A visit to the Bombay Sapphire Distillery

At the end of last year I was invited by 365 Tickets to a special visit and a gin cocktail masterclass at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery, hosted by Sam Carter, the company’s Senior Brand Ambassador.

I was very excited when I received the invitation because for a long time I’ve wanted to visit the Bombay Sapphire Distillery and learn more about gin.

The Bombay Sapphire Distillery is located inside Laverstoke Mill, close to Basingstoke and Winchester and it’s very easy to reach with public transport. I don’t drive yet so I went to Basingstoke by train. From there I hopped on bus number 76 towards Andover. The bus stops right in front of the train station and the journey towards Laverstoke is enchanting, on a narrow country road passing through tiny villages inbetween trees. I was lucky as well because the day was warm and sunny, a bit of a change from the usual rain.

I arrived at the distillery earlier than planned so I took my time admiring the grounds before entering the visitor’s reception. I met Sam Carter and he showed me to the Empire Room, a large but private bar where the gin masterclasses take place and where I waited for the other bloggers to arrive whilst having a cup of coffee. The Empire Room is fantastic, starting from the design, with lots of blue elements (and a wall of Bombay Sapphire bottles at the back) to all the spices lying around and the cosy pillows underneath the large windows.

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When everyone arrived Sam welcomed us and started off by talking about the different types of gin. That´s how I found out that Bombay Sapphire is a London Dry Gin and that this type of gin doesn’t have to made in London in order to have that name. For a gin to be considered London Dry Gin, it has to obtain its natural flavour through re-distillation in traditional stills and it has to have at least 37.5% ABV. Bombay Sapphire is produced by a method called Vapour Infusion which means that the botanicals are put in a basket on top of the stills through which the spirit vapour passes and gets infused with their flavours. This method gives the gin a lighter and more floral flavour. The recipe for Bombay Sapphire contains the following botanicals: juniper seeds, coriander, almond, lemon peel, liquorice, angelica, cassia bark, orris root, cubeb berries and grains of paradise.

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Sam is very proud about gin and talks with passion about it. No wonder I have learned so much about gin in only a day.
We left the Empire Room and headed outside to hear more about the history of Laverstoke Mill and Bombay Sapphire. We were also given an interactive guide which you can use in different parts of the Distillery to find out more about the place you are in. When you buy it online you can select your language. This way, when you approach an information point, you can hear the story in your own language.

The Mill has a lot of history behind it, going back to the early 900s, where it is first mentioned as Laverstoke manor in the possession of the Abbey of St Peter, Winchester. In the 17th century the Mill started to produce paper and in 1724 the Bank of England contracted it as sole supplier of paper money. In 1860 the Government of India contracts the Mill to produce the Indian Rupee paper. The Mill’s estate grew over time with over 40 buildings in both Victorian and Edwardian styles. Bearing this in mind, it’s easy to find the connection between Bombay Sapphire and the Laverstoke Mill, and why they were such a good fit for each other: Bombay Sapphire´s name originates from the popularity gin used to have in India. The “sapphire” comes from the “Star of Bombay”, one of the largest gems in the world, exhibited now at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

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Bombay Sapphire bought Laverstoke Mill in 2010 and spent 4 years renovating and transforming it into their new home. They have worked with the Heatherwick Studio not only to give a new modern look to the old Mill but also to transform it into a sustainable distillery. In fact, Bombay Sapphire is the first distillery in the world to be awarded the BREEAM outstanding rating for sustainability.

Thomas Heatherwick, the architect that worked on projects like the new London bus, the Olympic Cauldron and the Google headquarters designed the stunning glasshouses where the 10 botanicals used to make Bombay Sapphire gin grow. One of the glasshouses has a humid tropical environment while the other one a dry temperate Mediterranean climate. The entire plan of renovating the old paper mill was centred around River Test, the purest chalk-stream in the United Kingdom and now the home of brown trout, otters, ducks, swans and many other species.

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Our next stop was inside the history room, where we could admire the collection of bottle designs through the years and also entries for the Bombay Sapphire designer glass competition.

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The history of gin is quite fascinating and starts in the early 17th century, when it was produced and sold as herbal medicine. The consumption of gin grew in the UK when the Government allowed unlicensed gin production, with over half of drinking places in London being gin shops. With the polluted drinking water and the low price of gin, it became a very popular drink among the English population. Beer producers have actually campaigned against gin, blaming it for different social problems, like illustrated in the below photo, created by William Hogarth in the 1750s.

In 1951 the Government passed the Gin Act which forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and not directly to the public.
Bombay Sapphire’s story began in 1961, when 24 year old Thomas Dakin started producing Warrington Gin at his newly built distillery between Liverpool and Manchester. The Dakin family has produced gin for over 50 years, adapting to new technologies before buying one of the first Carterhead stills. This allowed them to develop the Vapor infused technique that Bombay Sapphire still uses today to flavour the gin. There are very few Carterhead stills left in the world and Bombay Sapphire has and uses three of them.

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Fast-forwarding to the 1950s, a New York lawyer named Alan Sabin decided to take the Warrington gin to the American market and created a new identity for it, Bombay Dry Gin. Back then America was going through a restless time. Imagine the Madison Avenue lawyers, bankers, advertisers and entrepreneurs wearing suits, socialising while drinking Martinis in clubs filled with cigarette smoke. It was the perfect opportunity to bring the vapour infused gin to America.

Bombay Sapphire gin was created in 1987 when Ian Hamilton, the head distiller developed the flavour by adding two new botanicals: grains of paradise and cubeb berries. The new improved recipe gave the gin a fresh and lively taste with a spicy finish. In 2005 a fire destroyed the bottling hall and the still house and that was when Bombay Sapphire decided to bring production of the gin in-house. They searched for several years before finding the perfect location: Laverstoke Mill.

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One of the most interesting parts of the visit to the Bombay Sapphire Distillery was the Botanicals Room. The room is focused on botanicals and their aroma. We all received a card with the name of each. We moved around the room, breathing in each of the 22 flavours, marking on the paper the ones we liked best. My favourite was the cassia bark, its aroma made me instantly think of winter spices and mulled wine. At the end of the tour, based on this card, I received a personalised cocktail at the Mill bar.

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One wall of the Botanicals Room is made out of glass and you can see inside the two small (3000 litre) vintage Carterhead stills, Thomas and Mary, named after the founder of Warrington Gin and his granddaughter). We got to visit the Heritage Still House too and closely observe the process through which gin is made. It´s quite fascinating as the liquid is transformed into vapours, passed through baskets with botanicals to infuse and then condensed back to liquid. We got a chance to see the pure alcohol as it left the stills. The distillers test every part of production to ensure the high standard is maintained.

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There are strict rules for entering the distillery because of the high level of alcohol vapour in the air and the risk of sparks. We had to turn our phones off and also make sure we were wearing trainers (heels were not allowed).

After we visited the distillery we returned to the Empire Room and Sam showed us how to make different gin cocktails. But first, we had a chance to taste the selection of Bombay Sapphire gins: Bombay Dry Gin (8 botanicals), Bombay Sapphire (10 botanicals) and Star of Bombay (12 botanicals: the 10 in Bombay Sapphire plus bergamot and ambrette seeds). You wouldn’t think that gin could be enjoyed by itself but Sam proved us wrong. You should drink gin from a large glass so that you can experience the aroma before tasting the drink. This is very important because our taste and smell senses are connected. One great example is when we have a cold and feel that the food we are eating doesn’t taste great. That is because we can’t smell it, so can’t taste it properly.

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During the cocktail masterclass I found out how easily I could make Bombay Sapphire cocktails at home to impress my friends. My favourite cocktail made by Sam was The Laverstoke, a drink he created to celebrate the new home of Bombay Sapphire distillery. The Laverstoke has four versions, one for each season. The basic recipe contains Bombay Sapphire gin, Martini Bianco, elderflower cordial, ginger ale, lime, mint, ginger and ice. You’ll have to trust me, it’s delicious!

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At the end of the visit I went with my card from the Botanical Room to the Mill Bar, to see what my personalised cocktail might be. After a lovely chat with the bartender we concluded that the best choice for me was one of their winter specials, The Thoroughbred, a cocktail made with Bombay Sapphire gin, ginger beer, apple juice, Angostura and lime wedges.

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I enjoyed my visit to the Bombay Sapphire Distillery immensely and I left with a lot of knowledge about gin. I love how Bombay Sapphire is a brand that respects the environment and gives back to the community by sourcing their botanicals from local growers in Italy, Morocco, East Africa and many other parts of the world.

Traveler. Dreamer. Cat lover. Wondering around the world with my backpack and my camera. Contributing to make the world a better place.

66 Comments

  1. That sounds like such a cool experience! It’s crazy that the story started around the year 900! I also love all the interactive things you mentioned to help people feel acquainted and comfortable.

  2. Wow how amazing to be able to learn more about gin all within Bombay Sapphire which to my knowledge is a leading brand’s distillery. I have never been to one but I imagine it being as gloriously heady as the gin that they make x

  3. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always find that Hogarth painting darkly amusing…anyway, this sounds like a great way to get to know one of the most famous gins you can acquire in the U.K. The cocktail master classes sound particularly fun! It’s not far from me, so might have to check it out one of these days 🙂

  4. Never been to a distillery. Sounds like you enjoyed your trip and glad to know that it was opened in the same year when I was born.

  5. I don’t even like gin, but this sounds like a great day!! I loved hearing about the history of gin, I never would have guessed any of that. I love that they give back to their community, as well! If I do decide to drink some gin, I think I’ll choose Bombay Sapphire!

  6. I was invited too for this event. Somehow I was held up with something on the day and I couldn’t make it! I love to watch the step by step process by which various drinks are made. Seen beer and whisky… So sad, I missed this. Esp the infuse of all those spices look yummy!!!

  7. Nice experience, wow, it’s something really interesting to know and you wrote a beautiful article about that! I am not a long drink drinker but I have been working in a restaurant for many years, so I can understand different tastes of Gin: this one is absolutely one of the best! Thanks for sharing it

  8. As a Gin lover and a traveller, this was such an interesting post. I enjoyed every bit of it. I live in Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now known). Did you know that the Brits brought the concept of “Gin and Tonic” to India, because tonic helped keep them safe from malaria (lots of mosquitoes here)!

  9. That is great being invited to a gin cocktail masterclass at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery. It’s funny I stumbled upon your blog because I actually bought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire 2 days ago. It must have been fun sampling all the different gins.

  10. Wow. This place looks so cool. I am not a drinker but its neat to learn about the distillation process and the history of this distillery. Also love that this is a londo dry gin that does not have to be made in London because it actually refers to the method of distillation. Thanks for the great post.

  11. Amazing history of the Bombay distillery. I love tours like this because there is so much to learn about how their products are made. The cocktails look delicious. I will have to find a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin and mix some drinks too.

  12. I love all the details and history in this post. That drawing, is a real crack up. I guess gin makes people gnaw on bones! And, what is the person doing with the saw? Too funny. The Thoroughbred sounds super good. I’ll keep this in mind as the hubs is a gin drinker. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I have never been to any distillery but surely want to visit the one soon and experience how the drinks are made. Seems you had a quiet learning as well as wonderful experience. Good captures and that glass house is awesome.

  14. I would love to visit a Gin distillery! This Bombay Sapphire one looks neat! Looks like you had a great time and the cocktails look super yum! I do wanna try Thoroughbred! 😉

  15. What a fun day! It’s so cool to find out where Bombay comes from, especially since it’s so common to have at bars!! It looks like you were able to have a number of really cool cocktails, too! Very cool!!!

  16. I loved your post and all the images. Bombay Sapphire is such an iconic brand, but I think I was even more intrigued about the place where it was made – it has so much history and character! The mill goes all the way back to the 900s…simply wow!

  17. For a bit, I got my hopes high thinking that there’s a Gin Distillery in Bombay (Mumbai, India). That heartbreak only adds another item on my bucket list. Such a tempting posts with wonderful pictures this!

  18. What an interesting experience you had! I’ve never visited gin distillery but your post inspired me a lot! It’s so great that they held cocktail masterclass, I’d love to learn more about the cocktails making! The Thoroughbred looks amazing!

  19. I’m honestly not a gin person but this would be a neat background tour to learn the history! I’d just have to stay away from tasting 🙂

  20. A wonderful way to learn about gin. The mill is really old, early 900s – is way too old. And the fact that it is still a leading brand, speaks volumes about the quality of its product

  21. The Empire Room indeed looks so interesting with all those bottles arranged in a pretty pattern. It is interesting to learn that the natural ingredients are used in its distillation process which is grown in their own garden in that impressive glasshouse. Perhaps the more interesting part was its history when the mill produced paper money and that it ones produced Indian Rupee paper too. Thanks for sharing this amazing experience with us Joanna.

  22. Oh I hate gin but did watch a documentary on how this building was made! I’d love to see it myself one day. Loving all your photos of buildings and the info on gin

  23. I would love to learn more about gin. And Bombay Sapphire Distillery looks like the best location to drink up on all that facts and information. The photographs are stunning. The history behind the name and the Bombay connection is fascinating too.

  24. I’ve long been a fan of Bombay Sapphire, but never really known much about it (other than it’s yummy!). I would love to do a tour like this. We are going to be in England for the next 5 weeks, so I am going to look this up and see if it is near where we are staying. The Laverstoke sounds delicious. I absolutely want to try one of those!

  25. I do not really drink alcohol but I would looove to visit the distillery. It is so interesting to learn a bit about history and also about the process of gin making. It also looks to well designed and just lovely!

  26. I find it so special that this all started in the 900s, can you believe it?! I an not that big of a fan of gin but sometimes it is quite nice and especially now, knowing how it has been made and it’s history, you suddenly start appreciating it more. Seems like you had an awesome experience!

  27. Such an informative post. This isn’t too far from us; we will have to visit (minus the kids). I wouldn’t have thought that you’re not allowed to wear heels because of the alcohol content in the air – it must be saturated! I love the look of all the botanicals that go into making gin. Although I have to confess I had a terrible experience with gin as a teenager and was put off it for many years!

  28. Got a little intimidated for a while there when you talked about vapour infusion. You explained it well, though, and it took my headache away ? now, i know that london dry gin does not necessarily come from london. It’s more complicated than that.

  29. When I read the title of the post, I thought the distillery is in India and smiled wide! Woohoo! Haha, but no, it isn’t which is very well since that makes it another place to go to. Honestly, while reading the post, I was prettty jealous, what an experience it must have been. The place looks splendid and so inviting!

  30. The name got me wondering if it was in India! 🙂 But there is a India connection I read later. The change in bottles captured so well. I have never tasted this but the visit surely looks interesting.

  31. Some interesting historical facts there. I’m particularly interested in the transformation of the mill. From its humble beginnings as producer of paper to printer of money to what it is now is amazing. The glasshouses remind me of Eden Project with its bio-domes housing tropical plants from around the world in controlled temperatures.

  32. That sounds really fun! On my travels I have learned about wine, beer, and even rum-making, but so far I haven’t been to a gin distillery. I would really like to visit this one. I like how the bartender helped you pick out a cocktail that would suit you. Gin and ginger beer sounds really good to me too!

  33. Wow. That’s a really long history of gin, eh? And I didn’t know that there are really different kinds of gin. For me, they are all just gin. Alcohol is quite confusing too. It looks like you really learned a lot. From the history to different mixes. I wish there is something like that too here in my country. However, people here prefer beer more than any other alcoholic beverage.

  34. Wow! That was quite a wonderful experience. This one seems to be very informative and likewise interactive. What an awesome visit! Its like having an educational trip inside the distellery and its so fascinating how the story started at the 900s. 🙂

  35. I have never been to distillery and intially I thought when we had one in Bombay. But later after reading your post realized the name is Bombay and it is in UK. I like the process and seems they have come a long way. Gin is not my fav though but would love to visit this distillery someday.

  36. Oh, thank you for that amazing post! I used to have a bar, and Bombay Sapphire used to be ‘one from the top shelf’. Then , a few years ago, Coca-Cola started supplying blue tonic . That was such a posh drink to serve, in those stunning Bombay glasses. I nees to share that and show my customers and friends 🙂

  37. I’m not a gin person but it would be awesome to learn something new. This post brings a lot of history on how it even started. I guess the experience was worth it, listening from someone who’s an expert of what they do. The place even has its own vibe and substance. 🙂

  38. Woah! This looks right up my alley! What an interesting experience it must have been. Bombay Sapphire occupies the front row in my bar LOL … and we use it in several homemade cocktails. Shame that till date, I didn’t know they had so many varieties (I’ve only seen & tasted the Blue bottle).

  39. I had never heard of the The Bombay Sapphire Distillery! I actually don’t live that far from here I realise so may need to visit this place soon! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  40. I didn’t realise that their distillery was in the UK (then again, I’ve never checked the bottle nor do I drink much gin). That’s really cool that the bartender does a personalised cocktail at the end of the tour (I wonder what mine would be) and that you participated in a master class. I’ve always had a fascination when it comes to what goes behind the scenes of producing alcohols. Honestly, this sounds like an interesting tour and I’ll definitely love to check it out when I’m in the area 🙂

  41. i recently bought one of those bombay sapphire….but not happen to break the seal but I think now that I know so much about the background it would me more exciting to give it a try specially in one of the amazing cocktails form

  42. Wow! What a cool place and fun process to go through. I know there is a similar class available here in our area and now I’m kind of interested in doing it. Thank you for sharing!

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