Have a Rock Star
Hidden in leafy Hampshire, the Bombay Sapphire distillery at Laverstoke is a sustainable marvel and the gin brand seeks to push our drinking habits in the same direction
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Tucked away in verdant Hampshire, a small complex that was once home to the factory printing the British Empire’s bank notes is now home to something just as tantalising – a gin distillery. Since 2011, Laverstoke Mill has been home to one of the most recognisable of gins, Bombay Sapphire. Sitting astride the well-known River Test, the site’s money printing story goes back as far as 1719 and remains visible to this day in the shape of several Grade II listed cottages and buildings still used by the gin brand.
Since the gin distillery took up residence, the most striking addition to this quiet Victorian site has been the two intertwining glasshouses, designed by Thomas Heatherwick’s studio. Behind these picturesque scenes though lies the heart of Laverstoke; the ecological and sustainability emphasis that is key to the site. A biomass boiler uses by-products from the distillation to provide heat and hot water; through this, coupled with a photovoltaic array and a hydro-electric turbine on the river, up to 85 per cent of the site’s power is self-generated to reduce its carbon footprint.
Laverstoke sits on a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), aided by its proximity to the Test, the purest chalk stream in the UK and a long-time magnet for trout fishermen. No water is used from the Test by the distillery and from 2011, a huge amount of effort has been made to nurture the various wild animal species that cluster around the area, such as otters, herons and kingfishers. The site won the 2014 BREEAM Award for industrial design.
Chatting with Sam Carter, Bombay Sapphire’s senior brand ambassador, says that equal thought is given to working with other sustainability focused bars and mixologists. “We’ve not approached saturation point yet for gin; it just has so much more to start off with” he explains, pointing out that the brand clearly knows, given its size, that it can play an important role in education and debate. They have worked with bars such as Dandelyn to promote the No Straws campaign, a timely movement given the Blue Planet 2-fuelled debate over the amount of plastic destroying the oceans and slowly dripping into our food chain. Sam also comments they partner with a number of bars and firms such as Ian Griffith’s Trash Tiki to raise awareness and educate bartenders on limiting their wastage in production for a better environmental footprint.
Cocktails look lovely but, as Sam remarks, when only the zest of a fruit or a fraction of the juice is used in a drink, thought must be given to maximising the use of all ingredients – it’s both wasteful and hardly a cost efficient way of going about business. Many bars are starting to introduce waste maceration bins, allowing the pulverised or skinless fruit to sit overnight and produce juices, tinctures and infusions for the following day. Given this allows bartenders scope to experiment and create their own ingredients this is a trend that one hopes will rapidly grow in the coming years.
Bombay Sapphire is vapour infused; the only gin made purely by this method, with ten different botanicals, including almond, paradise grains and cubeb berries. The aforementioned glasshouses allow visitors/distillers to see assess the process, and examine the plants that produce these ingredients. Both offer differing climates; one has a somewhat more tropical and humid environment to support botanicals such as cubub berries, cassia bark and liquorice whilst the other provides a drier, Mediterranean temperature to support the lemon trees, almond and juniper bushes on display.
Whilst Bombay has been around for decades, it was the marketing masterstroke of re-launching the gin in its modern iteration – the distinctive, square blue bottle – in the mid-1980s that brought the name back to fresh prominence. It helps them stand out in today’s crowded marketplace; Today, with the gin obsession, there are globally around 3,000 gins available with perhaps 150 being fresh onto the market during 2017. Despite the strong interest in small craft distilleries, Sam notes that the brand is still seeing double digit growth. “New brands and distillers bring in new enthusiasts,” he remarks. “You see huge loyalty for local gins but invariably these gins do come at a cost. We see many enthusiasts enter the market through smaller gins and then come to us from those as we can offer consistency at this accessible level.”
That said, Bombay has introduced other products over the past few years, in part to supply massive foreign demand, with the brand stocked for clientele in 165 countries around the globe. Bombay Sapphire East – for those in the UK more likely to be seen in the duty free – was developed for the US market to compliment stateside tonic water better. Their latest premium offering, Star of Bombay, took 10 months to develop and adds two additional botanicals, in ambrette seeds and dried bergamot orange peel, to create what Sam describes as “a more intense flavour without quite so much of the heat.” It works exceedingly well on the rocks – with the brand ambassador subsequently giving it a tongue-in-cheek christening of The Rock Star for good measure.
Laverstoke’s standing as the hub of Bombay is well-earned. As well as sustainability, Sam points to it as creating employment opportunities within the area; almost a thousand local builders have worked on the restoration and development of the site, as well as the 55 strong team who work in shifts around the clock to keep the continuous operation of distillation going forward. Modern science has been bought to bear too alongside decades of experience; a gas chromatography meter is utilised to ensure consistency of the gin’s molecular structure, and plots it against the firm’s standards so as to produce the highest quality result
The gin brand is part of the Bacardi stable, Bombay’s current Master of Botanicals Ivano Tonutti is based in Geneva, and like many brands whose secrets are held only by the head distiller, he is the guardian of the Sapphire’s secrets and precise recipe. He weighs and sorts the botanicals that are then sent to Laverstoke in cartridges ready to be hung in the still. – as well as potentially whispering on the details to newly appointed Chief Distiller Dr Anne Brook.
Those of you whom are gin fanatics should certainly contemplate Bombay’s site tour. In the gin world where many brands offer guided tours, gin lessons and tastings, the Laverstoke tour stood out to both Riddle’s team as one of the most in depth and comprehensive they had come across – helped by both the size (compared to some very small one room distillers) and the newness of the site. Should you wish to look at Heatherwick’s arching glasshouses, smell, suck or chew on Bombay Sapphire’s various botanicals to work out which ones you like and then end with a refreshing snort, a trip down the A303 to leafy Hampshire might be up your street.
Enquires: Bombay Sapphire, Laverstoke Mill, London Road, Whitchurch, Hampshire RG28 7NR / www.bombaysapphire.com/uk/en/