Bombay Sapphire Distillery

Laverstoke, UK

How do you turn a paper mill into a gin distillery?

Ten years after winning a design prize from gin-maker Bombay Sapphire for a glass bridge idea, the studio was commissioned to lead the master plan and design of the company’s new distillery in the south of England.

Having previously operated from shared production facilities, this was to be Bombay Sapphire’s first dedicated distillery and headquarters and was an opportunity for the company to consolidate its manufacturing ability and improve efficiency.

The site in the village of Laverstoke straddles the River Test, one of England’s finest chalk streams. Originally operating as a corn mill, the land was acquired in 1718 by Henry Portal and developed for the manufacture of paper to produce the world’s bank notes. Over the following two centuries it grew into a sprawling industrial complex, including a series of Grade II listed buildings such as the mill owner’s house, the workers’ cottages and the main mill building. The result was an uncoordinated accumulation of over forty buildings which made the site chaotic and confusing to find your way around. Equally challenging, the River Test which runs through it had been narrowed and hidden within a steep-sided concrete channel making it almost impossible to perceive.

To bring clarity to such a disparate site it became obvious to us that it would not be enough to simply restore the existing historic buildings, but that we needed to reveal the River Test once more and to use it as a device around which to organise everything.  We also felt that the site’s new master plan would only work with the creation of a central courtyard as a gathering area and a point of focus.

To turn these thoughts into reality we worked with government agencies English Heritage and English Nature to meticulously restore twenty-three of the existing historic buildings, to conserve the local wildlife and also to negotiate the removal of nine of the most recent industrial structures and a poor quality bridge.  The other significant move was to substantially widen the river and reshape its banks to form sloping planted foreshores in order to make the water visible and valuable once more. Each careful decision to take away a building structure in turn gave space for the surrounding rich English countryside to be glimpsed again  from the heart of the site. At the same time we became very conscious of not wanting to lose a sense of the evolution of the site. So wherever a modern dilapidated building leant against an older historic structure we removed the modern addition but left its mark on the remaining building fabric as a trace of where it had been. This selective process of de-cluttering the site was as necessary on the inside as on the outside.

The initial master plan brief had also included the creation of a visitor centre. However on seeing the vapour distillation process and the sculptural forms of the large copper gin stills, one of which is more than two hundred years old, we became convinced that witnessing the authentic distillation process would be far more interesting and memorable for a visitor than any simulated visitor experience. This production technique, that is different from those used by other gin distillers, is still carried out in accordance with a recipe devised in 1761 and involves infusing the gin with the vapours of ten tropical and mediterranean herbs and spices.

This led us to think about growing these botanical herbs and spices on the site, which in turn pointed us towards a rich British heritage of botanical glasshouse structures. The Victorian curiosity and passion for the new science of horticulture had driven the creation of everything from the extraordinary palm house at Kew Gardens to the craze for Wardian cases, ornate indoor glasshouses for growing and displaying collections of exotic ferns and orchids. We wondered whether this could be the world’s first botanical distillery and whether we could let visitors see the real distillation process rather than having a separate visitor centre.

The studio developed the idea of building two intertwining botanical glasshouses as a highlight of the central courtyard, one tropical and the other mediterranean, to house and cultivate the ten plant species that give Bombay Sapphire gin its particularity. Excitingly, as the industrial vapour distillation process produces excess heat that otherwise has to be taken away, and as the creation of tropical and mediterranean climatic environments in the British context require additional heat, there was a potential virtuous circle if we could tie these two things together.

The resulting glasshouse structures spring from one of the historic mill buildings, now re-appropriated as a gin distillation hall, recycling the spare heat from the machinery to make the perfect growing conditions for tropical and mediterranean plants. The two glasshouses then embed themselves into the flowing waters of the newly-widened riverbed.  Working with a team from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as horticultural collaborators, the ten exotic botanical plant types grow in the two structures alongside over a hundred additional plant and herb species that provide the accompanying ecosystem required to maintain them.

The resulting complex geometries of the new asymmetrical glasshouses took many months to calculate, engineer and refine. The finished built structures are made from eight hundred and ninety three individually-shaped two-dimensionally curved glass pieces held within more than one and a quarter kilometres of bronze-finished stainless steel frames. In their entirety the glasshouses are made from more than ten thousand bespoke components.

On arrival, visitors walk to the newly opened-up river, before crossing a bridge and making their way along the waterside to the main production facility located in the centre of the site facing into the courtyard and new glasshouses. Through careful restoration of the historical buildings, widening and revealing the River Test and the construction of a new gin factory system including new glasshouses, this project juxtaposes Laverstoke’s historical past with an interesting new future.

The distillery opened to the public in autumn 2014 and was awarded an ‘outstanding’ BREEAM rating for its design, making it both the first distillery and the first refurbishment project to have ever been awarded this rating.