There are two distinct histories to explore at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery.
The first is that of the drink itself, with Bombay Sapphire today perhaps the preeminent global gin brand and a crown jewel in the Bacardi empire.
The tipple dates to 1761, when Thomas Dakin purchased a site in Warrington with the intention of launching a distillery.
In 1831, his family purchased a still and adapted it to separate exotic botanicals from neutral grain spirit, capturing their flavours a new artisanal distillation process – ‘vapour infusion’.
The unique process still faithfully used by Bombay Sapphire today.
The second history is of Laverstoke Mill.
Located among the rolling hills of Hampshire, it is today global ‘brand home’ to the famous spirit.
Dating as far back as the 1086 Doomsday Book, the property has been under the ownership of William the Conqueror, Henry VIII and enjoyed four royal visits, most recently Queen Elizabeth in 1962.
In 1719, having acquired the lease for Laverstoke Mill, printer Henry Portal expanded the site enabling him to begin manufacturing bank notes for the British Empire in 1724.
In the mid-18th century Laverstoke Mill saw increasing prosperity, being expanded by the Portal family in 1842 and again in 1881 to include new, elegant architecture.
Today, visitors can explore both journeys and discover how they have combined to create one of the most recognisable spirits in the world.
Arriving for a visit in the run-up to Christmas this year, I joined a Discovery Experience group, taking a 90-minute exploration of the Laverstoke Mill site and its past.
It begins in the Turbine Bar & Cinema, where guests are able to create their own personalised gin and tonic before settling down to watch a short film.
Starting the tour with a drink is suitably on-brand and certainly raised the spirits of the group I joined.
Following the film, bespoke sliding Corten doors open to reveal the famous glasshouses in the main courtyard – if a distillery tour can have a ‘wow’ moment, this certainly comes close.
Next, we step out into the courtyard to get a sight of the Thomas Heatherwick-designed structures, created to resemble fountains of gin.
Certainly, the most spectacular element of the facility, one glasshouse is designed to mimic a tropical climate, while the other is maintained at Mediterranean temperatures.
When required, both draw on heat from the actual gin manufacture process, as part of efforts to make this into a state-of-the-art sustainable distillery.
Contained within the two glasshouses are the ten botanicals that are combined to create the unique Bombay Sapphire flavour.
Also close by is India House, so named as it was home to the printing presses used to produce rupee bank notes during the ownership of the Portal family.
Gin is, of course, inextricably linked to the British Empire.
Winston Churchill once declared: “The gin and tonic drink has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Gin and tonic was invented by the army of the British East India Company in the 1700s.
As malaria became more of a threat to the Empire, soldiers were given doses of quinine powder to prevent and treat the disease.
These two strands of history – the historic site of Laverstoke Mill and the famous drink – are very much entwined within India House.
The ten botanicals are explored further during the next stop of the tour, the Botanical Dry Room.
This sensory experience is designed to uncover your flavour preferences, and guests learn about that vapour infusion distillation process.
The final stage of the tour takes in the actual stills.
Key is the ‘layering’ used to distribute the botanicals, with the method remaining secret, known only to one man.
At the close of the tour, guests can learn how to prepare some interesting drinks in the a Gin Cocktail Masterclass.
The mixology session teaches some of the tricks of the bar trade, letting guests create their own cocktails.
Hosted by a ‘gin expert’, we walked through a Tom Collins, Negroni and a frankly delicious Clover Club – which I highly recommend.
The event is very informal, but teaches some impressively simple techniques that can be taken away to impress your friends.
All I can say is, do not plan to drive home!
Gin remains as popular as ever, with the Bombay Sapphire site attracting around 300 guests a day in 2022.
While this is slightly lower than pre-pandemic figures, Sam Carter, senior ambassador for Bombay Sapphire, explains guests are now able to explore more.
“Visitors tend to spend a little longer with us now, exploring the site and perhaps having a cocktail in the summer – the feeling is more relaxed.”
Close by, visitors can indulge the Michelin Star Black Rat or the Woodspeen Cookery School, making it ideal for a day-trip or weekend away for those looking to escape the big smoke.
Find out more about visiting the Bombay Sapphire Distillery on the official website.
Words: Chris O’Toole / Images: Bombay Sapphire Distillery
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