My meetings continued with a rare opportunity to meet with Desmond Payne, the master distiller for Beefeater gin. He lives in London and while his appearance may give the impression of a mild-mannered fellow, his personality is the opposite. He has a wonderfully dry wit, loves the Negroni (as do I) and gets excited for good parties. We talked at length over lunch at Town Hall, where I had the excellent fish and chips in honor of Payne's hometown.
Beefeater is currently launching a major campaign in San Francisco, and the ads are a much-needed dose of spirit and energy into a brand that could use some dusting off. I know there are dozens of so-called boutique gins in the world these days, from SF's own Junipero and 209 to Santa Cruz's Sarticious to Portland's Aviation, and the list goes on.
While Beefeater may seem a little bit of a relic, there can be no argument that in aroma, flavor and body, it is one of the very best gins in the world. This has been proven repeatedly to me in blind tasting after blind tasting, where my top scorers are usually Beefeater and Plymouth—two historically significant gins that deserve to be rediscovered. Beefeater is truly one of the originals and is still being made today very closely to how it was made in the past.
Again, at lunch with Payne, I sampled it alongside several other prominent gins, and Beefeater was my clear favorite—impeccably balanced aromatically between clean, fragrant notes of orange and lemon alongside peppery juniper and hint of licorice to tie it together. It tastes much the same way and finishes bracingly dry.
Payne made an interesting remark that "the most important part" of his job "is selecting the juniper berries." It's quite extraordinary that, as Payne tells it, the crucial flavor formula for this iconic spirit rests every year in the hands of humble Italian foragers, who wander out into public land beating the wild juniper bushes for the ripe berries. These ultimately make it to London, where Payne will taste up to 150 samples of different juniper berries to find the specific ones that will allow him to keep the flavor of Beefeater consistent from one year to the next. He's been doing this for various gins for 40 years, so he's good at it.
Still, from the grubby hands of Italian foragers to your crystal clean Beefeater martini—it's an amazing journey.