I’m not much of a gin drinker. In fact, I rarely order cocktails or make them at home. Why then would I choose to visit a gin distillery?
When I was in Southampton this past summer, my family mentioned that the Bombay Sapphire Distillery was close by – and worth a visit. I was a little apprehensive. I prefer a good brewery tour. But my husband convinced me to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did.
Our experience at the distillery was one of the best alcohol-focused tours I’ve been on in a very long time. It taught me more about gin than I ever thought I’d know, and I never once felt bored or uninterested. Here are a few reasons why I loved my tour of Bombay Sapphire Distillery, and why you should definitely check it out if you’re ever in the area.
Our Knowledgeable and Hilarious Tour Guide
There are a few ways to experience the Bombay Sapphire Distillery, including the self-discover experience and the hosted experience. Since we’d never gone to a gin distillery before, we went with the latter. Our guide was super friendly and energetic, and right from the beginning she grabbed our attention and held it for the entire 2-hour tour.
As she launched into the background of Laverstoke Mill, the home of the distillery where every drop of Bombay Sapphire gin is made, her knowledge of and passion for the subject became quite clear. She continued to impress me when we went into the Gallery, where different versions of the Bombay Sapphire bottle and distinctive drinking glasses are on display. There are different varieties of Bombay Sapphire gin, and our guide could easily give you a recommendation for what to mix with each of them. (Some sounded incredibly delicious, I might just have to try them.)
The history of the company and the process of making dry gin may not be super interesting topics, but she managed to enthrall me. She was well-spoken, clear, concise and hilarious. Our guide could put a gin twist (pun intended) on pretty much everything, and worked in jokes and puns whenever possible. She was engaging and entertaining, two key personality traits for any tour guide. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been on tours that could have been way better had it not been for the guide dragging on about unimportant facts or having a dry mannerism. Our guide stayed on point and kept our focus, while also creating a fun and memorable experience.
The Historical and Innovative Distillery Buildings
As I mentioned, Bombay Sapphire Distillery is located at Laverstoke Mill in Whitchurch, Hampshire. The site is said to have been home to a mill as far back as 903 AD, but the first true record of one was in 1086. In 1718, a Frenchman named Henry Portal (born Henri de Portal) leased the mill and rebuilt it into a hugely successful paper mill that printed bank notes for the Bank of England.
Pretty much all of the buildings currently standing are from that paper mill. In fact, the bathrooms in the main building have strongroom doors on them, because that’s where the bank paper for the bank notes were stored (safest bathrooms in the UK right there). The India House is where all the gin is made, but it used to be where the Indian Rupee paper was made, hence the name. Our guide gave us a brief background on the functions of the other buildings as we made our way through the distillery, all of which now serve a new purpose. Bombay Sapphire wanted to maintain the look, feel and heritage of the 300-year-old mill, while also operating an efficient, state-of-the-art distillery. In order to do that, they did need to make an addition.
Amid the historical buildings is a modern structure that truly stands out. Thomas Heatherwick designed the uniquely-shaped Glasshouses that appear to be cascading down like water. The 10 botanicals that go into Bombay Sapphire Gin are grown and maintained here. The artistic yet functional design allows for hot air from the distillation process to be filtered into the glasshouses from the India House. The houses are made of 793 pieces of glass, no two of which are the same size or shape. One houses tropical plants, while the other is home to Mediterranean species. This is a true work of modern art, juxtaposed perfectly with the Victorian and Georgian-style architecture of the mill.
The Botanical Dry Room
Before I go into this, let me just give you a quick overview of what gin is.
London dry gin begins as a neutral spirit made from grain. It is re-distilled with natural botanicals, such as berries, barks, seeds, roots and peels. The botanicals used in Bombay Sapphire are juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel, angelica, orris root, liquorice, almonds, cassia bark, cubeb berries and grains of paradise.
Clearly, botanicals play a major role in the creation of gin. The Botanical Dry room not only gives you an introduction to everything that goes into Bombay Sapphire, but also helps you discover a little more about your own flavor preferences. In this room, we had the opportunity to smell 22 different aromas, ranging from citrusy to earthy to spicy.
Here’s how it works. Take an aroma map when you enter the room. Go around to every table and take a sniff of each scented jar. If you like what you smell, punch a hole on the map of the corresponding number of your preferred botanical. After you’ve smelled them all, look at the map and determine your cocktail based on where your flavor preferences lie. At the end of the tour, present your map to the bartenders at the Mill Bar and order your complimentary cocktail.
It was a fun, interactive way to discover what goes into gin, but also to learn what you like in terms of flavors and scents. My map indicated that I prefer spicy, citrusy aromas, and my drink of choice was the Orange & Black Peppercorn Twist. Steve leaned towards citrus and floral aromas, and his cocktail was the Laverstoke.
The Free Cocktail
As I mentioned, at the end of the tour – whether you do the hosted or the self-discovery experience – you receive a complimentary cocktail at the Mill Bar. The bartenders will mix you up a delicious gin cocktail based on your flavor preferences, or serve you a simple gin & tonic if you so choose. It’s the perfect way to top off the experience, and enjoy some of the gin you’ve spent the last two hours learning about.
The Mill Bar itself is also really nice, with a bright blue counter in the middle of the room, and a second floor balcony that overlooks the happenings below. Apparently you can rent it out for special occasions, and I can imagine it working well for a pre-wedding cocktail hour or an office holiday party.
The Bombay Sapphire Gin Shop
Technically the gin shop isn’t part of the tour, but I loved perusing the Bombay Sapphire-themed drink-mixing accessories. You can purchase cocktail, shakers, strainers, glasses, and more – basically anything to make a well-stocked bar at home. We were on the last leg of our trip, and didn’t have much room in our suitcases to spare. We opted for cocktail swizzle sticks with a blue gem on top. Perfect for those classy times when we actually make cocktails – maybe around the holidays.
One of the best tours I’ve had in recent memory was at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery. Even if you aren’t a gin drinker – or a drinker at all – this is still a very informative and interesting tour. It gives you some background on the mill, a look into the distilling process and a glimpse at the country’s drink culture.
If you go…
Bombay Sapphire Distillery: Laverstoke Mill, London Road, Laverstoke, Whitchurch, Hampshire RG28 7NR
Hours of Operation:
The Distillery is open 7 days a week, and you must purchase tickets in advance.
- April to October: 10:00am – 8:00pm (last admission at 6:00pm)
- November to March: 11:00am – 6:00pm (last admission at 4:00pm)
- The Hosted Experience:
- Duration: 1 1/2 – 2 hours
- Frequency: Mon.-Fri.; and Sun.
- Includes a host to guide you through the distillery and a complimentary cocktail.
- Cost: £25.00 (~$32 USD)
- Self-Discovery Experience:
- Duration: 1 1/2 – 2 hours
- Frequency: Mon.-Sun.
- Includes Self-Discovery experience with an interactive map, 15 minute guided tour throughout the Still House and a complimentary cocktail.
- Cost: £16.00 (~$20 USD)
The distillery also has scheduled niche and VIP experiences you can sign up for. Dates for these vary, so check the website for experience information.
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