At Bombay Sapphire Distillery in the UK’s bucolic Hampshire county, I follow Sam Carter through a sleek maze of glass and steel, a stylish industrial-toned redo of a centuries-old paper mill, famously first recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086. The Senior Brand Ambassador, bartender extraordinaire, and whimsically gleeful guide leads our group on a spirits tour that promises a gin cocktail or two as its grand finale. Cracking jokes, glossing on history, and generally entrancing us all with his mile-a-minute anecdotes, Sam encapsulates both the silly and sophisticated. He’s playful, but intellectual—passionate, most of all. If he’s Willy Wonka, then gin is his chocolate—and Bombay Sapphire Distillery, an eco-friendly spirits manufacturing plant and adult playground, awash with sensorial enchantment, is the fantastical factory.
On a two-hour Discovery Experience with Sam, we wind through the re-envisioned Laverstoke Mill’s great rooms to the garden, where Thomas Heatherwick’s glass houses, a pair of otherworldly greenhouse domes, await. Breathtaking, like immense crystals amid the greenery, they contrast dramatically with the mill’s historic, extant walls. They are, in fact, quite like Wonka’s glass elevators, so when we enter, I expect something magical—and I find it.
These indoor gardens hold vibrant samples of all the unique botanicals which compose Bombay Sapphire gin, each collected from specific farmers and growers, each with a subtle, but critical, role in the final bouquet that epitomizes the final product. Cassia bark from Vietnam, juniper from Tuscany, lemon peel and bitter almond from Spain, coriander from Morocco, orris from France, angelica from Germany, and licorice root from China combine for an exotic partnership.
After we study the various plants, Sam shepherds us to the next stop, a veritable laboratory of the senses. Utterly interactive, this section asks guests to score their response to smells, an activity which can help inform them about their preferences and penchants, and show what flavor profiles appeal—and why and why not.
“Why is this important?” asks Sam, rhetorically. “So you can order a cocktail that won’t disappoint.” Again: the whimsical and the practical, conjoined. As we mill amongst tables, we sniff and take notes. At the end, we add up our “score” to discover which Bombay Sapphire cocktail best matches our responses. It’s a fun game—a kind of tippler’s personality test.
From there, we head into a large, vault-like room. Climbing up stairs that wrap around two original (continuously used) stills, we reach the pinnacle. There, we learn about Bombay Sapphire’s unique vapor distillation process, a heritage production method. During vapor distillation, the purest wheat-based alcohol passes through copper baskets layered with the ten prized botanicals. “This results in brighter, fresher flavors—not to mention an enhanced lift in mood for the imbiber,” says Sam. Four stills, overseen by twelve distillers, produce every drop of Bombay Sapphire for the entire world. The two stills Sam shows us date back to 1831 and 1836. “We affectionately call them Thomas and Mary,” says Sam, noting that they’re named after family members of Thomas Dakin, the creator of the original Bombay Sapphire gin recipe.
At last, the time comes to quench our thirst. We follow Sam into a sexy nook, just off the facility’s snazzy main bar. Settling in, we have the chance to order from a seasonal libation menu that draws from south England’s orchard-like terroir. The cocktails fall into clear categories noted on the menu: floral, citrus, earthy, floral, pine, and spice. I choose a cheery drink called G&Pea (that’s a gin and tonic afloat with garden peas and watercress, inspired by the river that runs through the mill/distillery, and its bounty of cress). It’s savory, modern and refreshing. Afterward, I yearn to try another option. Sam suggests The Laverstoke, his proudest creation. “It encompasses the main flavor profile of Bombay Sapphire gin—pine, citrus, earthy/rooty, floral and spicy,” he says to convince me. One sip of this summery fusion of Martini Bianco Vermouth, St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, Bombay Sapphire Gin, gently squeezed lime wedges and a smattered top layer of Fever-Tree Ginger-Ale (adorned with spicy ginger slices and a garden-fresh mint sprig), and I’m converted. No wonder so many distillery visitors return home, mix The Laverstoke, and post it on Instagram. Clearly, it has achieved a cult following, a sect that entrances me more with each swig. Sam too, has a lively presence there–@SapphireSamC.
Visitors here don’t need a golden ticket. Open every day, this joyful enclave of canny bars, gardens, interactive rooms, private, rentable party areas, a restaurant, fanciful glasshouses, crannies and shopping options offers multiple daily guided Discovery Experiences, as well as gin cocktail masterclasses, each punctuated with a complimentary cocktail. I’m hoping to return at the holidays, when the distillery and old mill morph into a gin-centric Christmas market, awash with cocktail themed-gift options. The piney aromas help complete the scene.