You may associate it with the colour blue — but Bombay Sapphire has gone green

By Bethany Whymark

We all know that water is essential to gin making. Without it, there is no spirit. With this in mind, you would think Bombay Sapphire hit the jackpot when it snapped up Laverstoke Mill, its Hampshire home on the banks of the River Test.

However, the water which flows through its rural site doesn’t go into its gin. Notwithstanding the effect it would have on the poor old river to take out thousands of litres of water a day, the company wanted to reduce its carbon footprint by transporting the neat spirit closer to its bottling plant in Scotland to be diluted, saving space and weight in its lorries. Instead, it utilises the river to operate a water turbine, which generates a significant amount of power for the site. These measures are part of the over-arching eco-conscious strategy which makes Laverstoke Mill one of the most environmentally friendly distilleries in the world (according to the Buildings Research Establishment, which awarded it a coveted BREEAM award for industrial design in 2014).

As senior Bombay Sapphire brand ambassador Sam Carter explains, sustainability was woven into the mill’s fabric during its renovation. Take the distillery’s heat recovery system, for example. Water from the condensers is collected in thermal storage tanks, reheated to 72ºC, passed through a heat exchanger and used to start heating the liquid for the next distillation. Sam says, “We have to heat 11,000 litres of liquid to 80ºC multiple times a day. That is a lot of energy. There is a huge amount of investment that goes into these kinds of things, but then you reap the rewards in energy saving.” Then there’s the packaging in which botanicals are sent to the mill – Bombay now uses 2-ply cardboard boxes rather than 3-ply to reduce consumption, and even the minimal plastic used to hold the boxes together in transit is a type which can be melted down and made into vehicle fuel. Or there’s the fact that when it transports spirit to its bottling plant in Scotland, three distillations travel on one lorry to put fewer vehicles on the road.

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And there’s more. Much more. Sam explains, “We have a water turbine which produces enough power for 500 LED lights every day, which is a big chunk of the site. We’ve put in solar panels and rain water harvesting for flushing the toilets, and we send zero waste to landfill. “The waste alcohol – the heads and the tails from the distillation – is sold on to a company which makes industrial alcohol, so that is not wasted. Even our botanicals are reused. [Ex-Formula One driver] Jody Scheckter runs Laverstoke Park Farm and he takes our waste botanicals and turns them into compost, which he sells on or uses for his own organic farming.”

Bombay Sapphire also sources its botanicals with sustainability in mind. At the heart of the operation is Geneva-based master of botanicals Ivano Tonutti, who has lent his skills to the likes of Grey Goose and Martini. He travels the world from Spain and Italy to west Africa to India to source ingredients from local farmers, who grow and harvest without mechanisation. He then tests the botanicals with small distillations to ensure consistency in the flavour profile – essential when you’re making millions of litres of liquid each year using small-scale, mostly organic produce.

For the provenance geeks out there, each bottle has an individual code on it which can be plugged into Bombay Sapphire’s systems to reveal the exact locations all its botanicals were grown, to within a 50ft radius. The botanicals are then weighed and packaged before being sent to Laverstoke Mill. To ensure freshness and prevent wastage, only around two weeks’ worth of stock is kept on site at a time.

But hang on, I hear you say. Why is the world’s most sustainable distillery not shouting this fact from the rafters, particularly as environmental issues have shot to the forefront of public consciousness in the past few years? “I think on the outside consumers just think that Bombay is a huge industrial machine,” Sam says. “It [being environmentally friendly] is just something we do and we don’t really shout about it whereas smaller gin brands might talk about that. “A brand cannot have too many USPs. We have the blue bottle, the gin that pretty much single-handedly rejuvenated the gin category in the 1980s. Back then you could count the world’s gins on a couple of hands, but now there are 8,000 around the world.”

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Humble beginnings

The company which “single-handedly rejuvenated gin” started life at a time when the spirit didn’t really need marketing. It was in 1761 that aspiring distiller Thomas Dakin devised the recipe for Bombay’s London dry gin, after he set up his distillery in Warrington. He and wife Mary, who is credited with inventing the vapour
infusion technique (more on this later), are immortalised at Laverstoke Mill as
the namesakes of its two smaller stills in Dakin House.

The Dakins’ Warrington Gin had a relatively quiet existence until, in the 1950s, New York lawyer Allan Subin brought the brand to America with the aim of targeting the country’s growing cocktail culture. In 1959 Bombay Dry Gin was released and marketed as ‘the’ gin for martinis. Then in 1986 Bombay Sapphire and its game-changing blue bottle hit the shelves. It was the brainchild of the company’s new owner, American entrepreneur Michel Roux; the story goes that he was inspired to use coloured glass for the new release after being served mineral water in a blue bottle while on a flight. As with Subin, Roux was following a popular culture trend – that of the personality-driven marketing campaigns by vodka brands such as Absolut.

Bombay Sapphire was part of a parcel of products sold off by Diageo to Bacardi in 1997. Under the conglomerate’s stewardship it has grown into the biggest premium gin producer by volume in the world, turning out 60 million bottles a year and selling in 140 countries – and every drop is made in Hampshire. Bacardi commenced the search for a new brand home for Bombay Sapphire in the early 2000s, which would bring an end to a long-standing contract with Greenalls in Warrington and fulfil a desire to bring production in-house.

Sam says the company considered around 30 buildings in its hunt for somewhere to accommodate a growing operation and a new tourist experience – including a home at Kew Gardens which, although useful for botanical sourcing, was a little over budget. “The brand home before was in Borough Market in London,” he explains. “To be able to serve drinks to 100,000 people a year was great, but we were not made there so we didn’t have genuineness. Bacardi wanted to have that and bring it together.” According to Sam, Laverstoke Mill was discovered by chance when one of the firm’s directors found out from “a man down the pub” that the 18th century paper mill was about to come on the market. Opened in 1719, the mill made craft bank notes which were later shipped around the empire.

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The sale was completed in 2010 and, following a lengthy renovation, the mill opened for business in October 2014. It pays homage to both the company’s and site’s history in the naming of its main 12,000-litre stills – Victoria, after the 19th-century queen and empress, and Henry, after the paper mill’s founder Henry Portal. They stand in India House, where paper for Indian rupees was formerly printed. Sam says, “We started to buy some of this paper back, but it was £600 for one rupee. You have to sell a lot of bottles of gin to pay for that, but it was nice to bring some of that history back to the mill.”

The art of vapour infusion

While Bombay Sapphire’s current marketing is focused on the artistic and spontaneous potential of gin, its distilling process is precise to a molecular degree. The company buys in its grain neutral spirit (GNS) from continental Europe at 96.3% ABV. Once you know the volumes involved you understand why it doesn’t make its own – it takes delivery of two 30,000-litre tankers of the stuff every day. The GNS is made with winter wheat, which Sam says gives a chemical advantage. “When you break it down to its molecular structure there are more arms for the flavours from the botanicals to attach on to.”

Bombay Sapphire believes it is the only London dry gin producer to use 100 per cent vapour-infused distillation, which is no mean feat when your main still house churns out enough gin for 140,000 bottles every day. The eight botanicals for Bombay London Dry and 10 for Bombay Sapphire are suspended in perforated copper baskets, which the distillate vapour passes through before it gets to the condensing column. “You read the phrase ‘vapour-infused’ on the bottle and it is intriguing,” Sam says. “Because we have not got botanicals in the still you do not get the caramelisation. It provides the flavour of the botanicals in a fresher, lighter way rather than the heavier way of the boiling and caramelisation. It is not better or worse, it is just different.

“Because we use botanicals that are quite sweet – there’s liquorice, cassia bark and cinnamon in there, and juniper has a natural sweetness – and because copper is a very good conductor of heat, the botanicals if they were boiled in the still could caramelise. That is fine for some gins, but we don’t want it.” Perfecting this process was one of the reasons it took nine months before Laverstoke Mill was producing gin for market, from ensuring the relative amount of each botanical in each distillation was correct to finding the best order to layer them in the copper baskets.

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Sam says, “We believe it is important. I have never had someone say to me that Bombay Sapphire tastes different now than it did five years ago and that is testament to the investment we put in to make sure that this was consistent.” Alongside master distiller Dr Anne Brock, there is a team of 17 distillers who work in shifts to keep the operation going 24 hours a day, 355 days a year. One distillation of Bombay Sapphire produces around 9,800 litres of high-strength gin from an initial 10,000 litres of GNS and 1,000 litres of water. Each batch is tested by seven people and has to pass the scrutiny of Dr Brock and spirit quality technician Lee Courtney, as well as a chromatography machine which measures for molecular traces of the botanicals.

While Bombay Sapphire is still the darling of the range, research and development is important to the team and there have been new releases since the move to Laverstoke Mill. Premium gin Star of Bombay, which uses a heady 14 botanicals, was unveiled in 2015 and last year saw the release of Bombay Sapphire English Estate, which was inspired by the English countryside and included new botanicals Pennyroyal mint, rosehip and toasted hazelnut. (Time is running out to sample this one – it will only be on sale until April, when production will start on a new limited-edition gin.) Sam, who helped design these new spirits, says, “You don’t just have to add different botanicals to your gin to make a different gin. You could change the flow rate or change the layering in the baskets and that would make a different gin. The slow distillation in Star [of Bombay] is what makes it different and more expensive.”

Laverstoke Mill is as much about gin education as gin production. In its two glasshouses – Mediterranean and tropical – grow examples of all the botanicals used in Bombay London Dry and Bombay Sapphire. Information boards give details of their natural habitat, flavours and other properties. (Fun fact: the glasshouses were designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who won a Bombay Sapphire design competition in 2001 and was a judge for the competition in subsequent years.) Head across the courtyard to the Dry Room and you can see these botanicals in their harvested form, available to touch, sniff and even taste. In here guests will find cards on which they can mark their favourite botanicals, which they can take across the site to the Mill Bar where staff will mix a cocktail based on their choices.

There is also the Empire Bar, a stunning room with plush furniture, elegant windows and a staggering bottle display. Floor-to-ceiling cabinets flanking the bar hold not only glasses but an array of mixology equipment, including a mini-still and a dry-ice machine – for Sam, a harkening back to his former career as a bartender and molecular mixologist. Laverstoke Mill welcomes around 100,000 visitors a year, with experiences to cater to a range of tastes. There are heritage days, horticultural days, cocktail-making classes, gin and cocktail tastings and ‘ultimate’ experiences which combine these elements. To combat the constraints of its rural location, the distillery runs a shuttle bus to collect people from stations at Overton and Micheldever (and before you worry about the carbon footprint of a bus, the firm planted a forest of trees to compensate). Being able to get under the skin of this globally recognised brand and marvel at the incredible site it calls home is an opportunity not to be missed. 

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