When it comes to gin, the finished product in the bottle may be the star of the show, but its botanicals act as the multiple teams behind the scenes who ensure the product is polished, delicious and consistent. There are few who know this crucial side of production better than Ivano Tonutti, master of botanicals at Bombay Sapphire.
Ivano has been working with Bacardi for three decades (passing his 30th anniversary at the company in July) and has been responsible for botanicals within the group for more than 20 years, lending his expertise to Martini, Noilly Prat and Benedictine, among others.
He has worked with Bombay Sapphire to source and test its botanicals since Bacardi bought the brand in 1998. “What was immediately clear was that in the iconic blue bottle, there was a gin different from the others,” he says. “It was more refined, less classic and in a certain way more ‘aristocratic’, and for sure very exciting.”
While his position as ‘master of botanicals’ is unusual – and potentially unique – among drinks producers, Ivano is modest about his specialisation. “I don’t know if my skill set is unique, but to be a doctor in pharmacy with a specialisation in botanicals and chromatographic analysis has been a strong help, strengthened by 20 years of experience in the field,” he says. “What’s fantastic about this job is that, even with 20 years’ experience, I realise that the knowledge of botanicals is a trip without end; I’m just somewhere on the journey. This is an incredible source of motivation to try improve continuously.”
His work for the brand is a blend of administrative tasks including overseeing global sustainability projects, advocacy work for Bacardi brands including Martini and Bombay, and laboratory work where he helps to draft new gin concepts “at lab scale” and fine-tune pilot projects. He also has a hand in new product development, including recipe formulation and deciding specifications for new ingredients.
As the man in charge of botanical selection and testing, he also spends a lot of time on the ground meeting with farmers in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Visits can be as frequent as four times a year to producers in Europe and tend to coincide with the botanicals’ harvest times.
“The aim is to understand the seasonal quality, discussing with the suppliers, and planning for the medium term,” Ivano explains. “The farmers we work with are in reality cooperatives of farmers that are our long-term partners. As well as choosing them, we work with them to improve certain situations. For example, from a sustainability point of view, the average age of farmers is increasing and it is difficult to convince new generations to take up this job. We are also currently looking at how to improve processes to reduce human effort, such as in the manual harvest of orris rhizomes.”
He continues, “Whether big or small, the terms with our suppliers are strictly based on a strong partnership and also linked to the personal relationship we have with them. These people are very skilled at their jobs. The technical sheet of each herb we have created contains a lot of information, but not how the plants need to be grown and harvested; the farmers know this much better than us. With our quality control we are picturing the quality of the year and in the case of any issues, we will discuss with them to understand what’s happened and how to solve it.”
Ivano works out of a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, testing the Bombay Sapphire botanicals in small distillations to ensure consistency in their flavour profile. For a producer making millions of litres of liquid a year with mostly organic produce sourced from small producers, this process is especially important – and Ivano doesn’t use any half measures.
Each botanical is collected at the end of its yearly harvest and goes through a rigorous testing process before Ivano gives it the green light. This includes: checking macroscopical quality (size, smell, presence of any foreign objects); physical analysis to check the humidity and water levels, which can predict a tendency to develop mould during storage; running gas and/or liquid chromatography profiles; and a tasting run by six technicians. The results of this analysis are then communicated to the supplier. After this process is complete, a sample from each batch of accepted botanicals is tested again at the distillery, before a quality control manager assesses whether they are fit for distillation. (Well, two heads are better than one, right?)
How botanicals are sourced, particularly with regard to sustainability and fair treatment of suppliers, is becoming ever more important. Ivano’s significant tenure at Bacardi shows the company was perhaps ahead of the curve in the way it handles its botanicals. The fact that it can source them in the way it does and on the scale it does is testament to the group’s commitment to sustainable practices, and to Ivano’s skills to ensure consistency across the board.
Next time I raise a glass of Bombay Sapphire, I’ll definitely be toasting to the master of botanicals who helped to put such a great liquid in my hand.