Master at work; BEER Drink.
Desmond Payne - originally from Barnard Castle in County Durham - has earned the description; he is Beefeater Gin's master distiller and its top man in every respect. He single-handedly chooses the ingredients from each year's crop of nine separate botanicals then he noses, tastes, checks, examines, analyses, studies, ponders, digests, rejects and accepts. And, not only is he the guardian of James Burrough's original 1863 gin recipe, he created his own style last year with the launch of premium brand Beefeater 24. He also discusses cocktail formulas with new-wave bartenders - and they listen.
"I get involved in everything," says Desmond. "In many of the larger gin companies buying juniper and other botanicals is done by a separate purchasing department. I'd hate that to happen here - choosing the Seville oranges, the juniper and all the other botanicals that provide the right balance for Beefeater is the most skilful part of my job. It's also the bit I enjoy most."
Beefeater is a true London dry gin, distilled a six-hit away from The Oval cricket ground in Kennington. While other famous brands have moved out of the city, Beefeater remains true to its roots.
"I look at up to 150 samples of each year's crop of juniper berries," says Desmond. "We nose every one and make up a blend of four or five for the consistency and quality we demand.
"The company has been dealing with the same growers for hundreds of years - most juniper comes from Umbria in Italy but some comes from Macedonia. It's the oil content that's important.
"Juniper berries grow on a thorny tree which the growers hit with sticks. When I visited one farm the old gentleman proudly told me he and his wife had picked 250 kilos. I need 50 tonnes.
"From September onwards is an interesting time of year, then we have to finally choose from samples in November - but all our competitors do the same. You can't substitute - once a batch is gone it's gone and you have to go back to the drawing board.
No juniper, no gin, no gin, no job - that's the bottom line."
Juniper-based elixirs had been known since the 14th Century - and the Great Plague - and the discovery that the berry was effective against bladder and kidney disease as well as a belief that it strengthened the immune system.
Gin arrived in England and society changed dramatically in 1688 with the accession of William of Orange to the throne, replacing the Catholic King James II in one of the most pivotal moments in social and cultural history. Significantly, William and his retinue brought with them the custom of drinking genever - a type of gin regarded as a health tonic that doubled as an enjoyable intoxicant.
The first laws he passed placed restrictions on the import of French wines and brandies, then subsequent lowering of taxes that made spirits production cheaper than beer meant the drinking habits of a nation altered virtually overnight. Whisky in those days had rarely travelled beyond its Scottish and Irish boundaries but almost everyone could afford to make - and drink - gin. It was fashionable, it was a sign of patriotism and it showed a willingness to embrace the new.
But the consequences were disastrous, particularly in London. By the beginning of the 18th Century, vast quantities of cheap gin were being consumed. Warnings of its evils illustrated by William Hogarth's famous Gin Lane engraving showed drunken disorderly behaviour and by 1743, consumption had risen to the point where proportionally every man, woman and child in London was drinking more than a litre of gin a week. In 1751, 9,000 children died of alcohol poisoning in the capital alone.
New legislation in 1751, however, began to effectively control sale and production of cheap gin and paved the way for respectable companies to start producing quality spirit.
Alexander Gordon, Charles Tanqueray, James Burrough and Sir Felix Booth were pillars of society and had the influence to ensure their gin became a premium product.
"The new tax meant a licence to distill gin rose to pounds 50, which was enough in those days to buy a decent house," says Desmond. "The gin distillers who forked out so much had to improve what they were doing simply to be better than the others - better quality, better image, better marketing. James Burrough was a former pharmacist who developed his own brand, Beefeater.
He went around Covent Garden selecting oranges and all the other ingredients."
Those ingredients include angelica root and angelica seed from Belgium which have dry and earthy characteristics, much like certain hops in beer. Coriander seed adds spicy citrus notes; liquorice forms a bittersweet, woody quality; almonds leave marzipan and soft spice behind, while lemon and orange peel appear to hold the combined characters together. The other ingredient in Beefeater gin is orris root - from the iris plant - which adds flavours of Parma violets.
"It's not how many ingredients you use, it's about the balance of oils," says Desmond. "I was talking to a perfume designer in New York and mentioned orris root. He said 'do you use that in gin? We use it in Chanel No5'.
"We steep the ingredients in grain alcohol for 24 hours before they're fixed into the gin by distilling. That 24-hour process is very rare but it makes all the difference, much more craft goes into it. There are 42 gins made at Greenalls in Warrington, including Bombay Sapphire and supermarket own-brands.
" They have a much lighter attachment of flavours - they are distilled in the vapour rather than throughout the full process.
"The next level is distilled gin - what I call proper gin - where the flavours from the natural botanicals are added before being distilled."
The aromas on the tour of the Beefeater distillery are amazing; each botanical seems to have its "say", even though it's a rare day when the seven-hour distilling process is not taking place.
"At 10am that condensing glass will be full of citrus flavours," says Desmond. "These flavours change throughout the run into juniper and coriander then the angelica will follow about an hour-and-a-half later.
"We don't use the first run or the end of the run - it gets a bit stewed by then - we take only the centre out to bottle. We'll lose about seven per cent by doing that."
Desmond Payne is genuinely relaxed, entertaining, charming and passionately enthusiastic. He remains modest about his crucial role in one of the world's premiere drinks brands, but he smiles self-satisfyingly at the thought of Beefeater 24, the new style gin he was invited to design.
He says: "I was asked, 'make a new gin, Desmond; just get on with it, we're not going to interfere'. That's a rare job in such a big corporation.
"I had been looking at soft drinks in Indonesia where tonic water is not the same as here - and in Japan where they don't allow quinine in it.
I tried Chinese green tea as an accompaniment then thought about using it as a botanical, then grapefruit peel and Japanese Sencha tea which just gave it that last dimension. James Burrough's father was a tea merchant so it seems appropriate.
"I thought, at last, my own recipe rather than keeping on producing someone else's, but with full distillation we'll chuck away 30% of the run, it's quite an extravagant process."
Master distiller would seem an extravagant occupation until you recall the cocktail of words "no juniper, no gin, no gin, no job". It's like being hit with a stick.
THE 33rd Newcastle Beer Festival gets under way at Newcastle University Students' Union on Wednesday April 1 (6pm) and runs until Saturday, April 4 (10.30pm). With 125 beers from 67 breweries (including 14 from the North East and 12 representing Scotland) it means every style is represented and every taste profile covered.
Rare brewery visitors to the region include Hammerpot from West Sussex, Moulin (Pitlochry), Windie Goat (Ayrshire) and Breconshire ( Powys).
For further information, visit www.cannybevvy.co.uk
"When I visited one farm the old gentleman proudly told me he and his wife had picked 250 kilos. I need 50 tonnes.
CRUCIAL ROLE Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater Gin, London.