Gin. The Garden Spirit. With Desmond Payne

Gin. The Garden Spirit
With Desmond Payne
The Beefeater London Garden gin

As they left, she bribed the barman to part with a full bottle of Booth’s gin.

On the road back.., he asked, “What’s so special? One gin is much the same as another.”
“No, it’s not. You just take a sniff.”
She uncorked the bottle and wafted it under his nose as he drove.
“See? It’s sort of flowery and oily at the same time. Reminds me of home. God knows why. It’s as though they’d mingled summer and autumn - summer scents and autumn drizzle. A bit of England in a bottle.”

This extract from A Lily of the Field by John Lawton came to mind both before and during Desmond Payne’s illuminating chat on Gin, The Garden Spirit, one of the excellent events held in the Drinks Theatre during the Ballymaloe LitFest at the weekend. The link with the title is obvious and, during his talk cum tasting, he introduced us to his own garden gin.

Before all that though, Desmond himself, Master Gin Distiller at Beefeaters, was introduced to the audience by Rory Allen, Des’s first cousin and boyhood companion. 
Rory took advantage of his time in the spotlight to tell us about the shed which is, each May, converted into the Drinks Theatre. It started life in the 1950s as a pig shed, with openings out on to the yard. Grain was stored on the top floor and the whole structure turned out to be a play-room for the kids and it seems the pigs had a good time too. Later, the building saw life as a grading store for potatoes. “So, this theatre is its third life!”, he said.

Desmond’s life is gin and he took us through five variations of it, the gin that is, all from Beefeaters. He said gin was of much more complex make-up than the other spirits, whiskey from grain, cognac from grape, rum from sugarcane. The neutral alcohol that gin is made from can come from various products (grain, grape, apple etc) but to make the gin you need to add flavour.

“Juniper has to be in gin, it is the only essential.” But juniper plus what? Lots of new gins are using botanicals never before used “but you must have a balance of flavours”. More botanicals may be added for complexity, variety and style.

It is a very versatile drink, a good mixer; no one drinks gin on its own. Gin and tonic is a marriage that works but there are many more ways to mix. At present, there is a revival in cocktails, some fantastic ones nowadays. Gin is right back in fashion. Some gin bars in Spain have up to 300 brands (and 50 tonics) on offer and new distilleries are popping up everywhere. He added a note of caution. There are new gins coming out sometimes that try too hard. “You can't change everything at once!”

Having a laugh, cousins Rory Allen (left) and Desmond Payne
London Dry Gin is not necessarily from London, it is a method and it can be made anywhere in the world. “You can't add anything (except water) after the distillation, nothing to change the flavour.”

The Dutch were the first to add flavour and that was juniper. Irishman Aeneas Coffey’s continuous still (from 1820) meant a clean alcohol and from then the distillers could get to work “on enhancement rather than disguise”!
Desmond has been making gin, first at Plymouth and then at Beefeater, for 47 years but it was just seven years ago that he was given the nod and asked to make a gin. His new input was tea which, aided by its molecular structure, “works really well”. And he had a tip. “Steep everything for 24 hours.” We would soon get to his tea gin.

But first up was the Beefeater Original Gin, “a classic London Gin” with a citrus nose, an initial orange flavour on the palate followed by a little kick of juniper and on the finish a hint of liquorice. He revealed the classic recipe: juniper, coriander, orange & lemon peel, angelica, liquorice, almond and orris. Beefeaters go to a lot of trouble to get their juniper, going through some 200 samples from the shrub each year. They work on a two year stock.
The line-up, the original at left
Tonic, or the lack of it in Japan, was the inspiration for his Herbal Tea Gin, the Beefeater 24. Quinine, because it had medicinal properties, is not allowed in tonic in Japan. But Des saw tea all around him there and thought he might add it to the list of botanicals for his new gin variation.
“Not much tea but it changes the way the flavours work. No big citrus on the nose in this one but a little bit of tea fragrance. It has a soft beginning on the palate, then that juniper kick, followed by the softer tannins of the tea.” Personally, I thought is was a little smoother.

“I was on a roll now. Let us do a summer gin.” And he did, some dried red flowers picked up on a trip through the far east the inspiration. This was Hibiscus and he also used Elderflower and Blackcurrant leaf (a sense of smell from his childhood, probably running around the bushes in Ballymaloe under the watchful eye of Aunt Myrtle, who was in the audience).

“The aromas are toned down. Soft notes on the palate but definitely floral. Summer drinking as a party punch and it works fine with tonic.”

With summer gone, the Beefeater Winter Gin was just behind. More spice notes for sure, including Cinnamon, Nutmeg even Pine shoots. “Drink it with hot apple juice,” Desmond advised. “There is a great bunch of flavours on the palate and it is a gin that works well with Thai food.”

One man, five gins.
We finished, as we began, in the garden. An ancient herbal garden in a London park was the inspiration for the Beefeater London Garden Gin. “Thyme is a strong flavour, more on the palate than on the nose though. It is soft but that thyme is certainly there.”
So there you have it, a snapshot of just one brand! Then we were on to questions, mainly about tonic, the worst and the best. Desmond agreed with a US visitors that “the tonic out of the gun in the US was pretty vile”. He didn't exactly name his favourite gin but revealed that a recent UK tasting of some seven gins saw Schweppes come out on top. “Tonic is important,” he emphasised. “It is worth persevering to get the best.”

What is your favourite cocktail was the final question. Not too much hesitation here. “Negroni,” he answered. “One third gin, one third Campari, one third Vermouth rosso, garnished with orange peel.” Cheers Desmond!