Wednesday 2 September 2009

The gin man

Last night I had the pleasure of a good meal at the Design Museum near Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames, which combined the delights of a great view of the twinkling river and the lights of the City beyond with some nice food and company. But perhaps the highlight was the chance to have a chat with Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater (who were, yes, laying on the event, but I consider myself unbuyable).

I first met Desmond a few years ago when I wrote a feature for the soon-to-be-lamented London Paper on Beefeater's impressive distillery at Kennington, the only substantial gin distillery left in the capital. Gin is a fascinating drink, so deeply entwined with British history that its aromas can bring on all kinds of time-travelling reveries, and Desmond's enthusiasm for his work is inspirational. To listen to him talk about the juniper harvest and the ins and outs of Seville orange peel, coriander seed and angelica root is to recognise that all drinks worth drinking depend on passion.

Yes, they all have to cut it in the brutal marketplace, and that can require tough compromises, but if someone behind them - distiller, brewer, winegrower, whoever - doesn't retain that real love of the product and the whole magical process, it will show. Desmond has that affection by the barrel-load, and if you're ever offered a chance to sit next to him and discuss gin, don't turn it down. He also makes a superb G&T, but no surprises there.

For a great read about the origins of gin and the 18th-century gin craze, I recommend Patrick Dillon's Gin - the much-lamented death of Madam Geneva, published by Justin Charles & Co, 2002. A fascinating story.

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