With its iconic blue bottle, Bombay Sapphire is known worldwide as a distinguished and distinctive drink. Its production in England, however, is remarkably homely, and each bottle can be traced back to an old mill site in rural Hampshire, where you can book a tour or tasting session to find out more.
The gin was launched in 1986 and rapidly became world-famous. The Bombay Sapphire of the name refers to to the violet-blue Star of Bombay, while the bottles pay homage to the gin and tonic's heritage by featuring Queen Victoria. Its bottles weren't always that sapphire blue colour and square shape. In the museum part of the distillery, there is a wall of bottles which shows you the variations they have been through. The current one is well-recognised though, especially internationally; most of the company's gin is sold outside of the UK.
Gin has grown rapidly in popularity, with new brands and flavours proliferating, so learning about the different ways in which it can be made and how that affects its taste is fascinating and relevant. The distillery visitor centre offers 'experience' visits (a couple of hours depending on the package) which guide you through the gin and its manufacture. The distillery is hidden near Basingstoke, not on the main tourist path, but well worth hunting out for a discovery trip.
Experienced guides take you around the site in small groups. They talk you through the history of the site, the history of the gin, and the present production process. Bombay Sapphire prides itself on its attention to detail and perfectionist process. You will see the carter head stills in action, triple distilling alcohol brought in from other suppliers until the vapours finally rise to pass through a basket where the botanicals have been placed. The final product is very strong (80% UK strength), and the tour guide may be able to pass around a sample to smell or taste, showing you how it can be checked for purity and quality. It still needs to be watered down to be sold as a drink.
One room offers a 'smell-zone' for you to investigate the various botanicals added to the drink. The main gin itself contains almond, lemon peel, liquorice, juniper berries, orris root, angelica, coriander, cassia, cubeb, and grains of paradise. All of these, and more, are available for you to sniff. You're given a tasting card which sorts botanicals by type, and at each station, there's a hole punch to mark your card if you like it. By the end of the room, you will hopefully have built up a pattern of preferences that leads to a particular gin profile, matched to one of the cocktails they offer later in the tour. The tour takes you through the different stages of making the gin, but its bottling takes place elsewhere.
The site itself is beautiful. They have only been here since 2012, with a visitor centre open since 2014, but the site is that of a historic paper mill. From bat boxes on the side of buildings to offer refuge to local bats (convincing them not to try to shelter in the distillery!) to plants along the stream, it's a relaxed environment close to nature. This includes Thomas Heatherwick's extraordinary glasshouses (one hot, one 'normal') where they cultivate plants relevant to gin production. Built to represent water cascading out of the mill, they're both functional and magnificent. Bombay Sapphire takes sustainability seriously, with a range of measures to improve their environmental impact, and the company's commitment is clearly evident in the luscious site.
Your tour finishes with a chance to sit back in the bar and sample a cocktail. The pungent aroma of gin strikes you as soon as you enter. There are mounds of fruit and varieties of mixers ready to help put you together a special drink. The bar itself gives a trendy twist to the old-fashioned surroundings, with a clean crisp feel.
You can purchase more drinks if you would like to. There are takeaway packs available for drivers so that nobody misses out on their tasting experience. The bar also serves a limited range of high-quality snacks to go with your drink. Given that this is a remote location, something to eat with your drink might not be a bad idea!
A well-stocked shop contains all the gins currently in production, alongside a huge array of gin-related extras. You can take recipe cards home to help recreate your favourite cocktails. With mixers, shakers, glasses, aprons, stirrers and things of general interest all available, it's easy to browse for a while as well as perhaps sample a sip or two more of the different gins.
A few final points about visiting: A range of gin experiences are available, and all tickets must be purchased in advance. See their website for more information. You should wear closed-toe shoes for safety reasons. You're encouraged to take photographs and share them #bombaydistillery. There is a cafe on-site, although it may close before you finish a tour, so check timings. While the site does have a lot of awkward buildings to navigate, they do have good plans in place to support disabled visitors.