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Original gin... the story of Bombay Sapphire

After extensive refurbishment of its Grade-II listed buildings in Laverstoke, Hampshire, the Bombay Sapphire gin distillery is now open for visitors. Geraldine Gardner takes a tour

Geraldine Gardner



Like the gin it produces, the Bombay Sapphire distillery is a hidden gem in the heart of the village of Laverstoke. The beautiful buildings have been lovingly restored and enhanced with an amazing greenhouse, designed by Thomas Hetherwick, that houses samples of the tropical and Mediterranean plants that are used in the Bombay Sapphire gin recipe.

A sort of mini-Eden project, the modern glass construction sparkles at the centre of the former print works and is made up of 793 unique panes of glass. Our guide Jodie has an extensive knowledge of the history of the site and is clearly proud of the way the new owners have retained the character of the old buildings, and of the heritage of the Bombay Sapphire name.

The buildings that now house massive stills, producing every drop of Bombay Sapphire for the whole world, was once a paper production facility, owned and run by Henry Portal in the early 1700s. Jodie tells us that the first mention of a paper mill in the area was in the Domesday Book in 1086, but it wasn’t until a few hundred years later that a thriving business was established by Portal, with the help of his mentor and friend Sir William Heathcote.

Sir William’s uncle was the Governor of the Bank of England at the time and he persuaded him use the Laverstoke mill as the supplier of the paper and watermarks for all the banknotes. In keeping with the monetary theme, the mill later won the contract to supply paper for India’s rupee banknotes, as well as all the other Commonwealth countries,which neatly brings us back to Bombay Sapphire. The last paper to be made on site was in 1963, by which time the mill had been a family-run business for more than 250 years.

The parallel with Bombay Sapphire, which is also a family business, continues. Jodie also tells us of another reason why this new distillery was meant to be. Bombay Sapphire was previously produced near Warrington, where the bottling plant is still situated, she explains. “When we moved all our equipment down here, the builders found a rare bat in one of the buildings, so work had to stop while the conservationists came in.

The bat is the symbol of Bacardi, which owns Bombay Sapphire – therefore we knew we had found our new home.” All the stills, rather endearingly, have names. The large one, which produces 40,000 litres a day, is called Victoria, after the queen whose silhouette adorns the bottles even today. No one is allowed into that area, but we were taken to see Thomas and Mary, which produce more than 10,000 litres between them.

Thomas is the company’s oldest still and is named after Thomas Dakin, who came up with the original recipe for what was then known as Bombay gin in 1761, when he started the company in Warrington. In the 1950s, Bombay Dry Gin was created to give the product more of a cachet and capture the profitable US market. In the late 1980s, Bombay Sapphire was introduced into the market, with a couple more botanicals (substances obtained from plants) added to the original recipe. This is the recipe still used today, and known only to two of the 13 distillers who work on site.

Handed on by word of mouth, it is a closely-guarded secret. Next to Thomas sits Mary, whose namesake married his grandson and was closely involved in the distillation process. After being shown the various tropical and Mediterranean plants in the glass house, we are taken into a room laid out with all the flavours that go into the gin, both in their original form and in powdered form and are invited to sniff and taste everything from lemon zest to liquorice and cassia bark, which smells rather like cinnamon. There is also a heritage room, where visitors can see how the famous blue bottle evolved, with a timeline of significant events and a display of unique glasses produced for the gin over the years.

The site is the first gin distillery in the world to be awarded the BREEAM award for sustainability. BREEAM is the world’s foremost environmental assessment method. The distillery’s biomass boiler produces enough energy for the distillation process, a heat-capturing device, along with solar panels, produces hot water and heating and rainwater catchers supply the grey water for the toilet facilities.

The history behind the production of Bombay Sapphire is fascinating and the hour-and-a-half-long tour flew by. There are listening points outside, where you can glean a bit more of the history and the distillery also offers cocktail-making sessions as part of the tour at weekends. Although plans are afoot to create a museum and expand the historical experience, there is plenty to see already. And as a bonus, everyone receives a cocktail at the end of the tour – a refreshing way to finish.

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