The best way to drink gin is to keep it simple says the original gin king

Sales of premium gin are now double that of vodka in Australia, and it's a similar story in other markets overseas.

Locally made gins are multiplying and gin bars are proliferating. There are even dedicated gin festivals, such as the sold out Junipalooza Melbourne last month.

For many of today's drinkers, it would be hard to remember a time when gin wasn't the king of white spirits.

Half a century on

But that's certainly not the case for Desmond Payne of British stalwart Beefeater, who has just notched up his 51st year of making gin.

"I was down at Junipalooza and they had a dinner for the distillers on the Friday night before it started," says Payne.

"There were about 100 people there or something. I was commenting that when I first started, which was in 1967, you could have got all the gin distillers of the world on one table.

"What had happened to gin then, was vodka. Vodka started to appear in Europe and became popular in the late 1950s onwards, and was regarded as kind of a sexier drink."

Par for the course

Payne says gin's mainstay consumer at that time was the English gent, for whom a gin and tonic was the customary tipple after a round of golf.

"And also, in the pubs, the ladies would have been in a separate bar almost in those days and they would have drunk probably gin and orange, a horrible mixture of orange cordial and gin," he says.

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Ori-gins

Payne started his career at Plymouth Gin, the oldest British gin distillery still operating in its original location, before moving to Beefeater in 1995.

Today, there are craft distillers routinely pumping out new gins every few weeks. Payne had to wait 40 years for his first chance to develop his own recipe.

"I made Plymouth Gin to the Plymouth Gin recipe and that's still what's happening today," he says.

"When I came up to Beefeater, although it was a much larger scale operation, the recipe was set in stone.

"In fact, in my office at the distillery in London, the portrait of James Burrough, the founder of Beefeater, hangs opposite my desk.

"And he's watching me to make sure I don't change his recipe."

Fruits of labour

The result of Payne's first tilt at innovation was Beefeater 24, featuring the additions of grapefruit, Japanese sencha tea and Chinese green tea.

"Beefeater 24 was one of the first of the new styles of gin coming out… it took me 18 months to get it right," he says.

"I think I've done eight or nine gins since Beefeater 24. We've just launched Beefeater Pink and that's something very different."

At first blush

In Beefeater Pink, the distiller has infused its classic London Dry recipe with strawberries after distillation, capitalising on the pink gin craze currently sweeping the globe.

"Even though the top note is strawberry, otherwise you wouldn't call it strawberry gin, the gin character comes shining through it – the juniper is there and all the other things are there," says Payne.

The veteran distiller is supportive of his younger counterparts' experimentation, including their use of exotic local botanicals – with a few caveats.

"It's a really good and clever thing to do, the only thing is I think it kind of restricts it to a local market, or it has a danger of doing that, because internationally people are not necessarily used to those flavours," he says.

"[At Junipalooza] I saw a lot of pepperberry and lemon myrtle around, for example, and these are quite strong flavours. So it's fine, it's great to use them, but for me it's a delicate touch."

True to tradition

Payne says distillers cannot lose sight of the fact that gin is supposed to be a "sociable spirit – it mixes well".

"If you're very dominant in one flavour, you limit that ability," he says.

And he has some other straightforward advice for distillers as they set about formulating their recipes.

"Some of the new gins are weird, honestly. My message or my philosophy is for goodness' sake, keep it simple. You don't have to go crazy to find something that nobody else has got," he says.

"You don't have to row a canoe up the Orinoco River to climb the tallest tree in the forest to pick that flower that only appears every seven years as your gin botanical.

"You're not going to find it next year. It's not worth the effort."

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