It may well have been a few months overdue, but the new Bombay Sapphire distillery at Laverstoke Mill was well worth the wait. It was always going to be hailed as a mecca for Gin lovers, after all, when one of the most iconic gin brands in the world creates a distillery with a visitor centre it’s going to attract attention. The result is more than just buzz though, to use a word that seems to surround the team there – it’s sublime.
Designed by celebrated British designer (and his often unsung team of workers that make up his studio) Thomas Heatherwick, the project is a first of its kind in both scale and complexity completed in the UK. Although hard to believe given Heatherwick Studio’s level of international recognition – it’s their first conservation project, as well as their first design for a production facility.
The result is a stunner. Beginners luck? No chance. It’s the result of careful planning and meticulous attention to detail. So much so, the distillery in Laverstoke Mill near Whitchurch, has gained considerable credibility in environmental terms. It’s the only processing plant in Britain that has a BREEAM rating of “outstanding” for building sustainability. This might seem petty for gin fans looking in from the outside and only concerned with the liquid but it’s an incredible achievement – not just in design or building terms either – it demonstrates the commitment shown by Bombay Sapphire as a company to call for the most up to date and high tech solutions in sustainable manufacturing.
It’s worth considering the heritage that the team were tasked to restore and preserve too. The history of Laverstoke Mill is recorded as far back as the 1086 Doomsday Book, in which a mill is noted on the site. Laverstoke Mill 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; manufacturing the bank notes during Queen Victoria’s long reign, the site was expanded by the Portal family in 1842 and again in 1881, introducing further elegant architecture to allow for increased production.
Heatherwick’s design masterplan for the restoration and modernisation of the site – which began as a collection of more than 40 buildings congested together over shadowing the original banknote mill – included a biomass boiler, electricity-generating water wheel, and a sophisticated heat-recovery system for the five stills.
Some of the recovery systems feeds heat into the center piece of the distillery – the two greenhouses. These two giant structures extrude out of the gin house and act as part of the visitor experience to showcase the botanicals in both their tropical and Mediterranean climates. They are composed from 793 unique pieces of glass and were developed in collaboration with Kew Gardens. The taller structure offers dry, almost harsh Mediterranean conditions ideal for growing almond, lemon peel, angelica root, coriander seeds, juniper and orris root. The shorter house is warmer and creates a humid tropical environment in which to grow cassia bark, grains of paradise, liquorice and cubeb berries.
More than just impressive sculptural forms, by building the glass houses the studio has managed to allow enough room for the key elements of Bombay’s flavour profile to be presented in a way that connects with visitors on an immersive, visceral level.
While both the production of gin and the visitor experience was central to Heatherwick’s proposal for the old mill, they also focused on the site’s water component. Years of development had nearly obliterated the bank of the River Test, which runs through the Hampshire site. Having restored the riverbank, which is now central to the entire site, the team have not made it a huge in-your-face feature but allowed it to underpin the distillery’s features with a certain charm that few industrial sites manage to achieve.
The distillery will produce at least 25 million litres of gin a year (around 2.3 million cases). But, perhaps more significantly, it will be the first showpiece gin distillery in the UK designed to be a large-scale visitor attraction. With over 40 thousand visitors expected in the first year alone – they plan to add restaurants, bars and corporate entertainment facilities, along with cocktail masterclasses and events.
What to expect if you go for a tour you ask?
You can explore the Bombay Sapphire Distillery on your own terms, in your own time. The experience is designed to be a self-discovery where you discover the distillery buildings and the story behind the iconic brand along the way.
The journey starts by the river-bank along the river Test. There’s a quick museum-style stop to uncover the interesting history behind Laverstoke Mill in the Heritage Room – for those who like to research and read a little. You can then discover the ten botanicals in bloom in their respective extruded glasshouses and then in their dried / ground (and distillation ready) form in the Botanical Dry Room. They will also have hosts to take you personally into the Dakin Still House to see the distillation process up close.
You can immerse yourself in the history of gin as a spirit and Bombay Sapphire as a brand in the Gin Academy. Your experience then culminates in the Mill Bar where you get to taste the gin – finally! Every guest receives a drink ‘on the house’ but there are multiple cocktails on offer should you have more time. All of the drinks can be tailored to your botanical preferences but remember – pick a designated driver to go with you if you want to spend that extra time tasting cocktails!
Marking the occasion, Bombay Sapphire Gin will also be available in a special-edition ‘Bombay Sapphire Distillery, Laverstoke Mill Limited Edition’ bottle. Although the brand team have neither confirmed nor denied the story – expect a limited edition gin to also be made soon using botanicals grown onsite. Surely this has to happen. If not surely, then please, listen to us on behalf of all gin lovers, please make this happen!
It’s been interesting to have seen first hand one of the world’s biggest gin brands vertically integrate their business by building a distillery, visitor center and a shop all on one site. In doing so, they have also removed the only blemish on their story – up until now they didn’t have a distillery they could call home nor could they really say that they distilled their own spirit (as it was previously made at G&J Distillers).
They now have a home, their own distilling team and can continue to set the pace for the entire category with renewed zeal. Now that they are able to show their entire process publicly, Bombay can further showcase their impressive record of pushing the conversation around transparency and consumer education to a whole new level. Most importantly, for us fans who have long admired a gin that has transcended into popular culture and that has become an iconic brand – it’s an exciting move that will see them in a strong position to build for the future.
Gin fan or not – for anyone with an afternoon to spare, it’s a must visit.
Book a tour here.
Copyright © Gin Foundry