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Bombay Sapphire embodies the idea of a modern gin, indeed it was only launched in 1987. However, both Sapphire and Bombay Dry Gin, its mother brand, can trace their origins and recipes back to the 1760s. Originally made at what is now the Quintessential owned distillery at Loushers Lane, Warrington, since 2014 Bombay gins have been made at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill.
The history of Bombay Gins stretches back to 1760 just after the repeal of the Corn Laws, when a 24-year-old Thomas Dakin built his distillery on Bridge Street in Warrington, north-west England. Due to a poor harvest that year he did not actually start distilling his ‘Warrington Dry Gin’ until 1761. That year-long delay may have given him the opportunity to perfect his recipe, as it proved not only to be very successful, but nearly 200 years later was chosen to become Bombay Gin and 27 years after that provided the essential DNA to which two botanicals would be added to create Bombay Sapphire.
Back in 18th century Warrington, easy access to both the river Mersey and the canal network meant the town was at the centre of trade routes between London and Liverpool, ideally situated to take full advantage of the Industrial Revolution. This gave the young entrepreneur, Dakin, a ready supply of the botanicals and other raw ingredients he needed to make a quality gin. It also gave him ready access to markets where he could sell it.
Warrington’s location also helped it become a centre of scientific knowledge and technical expertise with its renowned Warrington Academy, home to notable luminaries including the scientist Joseph Priestley, and Reinhold Forster, Captain James Cook’s botanist. No doubt Dakin did not have to look far for the best scientific advice of the day.
Dakin was one of the first of a new age of gin distillers who set out to distil gins of a much higher quality than the ‘mother’s ruin’ of his predecessors. The industrial age not only provided better stills and distilling technology, it also brought a more discerning customer base in the newly emerging middle classes.
Thomas Dakin prospered until his death in the 1790s, at which point his gin recipe passed to his son Edward Dakin, who took over the distillery. The precious recipe and the distillery continued to pass down the generations of the Dakin family until the business was taken over by Edward Greenall following the death of William Dakin, the founder’s grandson. The Greenall family were successful brewers in the nearby Lancashire town of St Helens. Dakin’s Warrington Gin was renamed Greenall’s but it continued to be made according to Dakin’s original 1761 recipe.
Sadly, a fire in November 2005 destroyed much of Greenall’s distillery, and with it most of the records from both the Dakin and Greenall’s eras, so it is not known what stills Thomas Dakin used when he started out, nor what infusion method he used for his gin. However, it is known that the Greenall family followed Thomas Dakin’s example and continued to invest in new technology to improve the quality of their gin.
The origin of vapour infusion
In 1831, Mary Dakin (Thomas Dakin’s daughter-in-law) purchased one of a new breed of steam-jacketed stills, to help reduce burning of the spirit and the consequential production of Furfural and other unwanted compounds, so making cleaner alcohol. The new still was fitted with a then state-of-the-art rectifying head designed by a man named Corty. This column served to purify the spirit.
In 1836, a second still was installed with an even more advanced kind of head built by a coppersmith called Carter who had worked for the famous still engineer John Dore, designing and installing stills on behalf of Aeneas Coffey. His ‘Carter Head’ was a significant advance on the Corty Head, constituting a closed column mounted on top of the copper pot.
Both the Carter and Corty heads rectified the spirit to such a degree that the botanical flavours must have been introduced after this rectification. If botanicals were simply added to the pot beneath these columns the essential oils carrying their flavour would have been stripped out by the heads. The purified spirit produced by the columns could have been redistilled with the botanicals in a standard pot still without a rectifying column, but this would have been costly and time consuming. Instead, at some point - and it’s not known when - somebody had the bright idea of introducing vapour infusion baskets, so eliminating the need for a further botanical distillation.
In this method of gin distillation, the spirit vapour travels up the rectifying column to emerge at the top, where it passes along the swan’s neck (or lyne arm) and into a chamber where perforated copper baskets hold the botanicals. The vapour passes through these botanicals, so extracting their essential aromatic oils without cooking or denaturing them.
The first written reference to this process is found in the 1855 French book ‘Traité des Liqueurs et de la Distillation des Alcools’ by Pierre Duplais, but there are much earlier references to such a vapour chamber being used to hold baskets of charcoal for filtering spirit after pot still distillation. Once a rectifying column such as the Corty or Carter Heads had been installed there would no longer have been a need for charcoal filtration so it appears likely that this is when the Dakins cleverly adapted this otherwise redundant apparatus to hold the botanicals, thereby obviating the need for a second botanical distillation. Thus it can be surmised that the vapour infusion of botanicals at the Warrington distillery started in 1831 after the installation of the Corty Head.
The 1831 Corty still and the 1836 Carter stills remained in operation until 1961 when, as part of a move to a larger site at Loushers Lane on the outskirts of Warrington, the best working parts of each were amalgamated to make one still (using the pot from the Corty and the column from the 1836 Carter Head still). A year later, the John Dore Company built two more Carterhead stills which were exact replicas of the amalgamated still. In 1957 the John Dore Company had also built another Carterhead still for Greenall’s with a slightly different shaped pot.
Despite the many changes in ownership and developments in distilling technology, the company continued to make Greenall's Gin to Thomas Dakin’s 1761 recipe – as indeed it still does to this day. However, the period immediately prior to, during, and after the move to Loushers Lane coincided with the development of a new gin brand, one that would go on to become one of the best known in the world.
In 1957, a New York based lawyer who had learnt about the drinks industry whilst working for Seagram’s, decided there was an opportunity for a new gin brand in America. Allan Subin lived on Madison Avenue and socialised with successful Mad Men, bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs. He was married to an Englishwoman so was also enamoured with all things British. With these influences and his peers’ tastes in mind, he sought to create a gin brand that embodied 1920s elegance.
After some research he concluded that Greenall’s were the people to make his gin and that their 1761 recipe and vapour infusion process was just what he was looking for, but with the stipulation that grain spirit was used as per the original recipe, not molasses spirit as used by Greenall’s at the time.
Bombay and the days of the Raj were the inspiration for his gin’s name with Queen Victoria, the epitome of Englishness, as the new brand’s icon. Interestingly, the use of a British monarch for branding purposes had been prohibited in 1934, but as Subin’s gin was aimed at the American market the rule did not apply.
Sabin launched his Bombay Dry Gin (now ‘The Original’) in 1960, achieving annual sales of 10,000 cases by its third year and 100,000 cases by the turn of the decade. By 1975 the demand for Bombay Dry Gin was such that production demands on the vapour infusion stills forced Greenall’s to start using their pot stills and a steeping process to produce their own Greenall’s gin. This freed the botanical basket apparatus for the sole production of Bombay, although they also started to use pot stills to feed vapour to botanical baskets, as well Carter Head stills.
In the 1980’s, the company then known as I.D.V. (now Diageo) bought the Bombay Gin brand but continued to contract G&J Greenall to produce it on their behalf. It was not long after this that another American marketing visionary, like Sabin before him, looked to the 1761 recipe as inspiration for a new game-changing gin.
Michel Roux of Carillon Importers was famed for masterminding the creation of the Absolut vodka brand and he saw an opportunity to do for gin what he had done for vodka, foreseeing a luxury gin that be believed would revitalise the entire category.
Ian Hamilton, Greenall’s head distiller at the time, was tasked with creating a super-premium version of Bombay Dry Gin. His brief was to remain true to Bombay’s original 1761 recipe, but develop it by adding new botanicals. He experimented with a host of botanicals, test distilling each to assess their effect on the recipe. Eventually he settled on two exotic varieties of pepper: Grains of Paradise and Cubeb Berries. Their addition to the 1761 recipe produced a gin with greater liveliness, adding floral pepper and spice notes.
Contrary to popular belief, Ian did not reduce the amount of juniper in the original recipe, or indeed change the ratios of any of the other ingredients used in the 1761 recipe. He merely added the two extra botanicals and it was their interaction with the other botanicals during distillation that set Bombay Sapphire apart from the original Bombay.
The name Sapphire was inspired by the famous Star of Bombay, a stunning violet-blue sapphire discovered in Sri Lanka and given to silent movie star and legendary cocktail enthusiast Mary Pickford by her husband Douglas Fairbanks. The gem’s colour inspired the square translucent blue bottle, a design so simple and yet so revolutionary that it cemented the luxury positioning of the brand and made Bombay Sapphire a design icon.
The combination of Hamilton’s superb liquid, the iconic bottle and the marketing vision of Roux proved an instant hit. When Bombay Sapphire was launched in 1987 it marked a turning point for the fortunes of gin. Sapphire invigorated the gin category and paved the way for the surge of new brands that we see on the market today. Back in the UK a new breed of bartender was emerging and a young Dick Bradsell, then working at working at Fred’s Club, was inspired to create his now famous Bramble cocktail using the new gin.
By 1997 the cocktail resurgence was well underway [leading me to establish CLASS Magazine in August that year]. It also proved to be a significant year for the future of Bombay and indeed the spirits industry as a whole. The merger of two of the world’s biggest drink’s companies, I.D.V. (Grand Metropolitan), then owners of Bombay Gin, and United Distillers (Guinness), formed the conglomerate now called Diageo and sent a shudder through the drinks industry. The combined corporation emerged to be by far the biggest and most powerful spirits company and it fell to the competition authorities in both the UK and USA to cut it down to size. Diageo was forced to shed brands which resulted in the sale of the Bombay Spirits Company to Bacardi.
Bacardi put renewed vigour into the marketing of Sapphire, commissioning artists and designers to create spectacular sapphire-coloured glassware and properly engaging with bartenders to help drive the cocktail boom.
Despite the changes in ownership, production of both Bombay gins remained in the safe hands of Ian Hamilton at G&J Greenall. In November 2005, when a fire at the Lousher’s Lane Distillery totally destroyed the bottling hall, the still house and the Carterhead stills with their infusion baskets were saved and distilling of Bombay resumed just a week later.
The precious stills, which had come so close to a disastrous end, may have been in the G&J Greenall distillery but they were owned by Bacardi. The folk at Bacardi must have felt somewhat helpless as reports of the fire came in, then even more frustrated when supplies of Bombay gins were threatened in the aftermath of the fire. This near catastrophe may have been the catalyst for Bacardi to start thinking about moving their Carterhead stills and production of Bombay gins to their own distillery where they had total control, but Bacardi’s eventual announcement that they were in the process of building their own distillery, came at the beginning of a wider industry move for gin brands to come from their own dedicated distilleries, somewhat like malt whisky.
A derelict mill in Hampshire, England was chosen as the site for the state-of-the-art gin distillery and visitor centre. Renovation and building work started in 2012 with two of the Carter Head stills from Warrington refurbished and moved to the new distillery. New stills were also commissioned but their design and shape were identical to the old stills at Warrington.
Distilling started at Laverstoke Mill in autumn 2013, with production gradually moving from Warrington under the watchful eye of the then Master Distiller, Nik Fordham, formally Distillery Manager at Beefeater. The new distillery officially opened on 17th September 2014.
The location may have changed, and in keeping with Bombay’s image become more ‘designer’, but the production process remains the same and Bombay gins continue to be made using the vapour infusion distillation process with vapours from both pot still and Carterhead stills. It’s also worth remembering that Bacardi’s Master of Botanicals, Ivano Tonutti, has been responsible for the botanicals used to make Bombay gins since 1998 when Bacardi purchased the gin brand from Diageo. The stills have moved to a better looking distillery with more technically advanced laboratory and other equipment but they are operated in the same way with the same botanicals.