Do you like gin? If so, you’re in the right place. There has been a huge rise in the popularity of gin over the past few years, with craft gins and local distilleries popping up everywhere. You can’t seem to go into a bar without a huge display of gin on the back counter, or a novel sized gin menu. Gin is big right now. There are a few of the big brand names still dominating the market though – Bombay Sapphire being one of those. After talking about visiting their distillery for what seemed like years, we eventually decided to take the plunge and spent an afternoon at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tour.
I’ve got a little confession to make. I’m not really a fan of gin. I know, I know, terrible right? My other half keeps telling me that I’m probably not a fan of the tonic, but I think it’s a combination of both. When I first tried a G&T, I compared the flavour to plucking a leaf off a tree and eating it. It tasted bitter? I stand by my original comments, but I have been somewhat educated and tried different gins with various tonics and the flavours are more subtle and enjoyable. I’ll grow into it one day maybe, like you do with coffee and vegetables. Not olives though – that’s never going to happen.
The benefits of not being gin’s #1 fan when all your friends love the stuff is that you can, for once, offer to be the designated driver. I’m rarely the designated driver. If I’m going to the pub, I like to have alcohol. So, for once, it was nice to be able to offer my services non reluctantly. Hero of the day.
The Bombay Sapphire Distillery is located at Laverstoke Mill near Whitchurch in Hampshire. A former paper mill which ceased operation in 1963, the three Grade II listed buildings were purchased by Bombay Spirits Company in 2010, the site redeveloped and transformed into the state-of-the-art distillery which opened in 2014.
There are several Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tours that can be experienced at Laverstoke Mill, all of which can be booked online in advance. While we are on that subject, booking in advance in highly recommended as this distillery is popular. We booked a few weeks in advance for our visit, and tour times were limited even then (especially for weekends).
The tours on offer are as follows:
We opted for the cheapest and most popular tour – The Discovery Experience. Not because it was the cheapest, mind you. For the date we wanted to visit, the hosted experience was sold out. We figured we could learn a lot on a self guided tour anyway, and Pete and Nat were pretty keen to get to the gin tasting bit.
We arrived super early and in plenty of time to have a hot drink at the double decker bus cafe next to the Mill House. Once the designated tour time was upon us, we headed to the building entrance, via the Heritage Room where we were welcomed and provided with our map and guide. As previously mentioned the Discovery Experience is a self guided tour, where you can explore the distillery at your leisure, although there is a set time where you have to gather for the guided tour of the Dakin Still House. The maps featured an interactive microchip which you could use at various points around the site where you saw a logo. This provided additional audio clips and more detailed information about the distillery.
The distillery is separated into a number of buildings with the focal point being two beautiful glasshouses that sit above the River Test. The Botanical Glasshouses were designed by Heatherwick Studios and are a curved and intertwined design. As they sit above the River Test, one of the purest chalk streams in the country, they draw in nutrients from the ground. The glasshouses are connected into the still house itself by way of a curved twisting section of glass. The heat generated by the distilling process is then channelled into them, warming the air and creating conditions for growing the botanical ingredients used in the Bombay Sapphire gin. Clever stuff, eh?
One of the glasshouses is dedicated to tropical plants, where the other is used for Mediterranean plants. The botanicals used in the gin come from different parts of the world, so the glasshouses need to be kept at different temperatures to each other. I had seen photos of the glasshouses previously, but seeing them up close was fascinating. The curves and designs were beautiful.
Carrying on the Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tour, to the right of the glasshouses was The Gallery. This was the area where you could wander through and learn about the history of gin and Bombay Sapphire. It was a really fascinating step back in time, reading up on the beginnings of gin, and of the Bombay Sapphire Company over the past 250 years. There were several items of historical reference along the way, including machinery and tools used in the gin making process, and old branded bottles.
By this point, it was time to head to one of my favourite sections of the tour – the Botanical Dry Room. A light and airy space, with a glass wall to one side providing views of the Heritage Stills in the adjacent area, the Botanical Dry Room featured a collection of scented jars featuring the aromas of all the botanicals that made up the Bombay Sapphire gins and cocktails. Did you know that around 90-95% of what you taste comes from what you smell? Neither did I, until I read it in the booklet provided. The idea being, that by choosing your favourite aromas, this would help you decipher which flavours would make up your favourite Bombay Sapphire cocktails.
On entering the Botanical Dry Room you were provided with a card featuring all of the 22 aromas, of which you would note your favourites. This combination of flavours would then lead you to decide which cocktails would likely be more suitable to your palette. It was a really fun and interesting part of the tour. More on those cocktails later.
Following the scent testing, we were called for our guided tour of the Dakin Still House, which would conclude Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tour. As this was a working distillery and a fume filled area, any electronic devices had to be left behind in lockers before entering the environment. The still house is home to two original copper steam jacketed stills, the types used in the process of making Bombay Sapphire gin.
A different process to traditional gin distillation, Bombay Sapphire use the vapour infusion method which was created by the Dakin family (hence the still room name) in 1836. The difference being in this process, is that the botanicals are not boiled directly into the spirit, but held separately in perforated copper baskets. The spirit vapour rises during the process and the flavours of the botanicals are captured at this point.
The short guided tour of about 15 minutes was a really insight into the history and process of gin making and really enjoyable.
Whether it’s a brewery, a distillery or a winery, no tour of an alcohol making establishment is complete without a tasting a sample of their products. Tour complete, we headed off to The Mill Bar for our complimentary cocktail. Or two, or three.
The Mill Bar is a beautiful double height room of brickwork walls and large windows. To the centre is a large bar with several cocktail making stations. With several tours running throughout the day, every day, there is a high demand for this space. With lots of seating around the bar, as well as a mezzanine level, it was a great room to observe to cocktail making skills of the bartenders. The bar tops were packed full of fruits, herbs, ice and of course gin – all the ingredients necessary to make those awesome cocktails.
Having done our scent research earlier, we had all the information that we needed to choose our perfect cocktails. It was a little easier for me, being the designated driver, as there were two non alcoholic cocktails available – Super Nova Cola and Apple Blossom. I tried both, one of which was complimentary as part of the tour. Make note, as a designated driver, you are also entitled to to a take away gin and tonic from the gift shop to enjoy at home when you have ditched the car – a nice little touch.
Nat and Pete went straight in for the gin cocktails of course. There were ten gin cocktails available on the menu, two of which had a £2 supplement if these were chosen as the ‘complimentary’ drink. You could also stay as long as you liked following the tour and buy cocktails from the menu. The cocktails all went down well, with particularly good noises and happy faces for the Newfound Star, Highclere Highballer and the Oakley Fashioned. You might have guessed that we had more than one round! Well, it would be rude not to.
Once our (their) cocktail drinking session was over, we made our final stop of the day in The Gin Shop, where there were plenty of Gins, Tonics and Bombay Sapphire related gifts to buy. I believe we currently have a drawer containing various cocktails stirrers and other gin related goodies that were purchased.
I have to say that despite being the designated driver, and initially unsure of how much would enjoy that experience, I had a really wonderful afternoon. Helped by the beautiful setting and historical buildings, it was a joy to wander around and admire the old mill as well as the stunning Botanical Glasshouses.
Laverstoke Mill can be easily accessed by car or train, for those who don’t have a designated driver. The distillery is located between Overton and Whitchurch on the B3400, which is not too far from the M3. The nearest railway station is at Overton with trains running there from London Waterloo and Salisbury. Bombay Sapphire run a regular shuttle bus to and from the station to coincide with the train arrival and departure times. The shuttle bus costs £3 for a return ticket. The distillery is open 7 days a week between April and October, 10.00am to 8.00pm with the last admission at 6.00pm. Slighty reduced opening hours operate during the winter.
Bombay Sapphire, Laverstoke Mill, Whitchurch, Hampshire, RG28 7NR
If brewery tours are more to your tastes, then take a look at a selection of Brewery Tours in neighbouring Berkshire.
Have you visited the Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tour? What were your thoughts?
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