Bombay Sapphire Distillery

Faced with a complex and challenging site, Bombay Sapphire and Thomas Heatherwick Studio had to work closely on the gin maker’s new distillery. Alice Davis finds out how their relationship helped this unique project take shape.

When a location scout from premium gin brand Bombay Sapphire stumbled on Laverstoke Mill, a derelict paper factory in Hampshire, UK, he didn’t just discover 4.2 acres of land, but a site with more than 40 buildings, a history going back to 903AD and a protected river teeming with wildlife.

Bombay Sapphire, which is owned by global drinks brand Bacardi, decided to restore the site – originally a flour mill and later the location for the manufacturing of banknotes for the British Empire – to create its first visitor attraction.

The company commissioned Heatherwick Studio to masterplan the transformation, restore the buildings and the surrounding ecology to create a gin distillery and brand land.

When studio founder Thomas Heatherwick installed two glass houses at the heart of the scheme it was an inspired crowning flourish. The glasshouses, built from 893 unique pieces of curved glass, immediately became iconic. One is temperate and the other tropical, creating the perfect environments in which to grow specimens of Bombay Sapphire’s 10 botanicals. Both harness excess heat from the distillation process.

The distillery process buildings became the first refurbishment and the first drinks industry facility in the world to receive the BREEAM outstanding rating.

Bombay Sapphire Distillery estate manager Will Brix and Heatherwick Studio project manager Eliot Postma led the venture from its beginnings. They tell us how the vision became a reality.

What kickstarted the Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill?
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“It began with a huge fire in 2006 at the facility where Bombay Sapphire was produced. At the time, G&J Greenall were contracted to make the gin, but after the fire we decided we were big enough to establish our own distillery and set about making that happen. We bought huge traditional copper stills to distil the gin and we’ve made them central to the new distillery here at Laverstoke Mill.

“We had a number of objectives: while the operations side of the business was dealing with balancing the rise in demand with the aim of producing the gin as sustainably and responsibly as possible, over on the experiential and marketing side, we wanted to show the care, craftsmanship and skill that goes into every single drop of Bombay Sapphire.”

What was the brief?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“Bombay Sapphire wanted to create a state-of-the-art distillery where they could produce all their gin on-site. At the same time they also wanted to create a home for the brand; somewhere they could bring clients and invite the public to experience the distillation process and to appreciate what makes Bombay Sapphire unique. Sustainability was a vitally important part of the development and underpinned the design brief from the beginning.”

How did Bombay Sapphire and Heatherwick Studio come to work together?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“Thomas Heatherwick has a long relationship with Bombay Sapphire. The brand has supported design for many years through its glass design competitions – Thomas won 10 years ago with a design for a glass bridge. He later judged competitions for Bombay Sapphire and they’ve kept up a dialogue ever since.”
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“Heatherwick Studio had that added insight about who we are and that was really big for us. There was a natural tie-in with their ideas. And we didn’t want to just do it, we wanted to do it how Bombay Sapphire would do it.”

How did you find the site?
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“A man called John Burke, who used to be the Bombay Sapphire category director for Bacardi, lived in a nearby village. One day, he had a pint with the caretaker, who’s been looking after Laverstoke Mill for 35 years. When the caretaker heard John was looking for a site, he told him about it.

There was hoarding all along the front of the site, and no one had been in since 2000 apart from copper thieves. John Burke jumped the fence and had a look round, then got us all to come and look. We quickly realised it was the site for us. We were so convinced, we bought it without planning permission.”

Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“The moment you visit the site you fall in love with it. It’s an unusual, unique place.”

What was it like when you took over?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“There were 49 buildings on the site, dating from the late 1850s through to the 1960s and 1970s. The original early 20th-century structures had been built on with additions like lean-to buildings – they were almost like barnacles stuck to the side of the handsome Victorian buildings. Overall it was a confused cluster and it was quite difficult to understand where you were. Essentially it felt like being in a maze.”

What were you looking for from the site?
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
”We wanted a site which was suitable for redevelopment and somewhere with history. Our preference was to repurpose or bring a property back to life rather than to build afresh. This site – which dates back to 903 – met all those criteria.

We got inspiration from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and – like them – we believe the English countryside is a finite resource that needs to be preserved. With this project, we’ve been able to achieve all our commercial aspirations, as well as restoring an important piece of English heritage.”

How did you approach the redevelopment?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“Our first move was to clear away the pre-fab buildings to reveal the Victorian charm. In doing that, we brought life back to the stretch of the River Test which runs right through the site. It’s an exceptionally beautiful chalk stream with the clearest water I’ve ever seen in the UK. But it was unloved, with high concrete sides and buildings obstructing the water. Once we’d cleared the river, we used the direction of its flow as an organisational reference point to determine the direction of the visitor flow through the attraction.”

What role did the river play?
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“Heatherwick Studio championed the river from day one. It’s a complicated site, so it was used as a navigational feature.

This mill was at the forefront of pioneering hydroelectric innovation in the UK, so we also reconditioned an open flume Francis turbine we found on the site and it’s generating electricity for us.”

What was the next stage?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“The next stage was deciding where the factory buildings should be – they had to be big enough to house the huge stills – and then after that, creating a heart to the site with the visitor centre and the glass houses to enable the public to immerse themselves in the story of Bombay Sapphire.”

Why did you make the visitor centre central to the experience?
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“The entire development was designed from scratch with that in mind. We wanted it to be a journey of discovery rather than a didactic museum experience. ”

Tell us about the glasshouses
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“One of the lovely things about Bombay Sapphire is the crazy lengths they go to source their botanicals, from India, China, Spain... We loved that part of their story.

A quirk of the distillation process is that it produces a huge amount of excess heat. These two things came together. We saw the opportunity to create a couple of greenhouses that could use the excess energy to grow specimens of the botanicals that go into the gin. So, we created two glass houses, a tropical one and a Mediterranean one, alongside the stills right in the heart of the site.”

Tell us about their design?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“The UK has an amazing Victorian heritage of glass engineering, from glasshouses – such as the Palm House at Kew Gardens – right down to smaller items like the glass cloches you put over plants. We combined the language of the glass cloche with the elegance of the Victorian glass house and brought it to the 21st century by applying the most innovative glass technology.

The structure of Victorian glasshouses is integral; the glass and the ironwork work together structurally. A lot of modern glass architecture can be very cold, with perfect glass cubes, seamless joints and microscopic spider fixings. We enjoyed the idea of doing something different from that and creating a very contemporary glass structure that isn’t afraid of the steel that goes into it, and using that steel to accentuate the form of the glasshouses.”

Who advised you on the heritage aspects of the development and design?
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“We worked extensively with English Heritage, the conservation office and the local community. When we came here, there was no archive to consult, because the previous occupants made bank notes, so everything had been destroyed for security reasons.

“We wanted to know what had happened on the site and to compile an archive. We’d heard stories but had to verify them ourselves, so we hired an archivist. Local people were really happy that was happening and were very willing to talk to her. This enabled us to build a dialogue with the local community and as a result of the material she gathered, we’ll be running heritage tours next year.”

How does the heating system work?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“The ironwork frame of the glasshouses connects to the still building behind it and gathers at the neck. The warm air is circulated from the still building into the base of the glasshouse through grilles around the walkway. The warm air rises naturally and the negative pressure in the still house behind creates a plenum which draws the air out of the glasshouse at the top.”

The distillery received a BREEAM outstanding certification. What other sustainable attributes does the development have?

Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“In addition to generating hydroelectricity, we’ve installed photovoltaic panels and at the heart of the operation, a sustainable biomass boiler. The boiler burns locally-sourced renewable woodchip, as well as the spent botanicals which are a by-product of the distillation process.”

Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“That energy loop between the still building and the glasshouses is a really big part of why we were able to achieve the sustainability accreditation, and it’s the first time a BREEAM outstanding certification has been awarded to a refurbishment.”

Did the site pose many challenges?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“Pretty much every challenge you can possibly imagine! There are three Grade II listed buildings on site, and another 10 are considered important to the conservation area of Laverstoke and Freefolk.
The River Test is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), which means the habitat and the ecology is very important. English Heritage was involved in everything we did with the buildings and the Environment Agency was involved in anything we did relating to the river.

We had bats, we had newts, we had the breeding season of the trout in the river. The entire project programme became based on the fauna, which dictated when we could start building and when we could block the river to build the glasshouses.

People often think of local government and government agencies as being barriers to innovation who always want to leave things as they are, but English Heritage and the Environment Agency saw that we were trying to bring the site and the riverway back to its original majesty and were extremely supportive.”

Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“English Heritage described us as a knight in shining armour!”

Was it important to have the local community on board?

Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“Laverstoke is a small village with 70 houses which were originally built for people who worked at the mill. A developer had bought the land before we acquired it, and planned to build 70 more houses, which would have radically altered the character of the village, but there was no mention of investment in the community in that scheme.

People favoured this return to industrial usage. We had unanimous backing, which is uncommon for a project of this scale. People think it’s great we’re bringing high quality goods manufacturing back to Laverstoke.”

Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“People here worked at the mill or are children of those who worked at the mill. We had consultations where members of the public were invited to comment on the design. There was a really good turnout, because the local community is invested.

“The consultations were an opportunity for them to comment on the design and for us to incorporate their feedback.

“We worked with an executive architect, GWP, and representatives from Heatherwick Studio, Bombay Sapphire and GWP were present at all the public consultations to answer questions and reassure the community.”

Do you have a highlight, or a favourite part of the project?
Eliot Postma, Heatherwick Studio:
“In a way bringing the river back to life is what we’re most proud of in this project. It’s unrecognisable from when we first arrived and visually it’s a really lovely stretch of river now. We’re thrilled to have been a part of making that happen.”
Will Brix, Bombay Sapphire:
“There are so many reasons we chose this site, but the most important for me is the hardest to convey – the emotional experience you get from being here. Even before the glasshouses were built, just standing in the courtyard was amazing, and now the site has been transformed it’s even more powerful. That courtyard is the thing that does it for me… you can feel the centuries of history. It’s really, really beautiful.”

Key factors in BREEAM certification assessment

• EPC rating of A, CO2 index of 14
• Carbon emissions below 4kg CO2/m2
• Sustainably powered biomass boiler, photovoltaic array and 6kW hydroelectric turbine give carbon savings of 38% from energy produced
• Demolished buildings’ materials recycled and re-used 80% of original structures retained
• Rainwater harvesting, restricted water devices
• Improvements in ecology and biodiversity of the SSSI
• Heat from distillation process used to heat glasshouses
• Spent botanicals used as fuel source

The visitor experience

Alice Davis

Alice Davis
Alice Davis

Visitors to the distillery at Laverstoke Mill are free to roam around much of the site. With a simple map and a number of gramophone-inspired listening points, with multilingual audio, visitors determine their own route and pace around the attraction.

“They can see behind the curtains of Bombay Sapphire: the people and the place where it’s made, where all the ingredients come from,” says estate manager Will Brix. “If you’re interested in history, architecture, sustainability, horticulture, ecology, then Laverstoke Mill is a fascinating place to come.

Being the home of Bombay Sapphire is the jewel in its crown, if you’ll excuse the pun.”

The Heritage Room This room introduces the history of the site with artefacts and photographs

The Glasshouses Visitors learn about the different plants that form the ingredients of Bombay Sapphire

Botanical Dry Room Visitors embark on a ‘tasting adventure’ where they can sample and smell the botanics. If they record their preferences, a gin cocktail is tailored to their tastes at the bar

Dakin Still House Visitors see the historic copper stills and learn about the vapour infusion process

The Mill Bar Visitors can enjoy a cocktail or two in the bar, which has no admission charge

The Gin Academy For an extra fee, visitors can take a gin workshop or a cocktail masterclass in this event space

Visitors get the chance to sample the botanics
Visitors get the chance to sample the botanics

Timeline for the Laverstoke Mill

There has been a mill on this site since 903AD

Laverstoke Mill was recorded in the Domesday Book as a working Corn Mill

Acquired by Henry Portal (c.1690 -1747), a French Huguenot who fled persecution and arrived in Southampton in 1706

Henry Portal built the existing mill on-site to manufacture paper

Portal won the contract to produce watermarked bank note paper for the Bank of England, a measure to target forgeries. Watermarks were necessary as banknotes were entirely handwritten until

A series of reforms took place at Laverstoke under the control of Henry’s grandson, Sir Wyndham Portal (1822-1905). The Bank Charter Act of 1844 gave the Bank of England a monopoly on bank note issue and production. Laverstoke was given production over moulds which formed the individual notes for the Bank of England

More than 800 people worked for the Portals during this period

The last bank note was produced for Western Samoa. Laverstoke Mill ceased milling paper

Laverstoke Mill was officially declared derelict

The site was purchased by St James Homes, who planned to build 70 homes despite substantial opposition

Recession prevented the housing development plans from advancing

The site was discovered by Bacardi-employee John Burke, and Bombay Sapphire bought it

Work begins on site to transform it into a visitor experience and working distillery. A team member from Heatherwick Studio was on-site to supervise the work at least three days a week

After years of neglect, the transformed site of the Bombay Sapphire Distillery opened in October

The architect and client worked with English Heritage and English Nature to restore the historic buildings / PHOTO: IWAN BAAN
The architect and client worked with English Heritage and English Nature to restore the historic buildings PHOTO: IWAN BAAN

Project previews

Al Fayah Park
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Opening: 2017

Heatherwick Studio has designed a 125,000sqm (410,105sq ft) desert oasis, a major piece of public land that will become the Al Fayah Park in Abu Dhabi. The park will offer a variety of open spaces with exercise paths and picnic areas. There will be organic fruit and vegetable gardens, which will be used to supply the various restaurants and cafés in the park. Heatherwick designed the park to protect the plants and foliage from the powerful desert heat. Abu Dhabi’s rapid rate of expansion and transformation has led to a desire to provide a public space devoted to the wellbeing of the people in the city. The Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation is the developer behind the scheme.

On the horizon for Heatherwick Studio / PHOTO: ELENA HEATHERWICK
On the horizon for Heatherwick Studio PHOTO: ELENA HEATHERWICK
The 20m-high shaded garden will be open to all
The 20m-high shaded garden will be open to all

Project previews

Cape Town, South Africa
Opening: 2016

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) marks the architect's biggest museum project to date. Heatherwick is transforming the Cape Town grain silo into leisure space spilt across nine floors. Plans include keeping the character of the building to “enjoy its tube-iness.” The studio is carving out galleries from the shell of the silo, allowing movement, space and light, while keeping the structure – and its 42 tubes – relatively intact. The outside of the silo will see the most visible changes. Glass panels are being inserted into the exterior of the upper floors and the site will be lit up at night. Built in 1921, the 57m (187ft) silo is a major feature of the skyline.

The plans celebrate the building’s industrial history / RENDERINGS THIS PAGE: HEATHERWICK STUDIO
The plans celebrate the building’s industrial history RENDERINGS THIS PAGE: HEATHERWICK STUDIO

Project previews

Pier 55
New York, US
Opening: 2018/2019

Heatherwick Studio and landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen have been chosen to design Pier 55, a US$170m (E136m, £109m) floating park on the Hudson River. Pier 55 will be situated 186ft (57m) away from the bank of the Hudson River and accessible via an undulating platform. More like an island, the pier will be a fully-fledged 1.1-hectare (2.7 acres) park, with three performance venues, a 700-seat amphitheatre and wooded outdoor spaces. The structure will replace Manhattan's ageing Pier 54 and will be mostly funded by the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, with help from the Hudson River Trust and the city. Planning for this bold addition to the Manhattan waterfront could be approved this year, with construction starting by 2016. l

The pier will house a 2.
The pier will house a 2.
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