Bombay Sapphire: a brand history
With its new designer dream home in Hampshire and a number of super-premium brand extensions, Bombay Sapphire has become a highly polished jewel in Bacardi’s crown.
*This article was initially published in the May 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine
It was 1960, the era of the gin Martini, and American entrepreneur Allan Sorbin was on the lookout for a new English brand to import. He hit on G&J Greenall’s Warrington’s gin G&J Greenall’s Warrington’s gin which he rechristened Bombay Dry Gin. A suitably imperial-looking Queen Victoria was recruited for the front label, together with a date of 1761 when Warrington’s founder, Thomas Dakin, compiled a list of the botanicals.
In 1987, now owned by IDV and imported by Carillon Imports, Bombay found itself caught between Beefeater and Tanqueray. “We were in no-man’s land with flat sales and prospects for decline,” recalled Carillon’s CEO, Michel Roux. As the genius behind Absolut vodka in the States, Roux decided to give gin the same premium treatment with a new, blue-bottled brand image inspired by the famous ‘Star of Bombay’ sapphire. No other gin looked like it, or tasted like it.
“Bombay Sapphire made a massive impact and played a major role in leading the entire gin market into a new era,” claims its current global brand director, Valerie Brass of Bacardi. She calls Roux a visionary and says that his choice of packaging was “inspired, and reflected the prestigious and exotic qualities of the new gin”. Two new botanicals were added to the original eight of the mother brand, which is described by Bombay’s master distiller, Nik Fordham, as “a hard-core London dry gin”.
“By introducing cubeb berries and grains of paradise you modify the balance,” he explains. “So we’ve just slightly moved from the upfront juniper and citrus notes, and added more luxurious aromas from the West Coast of Africa.” More important is that the botanicals are gently steamed in the spirit vapours off a Carterhead still, rather than steeped in neutral spirit like most London dry gins. As a result the flavours are a little less hardcore and a touch more adaptable for bartenders like London’s cocktail king, Dick Bradsell, who invented the Bramble in the 1990s. For many of his customers it was probably their first taste of tonic-free gin.
In 1998 Bombay was bought by Bacardi from Diageo in a US$1.94 billion (£1.15bn) deal that included Dewar’s White Label. The whisky was the main attraction and the New York Times described Bombay as “a small, but rapidly growing label.” For Brass it was “both a beautiful gin and a very successful brand – the first one Bacardi put in its premium category”.
It broke through the million case barrier in 2000, the year William Grant’s Hendrick’s gin slipped onto the market. After a slow burn, Hendrick’s really took off around 2008, inspiring a glorious profusion of boutique gins in its wake. Yet they sound pretty relaxed at Bacardi about all the increased competition. “Yes, there are a lot of new brands, and I would be worried if we were not growing anymore, but that’s not the case,” says Brass. “We’re the world’s number one premium gin, and we’re still the fastest-growing.”
Nor is Fordham concerned that the newbies may be stretching gin’s definition too far until it becomes just “very sophisticated flavoured vodka”, to quote Greenall’s master distiller, Joanne Moore.
“I think it’s fantastic we’re starting to stretch the category,” Fordham says. “I don’t believe it will become too fragmented, and with gin and tonic I don’t believe that fresh hit of juniper will ever be diluted.” Cue sighs of relief and trebles all round on this side of the pond, though American gin lovers have never been quite so hooked on the G&T.
With this in mind, Bacardi launched Bombay Sapphire East in 2011. It was the brand’s first extension and boasted two new botanicals – Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorns. “It was really to extend the G&T offering, especially in markets like the US where many tonic brands are quite sweet,” explains Brass. A fructose-based tonic mixed with a bone dry, juniper-heavy gin is not the happiest marriage in a glass. The latest Impact Databank figures for Bombay put US sales on 1.17 million cases, which equates to 40% of its global total of 2.8m in 2013. Europe, led by the UK, accounts for another 40% according to Brass who mentions Germany and Belgium as particularly hot right now. Beyond that, she says: “We see a lot of potential in markets like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and in Latin America in countries like Mexico.”
All this time, in an unbroken line from Allan Sorbin to the launch of East and despite multiple changes in ownership, the gin had never left home. Warrington didn’t quite live up to Bombay’s glamorous image promoted through bars, billboards and sponsorship of the arts, but did anyone notice? Bacardi did, and in 2014 moved the entire production from a northern industrial estate to Laverstoke Mill – a celebrity dream home in Hampshire. It was formerly a paper mill beside the River Test whose waters, according to local trout fishermen, are as clear as gin and twice as expensive. And to cap it all, Bacardi commissioned the designer of the Olympic cauldron, Thomas Heatherwick, to design two towering conservatories for displaying the botanicals.
Whatever else, it is certainly a bold statement of faith in the brand and the premium gin category in general, but why now? “It was just a perfect time in its life cycle,” says Fordham, who was poached from Beefeater for the job. “We wanted to provide a home for Bombay Sapphire and integrate its heritage into a sustainable, state-of-the-art distillery.” He is convinced provenance does matter to consumers and will become increasingly important. “People want to know where the product is made and they want to have ownership.”
While last year saw the launch of a travel retail exclusive cask-rested expression in the form of Bombay Amber, the latest news from Laverstoke is the new super-premium Star of Bombay, which is being rolled into accounts across Europe before a US launch later this year.
Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Bombay Sapphire’s brand history.
Thomas Dakin begins distilling in Warrington, creating the liquid that would go on to be called Bombay Sapphire. Earlier this year, Quintessential Brands paid homage to Dakin – described as the creator of the “world’s first quality gin – with the launch of Thomas Dakin Gin.
American entrepreneur Allan Subin launches Bombay Dry in the US after renaming G&J Greenall’s Warrington’s gin
Bombay Sapphire created by Michel Roux, brains behind the Absolut Vodka brand. The brand was renamed and repackaged in its staple bold blue glass.
Bombay Sapphire breaks through one million case barrier. Ten years later, this more than doubled to 2.2m nine-lire case sales and has been steadily increasing ever since. In 2014, Bombay Sapphire broke through the 3m case barrier for the first time.
Bombay Sapphire East is launched, adding the additional botanicals of Thai lemongrass and peppercorns the the brand’s original recipe.
Distillery opens at Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire and Bombay Amber is launched. The distillery and “brand home” marked a significant turning point in the history of Bombay Sapphire, despite opening one year later than expected. Based at the site of a historic paper mill, the distillery encompasses two Botanical Glasshouses – one tropical and one temperate – displaying 10 hand-picked botanicals from all over the world used to create Bombay Sapphire Gin. The building was renovated in collaboration with award-winning designer Thomas Heatherwick, famous for the 2012 London Olympic Cauldron. In the same year, Bombay moved into cask-rested gin with the launch of Bombay Amber, which is rested in French vermouth barrels.
Bombay Sapphire Star of Bombay is launched. Described as the brand’s most super-premium offering to-date, the expression is produced using a “slow single batch” distillation method and adds an Italian Bergamot orange peel and Ambrette Seed from Ecuador to its original list of 10 botanicals.