin industry, means you must be doing something right, but Beefeater Gin's master distiller Desmond Payne, who now must surely be the world’s most experienced gin distiller, isn't resting on his laurels.

"I'm so pleased to have been in this great industry for so long," he said, before adding: "I haven't finished yet though, this is an anniversary, not retirement!

"It's a really exciting time to be in gin and there's no sign of it slowing down and neither will I."

The enthusiasm and passion for the juniper spirit which has been with him since he first entered the industry in 1967, comes across readily as Desmond, who has created some of the world's most successful gins, discusses the excitement surrounding the current market and the gin explosion that's currently sweeping the country.

"I wouldn't say I'm surprised by the current boom because we see it happening all across the UK.

"I see it everywhere, and I think it's down to the fact that gin is such a versatile and accessible spirit."

No stranger to Scotland, or its gins, Desmond spent his time "cutting his teeth" at the Strathclyde Grain and Kinclaith single malt - sadly no longer there - distilleries, learning about the various techniques involved in both styles of distilling.

Describing his time in Glasgow as a "very happy 18 months", Desmond is hugely enthusiastic when discussing how popular the spirit, that he himself has been hooked on for decades, has become in the land he once called home.

"It's just become so much more visible and accessible, and for me that's really exciting," he said, as we talk about the reasons for the demand for gin in Scotland.

"When I was living in Glasgow back in the early 70s, I'm not sure I saw much gin at all, but now you can walk into a bar and it's not unusual to see ten to twenty gins on the gantry, sometimes more."

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It's a trend that the master distiller says he has witnessed not just in traditional gin markets like the UK and Spain, but also in places like Mexico and Greece, where gin hasn't normally been on the radar of the country's imbibers.

"In less traditional gin markets, such as Mexico City and Athens, where perhaps in the past, gin hasn't been popular, we see people being swept up in the excitement."

Much like the whisky industry, Desmond believes a big part in the current success of gin is down to the on-trade and the knowledgeable bar staff, though unlike whisky, it's the versatility of gin which is the factor in why it works so well in bars around the world.

"The on-trade is hugely important for us," he confirms, "I'm very much aware as a gin distiller, that what I make is not what people will eventually drink as something is always done to gin - not many people drink neat gin - so that association with the bartender is vital.

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"We do bartending training courses and I travel the world a lot these days bringing gin to bartenders and getting them to understand what makes the spirit unique and giving them the ideas and creativity to take it to the next step."

He adds that's its something he finds immensely enjoyable, working with people who he finds have taken mixing drinks to another level.

"This generation of bartenders are really top of their game, they really know what they are doing with flavours."

So, what about the possible threats facing big players like Beefeater in the modern market such as Brexit?

Desmond is unfazed by the mention of the dreaded B word and approaches it with the same relish he does all of the questions put his way.

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"I think everyone is slightly anxious about seeing what comes out of the other end of the Brexit process because we honestly don't know yet, but the facts and the figures speak for themselves, nobody seems to be being put off launching, or indeed investing, in new brands which is a great sign."

When pointed out that these smaller independent brands would be perceived as threats in other industries, Desmond is pretty optimistic about the idea that it's the pie that's expanding and not the competition for the pieces.

"The sheer variety and the range of gins has definitely increased and that means many more people are drinking it -  and thank goodness for that," he says before explaining that these smaller brands are shaking the market up and that can only be good for everyone involved.

"Even big established brands like Beefeater which have been around forever in people's perceptions, have made new gins.

"I've made six new gins in the last six years, ranging from limited editions to Beefeater 24, which has been going for a long time now.

"It's hugely exciting to make a new gin and we can be as flexible and innovative as the smaller startups but it's great to see so many new players coming into the market.

"I do challenge the use of the word 'craft' sometimes, to me it just means 'made by hand' putting it simply; Beefeater is a big brand - we make a bottle a second - but all of our decisions are made by people and it's done on the nose and the palate, so I always claim we are 'craft' just on a bigger scale."

Desmond adds that this growth is not just helping the smaller players become more established but also the category itself as more and more people are exposed to gin for the first time.

"The growth in gin is pretty much in premium and super premium and all the new gins are pitched into that category, and there's some pretty premium prices out there as well, and that's where the excitement and the growth is.

"And even the bigger players like Beefeater are showing growth as well year and year and some markets are growing by 40 per cent or 50 per cent, the real excitement is not just in new gins but also new markets as it becomes very much a global spirit."

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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