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Meller builds Bombay Sapphire distillery out of historic paper mill

The picturesque country village of Laverstoke has been home to a paper mill on the River Test for hundreds of years. Now, Bombay Sapphire is turning the site into a state-of-the-art visitor centre and gin distillery.

Project: The Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Lavertsoke Mill
Client: Bombay Sapphire 
Contract value: £26m
Region: South-east
Main contractor: Meller
Structural engineer: Graham Schofield Associates
M&E subcontractor: Couch Perry & Wilkes
Lead designer: Heatherwick Studio
Start date: September 2011
Completion date: May 2014

The site of Laverstoke Mill is full of history. With evidence that a mill has existed there since Domesday times, it produced banknote paper for the Bank of England from the mid-18th century.

It lies within Hampshire’s Laverstoke and Freefolk Conservation Area and contains three Grade II-listed buildings: Mill House, Mill Cottages and the Glazing House.

It was this heritage that attracted Bombay Sapphire to the site when it was searching for a place to house its new visitor centre and gin distillery. The company approached specialist food and drink contractor Meller to assist with the search.

Strong brand-led vision

“Bombay Sapphire had a very strong vision: it wanted a place with history and heritage for its new facility,” says Meller project manager Martin Gibbs. “Around 12 sites were considered before eventually Laverstoke Mill was found.”

The environmental credentials of the project have also been very carefully considered, with the distillery process buildings achieving design-stage BREEAM Outstanding and the visitor centre getting a Very Good rating.

Meller is undertaking a full project management role, including cost management. The contractor began enabling works in September 2011 to get rid of the asbestos on site, with major works commencing in January 2012.

“Bombay Sapphire wants it to be an iconic project. It’s quite rare that Meller does projects that are so brand-driven”

Martin Gibbs, Meller

The majority of the work is due for completion this year: the distillation side will be finished by the end of July; phase one of the visitor centre will be complete by 1 October; and phase two of the visitor centre will be done before the end of 2013.

“The timelines have moved a few times but it has always been done with the agreement of the client,” Mr Gibbs says.

The only new build on site is the tank farm, designed as a storage facility for the spirit used in the distilling process. Most of the buildings are being refurbished, some are being demolished and the rest will be mothballed for potential future development.

Mr Gibbs explains that the project is being driven by the client, and that the Bombay Sapphire brand is at the forefront of everything that is happening.

“Bombay Sapphire wants it to be an iconic project,” he says. “It’s quite rare that Meller does projects that are so brand-driven, and the commercial focus of the project is highlighted by the fact that there is already a master distiller on site who is having input.”

Complex glasshouses

Before work began the site consisted of 21 principal buildings, with a number of other minor and ancillary structures.

“It’s a real hodgepodge of buildings, all different sizes and styles,” explains senior site manager Geoffrey Carter. “This is all because of the association with the Bank of England – as it got bigger, its requirements for security and production continually increased and changed in different ways.”

“The design for this has changed a number of times due to reduced budgets, but it’s still very unusual due to its ground-breaking design”

Martin Gibbs, Meller

The River Test runs right through the middle of the site, even flowing underneath a number of the buildings.

Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic Cauldron, was drafted in to design the project’s riverside centrepiece. He devised a concept for two glasshouses to display the 10 plants known in the gin industry as ‘botanicals’ that go into Bombay Sapphire gin (see box).

“The design for this has changed a number of times due to reduced budgets, but it’s still very unusual due to its ground-breaking design,” Mr Gibbs says. “A number of different and complex elements are being combined in one place.”

The design sees the glass come down from the upper level of a neighbouring building, fanning out as it goes downwards before landing in the river bed, creating the effect that the glass has been ‘blown’ out of the building.

Site workers have put cofferdams 12 m down into the chalk while the work is undertaken and, once complete, the 1.5 m-deep foundations and 0.5 m of the glasshouse itself will be underwater. Bentonite sheet waterproofing is being used around the submerged portions of the glasshouses to avoid flooding.

“No two panes of glass are the same size, which has made it by far the most complicated single aspect of the project,” Mr Gibbs says.

Mr Carter agrees: “There is nothing in the world like it,” he says, adding: “The programme for it has been aspirational, as no-one really knows how long it will take to build. And of course, the water running around it adds an extra level of difficulty.”

River provides a strong Test

This water, the River Test, is one of the most striking features of the site, and has also posed some of the biggest challenges.

A world-famous fly fishing river, it is particularly known for the brown trout that populate its waters. As a result, protecting the river and its fish stocks was paramount, with the Environment Agency in particular playing a big role.

“We had to remove all of the fish from this middle section of the river. We used electro fishing to take out almost 400 fish”

Geoffrey Carter, Meller

“Funnily enough, even though we have put a distillery here, we can’t use any of the water from the river as there are no extraction rights,” Mr Gibbs explains.

A number of buildings straddle the river and some of these that were of less historical significance were earmarked for demolition. Mr Carter describes what had to be done to ensure the river was not contaminated with debris.

“We had to divert the river completely away from its path through the middle of the site,” he says. “There’s a sluice that runs around, so we diverted it into there while the demolition work took place.”

Before the water could be diverted though, the welfare of the fish had to be ensured.

“We had to remove all of the fish from this middle section of the river,” Mr Carter says. “We used electro fishing to take out almost 400 fish.”

“The original course has been restored now, and we have two fish passes and one fish overpass in place to ensure then can still move freely. We’re also using a Siltbuster to make sure nothing contaminates the river, and a sample of water is sent off once a week for testing just to be sure.”

The river caused other problems, with the water table sitting only 0.5 m below ground level.

“I can’t prove it, but there seems to be some evidence that they have had problems with flooding in the past,” Mr Carter says. “It looks like they might have been pumping water out from underneath the buildings.”

Very challenging location

It wasn’t just the water that has posed problems for the team, however. The competing interests of Bombay Sapphire, the Environment Agency, English Heritage, local residents and even the Highways Agency mean that the project is proving a logistical challenge.

“Probably the hardest thing overall has been getting information when required,” Mr Carter says. “We at Meller have had to manage all of these different individual parties and bring them together, and the environmental and heritage elements in particular make it even more complicated.”

“These concerns, the river and all the other things mean that everything you wouldn’t want to find on a construction site is here”

Geoffrey Carter, Meller

The biodiversity on the site is huge, with not only the fish but also otters, kingfishers and numerous other bird species. One building was even home to more than 100 bats in a maternity roost.

“These concerns, coupled with the river and all the other things, mean that everything you wouldn’t want to find on a construction site is here,” Mr Carter says.

As well as the associations with the Bank of England, one building on site contains one of the earliest examples of a Polonceau roof truss found in England, ensuring that it will be preserved for generations to come.

The site’s rural location inside a conservation area also presented problems. “The nature of the site means there is just hardly any room for storing materials and absolutely none at all for parking,” Mr Gibbs says.

“We can only work five days per week, plus Saturday mornings. A lot of workers have moved down to the area due its location and we’ve worked extremely hard to engage with the local community to make sure they’re happy with what we’re doing.”

Local engagement is key

Mr Carter gave a number of site tours to local residents who had either worked at the mill themselves, or had family members living and working on site in years gone by.

“We wanted to let people see the site in its original form before it was redeveloped,” he says. “It was really emotional for a lot of people to come back here.

“One guy, when viewing the Mill Cottages, pointed to a spot in the corner where his grandmother’s bed used to be and broke down in tears. It was very moving.”

Above all, it is this engagement with the local community and the transformation of a disused site with hundreds of years of history that is pushing the team forward.

“Many of the buildings were in disrepair and we really believe we’re doing some good here, as well as producing a great facility for the client,” Mr Carter adds.

“It’s not just about the history from the past; it’s the history that you’re working on now that people in the future will look back on. That’s what makes this really special.”

Bombay Sapphire ingredients

Bombay Sapphire gin is owned by Bacardi and was launched in 1987. The drink’s flavour comes from 10 ingredients that the company describes as “10 exotic botanicals”.

These are almond, lemon peel, liquorice, juniper berries, orris root, angelica, coriander, cassia, cubeb and grains of paradise.

The exact proportions of each in the recipe are a closely guarded secret. It is these botanicals that will be displayed inside Laverstoke Mill’s glasshouses, with the plants currently being grown at Kew Gardens, London, in preparation for the site’s opening to the public later this year.


The rich history of Laverstoke Mill

According to a 2010 report by English Heritage, the mill at Laverstoke was acquired by Henry Portal, a French Huguenot, in 1718.

Portal had fled persecution in France, joining an influential papermaking community of Huguenot émigrés in Southampton. He set up his own paper mill at Bere, Whitchurch, in 1712 – two miles from Laverstoke.

With his company, Portals Papermaking, he purchased the mill in Laverstoke.

The Bank of England had begun to introduce new anti-counterfeiting measures around this time, and Portals secured a contract to produce watermark banknote paper for the central bank in December 1724. With the security of this contract, he invested in the site.

English Heritage says the rebuilding of the mill was first considered in the 1850s, probably prompted by a new series of fully printed (instead of handwritten) notes from the Bank of England in 1855.

The papermaking processes were reconfigured at this time to become much more industrial, although it continued to be handmade.

The site continued to grow, as did Portals, and it won contracts to produce banknote paper for India and the Banks of Scotland and Ireland.

By the early 20th century, Portals considered Laverstoke Mill to be old-fashioned and inefficient, and built a new mill in the neighbouring village of Overton in the early 1920s.

Papermaking at the site eventually ceased in 1963. It was subsequently used to manufacture water treatment equipment until 2005, when it became vacant until Bombay Sapphire purchased it in 2011.

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