The first choice for many bars’ premium gin offering, Bombay Sapphire’s blue bottle can be found across the world. Launched in 1987 and distributed by Bacardi, Bombay is based on one of the earliest recorded recipes for a premium quality London Dry gin.
Bombay Sapphire’s story begins in 1761 with Thomas Dakin. At the age of 24 Dakin purchased a site with potential for distilling on Bridge street in Warrington, and in doing so, established one of the first major distilleries outside of London. Warrington may seem an unusual choice now a days but, in it’s hey day the city’s access to the port of Liverpool and with it the wealth of new ideas, industry leading technology and ready market amongst the regular travelers en route from Manchester, made it the ideal location to start a distilling empire. Dakin began his business not by creating Bombay Sapphire however – that was only to come about some 200 years later – it all started with Warrington Gin. Over the following years at the turn of the 1800′s, the Dakin family continued to develop their gin adapting to new technologies and breakthroughs in distillation techniques. In 1831, the family purchased a new copper still – one of the first Carterhead stills around. It was this vital acquisition that set the gin apart from the rest of the crowd as it was one of the first gins not to boil the botanicals in the pot, but instead place it at the top of the column and vapour infuse it instead.
Around 30 years later, the Dakin family sold their distillery to established brewers, Gilbert and John Greenall – along with their recipe for their 100% Vapour Infused single shot dry gin. While the original Warrington Gin ticked along (perhaps a little unimpressively for many years), the Greenall distilling empire grew to become what we know today – one of the UK’s largest producer of white spirits. It was only until the 1950′s, that a man named Alain Subin saw an opportunity to relaunch Warington Gin for an American market, keen to capitalise on the still buoyant cocktail market and feed the “Mad Men” style era of Martini drinking. Satisfied with the recipe and the lighter notes of the gin due to it’s vapour infusion process, he turned his attention to the brand and created a new name and identity – Bombay Dry Gin. Bombay Dry is still available today and we will review it separately here on The Gin Blog shortly. So skipping a few years of the company’s history…
By the 1980′s the gin category had reached its lowest ebb in a long time, with vodka dominating the market and gin being seen as traditional and unfashionable by many cocktail drinkers. It was then, that entrepreneur, Michel Roux, the US importer of Bombay Original saw an opportunity and in 1985 he and the Bombay Spirits Company seized an opportunity to break the mould and launch a gin that could compete against the personality lead vodka brands of the era. Roux was well placed to know how this could be done having successfully delivered Absolut Vodka merely a few years earlier. Over two years of trial, together with Master Distiller at the time Ian Hamilton, they developed a gin that evolved out of Bombay Original. They added two new botanicals into the mix whilst keeping all the other features intact – namely the much loved vapour infusion process. The result was a spirit that was distinctly gin like, but light enough to appeal to the vodka drinkers.
With respect to the original, Roux kept the visual reference to Queen Victoria, but wanted to take the brand one step further. More than simply relating to the premium quality of the spirit, the Sapphire name hints at the origins of the gin’s popularity in India during the days of the British Raj. The sapphire in question was allegedly inspired by the 60-carat “Star of Bombay”, discovered in Sri Lanka and given to silent movie star Mary Pickford (who later bequeathed the jewel to the Smithsonian Institute). Arguably it was the iconic Bombay Sapphire blue tinted bottle which first established the brand full-stop, but it also began a relationship with the design world that continues to this day. Today, Bombay Sapphire is a strong supporter of the global design community and has partnered with some of the world’s leading international artists, designers and architects.
Without gross exaggeration, Bombay Sapphire can be hailed as having played a major role leading the entire gin category into a new era, attracting a whole new audience to gin. Most importantly the success of the brand showed other distillers that with careful consideration, Gin had its place in any bar across the world and could once again be the star of the show. We wouldn’t say that it began the renaissance the category is now enjoying, but it certainly took it out a slump and set the precedent for others to follow.
We’ve referred to the Vapour Infusion many times already, but the process is vital to understanding how Bombay Sapphire is different to many gins out in the market. There are only a few of these types of stills (Carterhead) remaining in the world and three are exclusive to Bombay Sapphire. During the distillation process the spirit vapour passes up through a basket at the top of the column and is delicately infused with the aromatic flavours of the botanicals. This gives a lighter, more floral gin rather than the more-common ‘punchy’ gins that are distilled using a copper pot still. In laymans terms, it’s much like the difference between boiling ingredients and steaming them. Once the distillation process is over, the gin is then blended with water from Lake Vyrnwy and is bottled at 40.0% (UK). This one shot method of production is even more impressive given the volume of bottles now sold and is something to be hailed; many of the bigger names have long since tweaked their recipes and moved towards doing fewer, more concentrated distillations that are then blended with both water and neutral grain spirit before the final bottling.
Bombay Sapphire has always talked about what was inside the bottle and has always focused attention onto the botanicals it uses – and while they may not be the only gin to have a specialist master of botanicals, Ivan Tonutti is surely the only who receives so much marketing attention. Juniper, coriander, angelica, almonds, cubeb berries, lemon peel, orris, liquorice, cassia bark and grains of paradise come together to form fresh and lively gin, lighter than classic London Dry’s but with a warm peppery finish. Its slightly floral character makes for a refreshing G&T and works well in an Aviation too. No doubt Bombay Sapphire is an exceptionally smooth spirit, but without a doubt its defining character has to be the fact that it is light and crisp.
Big marketing campaigns such as the recent Infused with Imagination series, as well as a permanent space in Vinopolis keep Bombay Sapphire in the lime light and working with some of the UK’s top designers, chefs and bartenders. Perhaps one of their greatest assets is a brand ambassador team that work overtime to convey the passion and heritage that goes into making the drink, and Sam Carter’s tireless trainings and tastings go someway to showing just how much they work to try and get the message out there. There’s a lot to look forward to in 2012 from the Bombay team with the UK release of Bombay Sapphire East a possibility, a small but carefully positioned drive with Bombay Dry and ongoing work with the Aroma Academy all making for an exciting year ahead. Expect to see more of them and for Bombay Sapphire to remain as one of the big boys for much, much longer.
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