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Gin fizz: Bombay Sapphire Distillery by Heatherwick Studio

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Thomas Heatherwick’s Hampshire distillery for Bombay Sapphire combines flamboyancy with thoughtfulness, writes Owen Pritchard. Photography by Iwan Baan

A day out to a distillery, or brewery, is a golden ticket of sorts. It’s a chance for an awayday of the most adult persuasion. Under the premise of education you can visit the premises of your favourite tipple and, after a brief overview of the process of making, proceed to get stuck into the drink. It is the equivalent, perhaps, of a stadium tour of a football club, or a back lot tour of a movie studio - something that appeals to the über-fan or connoisseur.

In Hampshire, on the site of a former paper mill that used to produce bank notes for the empire, Bombay Sapphire (a brand owned by Bacardi) is just about to open its new distillery and visitor centre for gin aficionados. The building has been renovated and extended by Heatherwick Studio and is expected to welcome more than 100,000 visitors a year.
The studio was commissioned in 2010 to create a distillery and visitor ‘experience’ for the gin maker. It began by assessing the state of the existing 49 buildings across the site, which had been derelict for around 10 years. ‘The buildings had built up like barnacles over the years,’ says Thomas Heatherwick. ‘There was a cacophony of structures and you had no sense that you were in the countryside.’

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The designer took out 23 structures, many of them corrugated metal, lean-to constructions and began to reorganise the site around the river Test that flows through it. ‘The thing we are proudest of is opening the river again,’ says Heatherwick. ‘It’s the reason that the factory is here, and we use it as a navigation device - in place of signage.’

What followed was the rationalisation and refurbishment of the existing red brick warehouse and factory spaces, three of which were Grade II-listed, to have the infrastructure and capacity to produce 25 million litres of gin a year. Many of the internal spaces, such as the entrance and the bar, leave surfaces untouched and use robust fixtures and fittings that are commonly used in factory fit outs. ‘We didn’t feel the need to make every space feel designed,’ says Eliot Postma, the project architect. ‘We were unpeeling these buildings and wanted the history to reveal itself.’

The gin is produced in large copper stills of which there are four across the facility: two in the India building, two in the Dakin building, both pitched-roof, red-brick warehouses that flank the river and central square. Here, the pure spirit is diluted and then infused with the botanics in the stills at around 65°C before being sent off for bottling at another location.

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These tightly controlled areas are specified with surfaces that reflect the volatile and corrosive nature of the raw materials - everything is antistatic and acid and alcohol proof.

Intriguingly, this facility is the first processing plant in the UK to obtain a BREEAM Outstanding rating. The process has been rationalised in a number of inventive ways to minimise energy loss. The heat generated by the stills is used to warm the glasshouses, and the warm water gathered from the condensation process after infusion is used to prewarm the pure alcohol put in at the start of the process. Once the flavouring process is complete, the botanicals are then used to power a biomass boiler - the master distiller says that for every two stills used, they power one for free using waste. The potash by-product of the biomass boiler is then sent off for use by farmers. Throw into this mix an array of photovoltaic cells, further heat recovery, grey water collection and a rather perfunctory historic hydro-electric generator, and the consideration given to this aspect of the project is abundantly clear.

The whole site is centred on the most flamboyant intervention the architect has made: the two hot houses that explode from the windows of the Dakin still house and splash-land into the river. Furthering the Victoriana theme that pervades this project, Heatherwick says he found inspiration in the British tradition of glasshouses, citing Joseph Paxton at Crystal Palace and Decimus Burton at Kew Gardens. ‘Glass houses seem to have lost the joy of the original structures,’ he says. Viewed from the square, these supersized terrariums are a clash of Steampunk and Art Deco, and are the signature flourish we have come to expect from Heatherwick Studio.  The glasshouses are constructed of 793 individual panes of toughened glass curved across two dimensions. The aluminium and steel mullions consist of 10,000 individual components and work with the glass to support the ambitious structures. The glasshouses will grow examples of the 10 botanics that give the gin its distinct flavour. The taller glasshouse (15m) will grow plants from the Mediterranean regions, and the shorter one (11m) will grow the crops from the tropics. At night, the buildings will glow with dramatic uplighting, but not in the familiar Bombay Sapphire blue. ‘We had to fight really hard for that,’ says Postma.

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For most, a visit to a distillery, brewery or vineyard is a quest for authenticity - to see the historic site of production and taste the drink as close to the source of production as possible. In Dublin, there is the Guinness Storehouse by RKD; in Amsterdam the Heineken Experience by BRC Imagination Arts. In both these cases there is a hint of authenticity in each location. For Bombay Sapphire, founded in 1985 (though the gin recipe is older), the brand has worked with showman designer Heatherwick to achieve an appropriation of heritage to match the prestige to which the company aspires.

The hothouses at Laverstoke Mill provide a physical manifestation of brand that will please the bigwigs at Bacardi and delight the expected hordes of gin drinkers - it’s what Heatherwick Studio does best: showy, inventive, visually impressive. Beyond the puffery, for this jumble of Grade II-listed buildings to work as a distillery with such exacting requirements and achieve a BREEAM Outstanding rating shows a great level of innovation. The renovation and reanimation of this derelict site into a functioning distillery shows the hand of a more thoughtful designer than Heatherwick is usually given credit for being. But, then, not many people will see where the clever stuff was done here.

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