Art & Design

Inside Laverstoke Mill, England’s Newest Design-Porn Gin Distillery

Art & Design

Inside Laverstoke Mill, England’s Newest Design-Porn Gin Distillery

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“I suppose in a way you can say all is function, everything is function,” Thomas Heatherwick said. The world-renowned designer behind notable projects like the 2012 London Olympics Cauldron, and the city’s newly designed double-decker buses, was talking at the Soho House London last week about the work he and his team did on the just unveiled Laverstoke Mill, the new distillery and brand home of Bombay Sapphire gin in Hampshire, out in the English countryside.

The distillery sits on the site of an old mill, which has been in operation in one form or another stretching all the way back to at least 1086. During the reign of Queen Victoria, Laverstoke Mill produced all of the paper for the British Empire’s bank notes.

 

THOMAS HEATHERWICK - LAVERSTOKE

 

In recent decades, the site had fallen out of use, and the inherent natural beauty of the area had become obscured by overdevelopment. “There were 49 buildings, a bit like barnacles growing off one another,” Heatherwick said. “The site was so built up and built over. We said ‘How do we take all this cacophony of a site, and make the site make sense, and allow it to become a place of manufacture, making gin instead of paper?'” Today, a successful spirits brand is a different sort of paper-printing plant you might say, so the synchronicity resonates.

Recognizing there was an opportunity to seize upon the potential for a marriage of heritage and modernity, the prominent gin brand enlisted Heatherwick and his team to design a concept where both form and function flowed together harmoniously.

“There is a function to making these 49 derelict buildings come into life,” he went on. There’s the function to secure Bombay Sapphire’s distillation production, which they’ve never had secured before because it’s been done by distillers that do multiple different products at the same time. There’s the function of making something that workers at the factory would want to work at. And there’s the function of making a place that visitors wouldn’t get lost in.”

The beautiful River Test flowing through the centre of the Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill



As with spirits themselves, where the quality of the ingredients, and in particular the water used to make them are vital, the River Test on which the mill is situated, proved to hold the key. “The main thing for us was this had all happened because of a river and you couldn’t see the river. The river had been channelled and focused so much that you might as well have been in the center of London rather than a precious piece of English countryside.”

To that effect, they set about removing around ten of the buildings, creating an open, public feeling space, with the flow of the river as a guide through the heart of the experience.

“The river for us sort of cracked open everything.”

There are, of course, no shortage of old heritage sites in England, but convincing the government that many of them here needed to be removed wasn’t easy.

“We’re spoiled,” he said. Especially in comparison to other countries around the world “where there’s a desperate need for that authentic sense of history.” The task was to show that development here would breathe new life into a sense of history, to create an image that would encapsulate the iconic English pastoral feel, but with state of the art capabilities, and an eye toward green design.

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[Speaking of green design, if you want the perfect gateway cocktail for learning how to appreciate gin, try a Last Word, like this one I had at the The Beaufort Bar in London. It’s a Prohibition era classic made of equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino, and lime juice.]

At the distillery, that last part was implemented quite literally. Two new structures that were built are large, flowing glasshouses that both nod to the past, but have a functional aspect as well for the gin. The glasshouses harness the excess heat put out by the distillation process and transfer it into creating indoor environments, one temperate, one Mediterranean, capable of replicating the conditions where the botanicals used in the making of Bombay Sapphire could be grown. “Glasshouses are a very British sort of thing,” Heatherwick said. “Very traditional, there was a Georgian craze for glasshouses and there’s this botanical passion here. I think the UK is the most garden crazy nation that exists. There’s a passion for everyone’ s backyard gardens. Here was this opportunity to create the contrast between the historic buildings, the river, the production, and a new animal, these two glasshouses.”

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Inside you’ll find the botanicals juniper, grains of paradise, coriander, lemon peel, cubeb berries, orris root, liquorice, angelica, almonds, and cassia bark used in Bombay Sapphire’s vapor distillation process. Nearby you’ll find dried versions of each botanical, where you can smell your way through them, as I did myself last week, although tasting is probably not a good idea, just in case you were thinking of it. (*Accommodations for visiting were provided by the brand). It’s an educational way to understand what it is you’re actually smelling and tasting when you’re drinking gin, and a lot more immersive to be able to see them being grown just around the corner.

“We felt the best way for visitors to be able to focus on what it’s about would be if we could grow those real plants on site,” he said.

It’s a long way from the typically staid visitor’s center you might see at more staid distillery tours.

“We didn’t want to build a visitor center. In terms of function, it sounds negative, but we work with negative. We start with what don’t we want. The idea of a visitor center strikes a kind of dull thud inside my brain, we just thought we can’t do that. You must visit the actual distillation process, to be able to smell the actual living plants.”

That’s just what they’ve built here, in both senses of the word.