A former paper mill near the village of Laverstoke in the Hampshire countryside provides an idyllic setting for English gin producer Bombay Sapphire’s first dedicated distillery and headquarters. The company handed the responsibility for regenerating the disused site to Thomas Heatherwick’s studio, which duly delivered a solution that sensitively combines restoration and conservation with technical ingenuity. ‘Transforming a derelict mill into a state-of-the-art sustainable gin distillery requires supreme vision,’ says estate manager Will Brix, who oversaw the four-year project. ‘Thomas refuses to follow any form or style but instead responds intimately and individually to each project. This is what we needed for Laverstoke, someone who would work imaginatively to celebrate this place, not to impose their own style on it.’
A pathway along the bank of the River Test leads visitors towards a cluster of renovated brick buildings and the centrepiece of the distillery, a courtyard housing two curvaceous new glasshouses. These steel and glass structures act like funnels that extract excess heat from the adjacent distillation hall to create suitable environments for growing tropical and Mediterranean plants, including the ten botanical herbs and spices used in the gin’s production. ‘Most people don’t know what goes into our gin,’ says Brix, ‘so we wanted to start our story there, and the glasshouses help us not only to educate them on that point but to celebrate it.’
Intent on retaining the industrial heritage of the site, Heatherwick restored 23 of the existing buildings, including the Grade II listed mill-owner’s house, workers’ cottages and the main mill building. The studio also removed several more-recent structures and freed the river from the concrete channel it had been directed through. By widening the river and establishing new sloping banks, the design team enabled the water to become a key feature of the visitor experience. ‘The river is, after all, why this site is here,’ Brix explains. He sees ‘the reinterpretation of the site’ as ‘Thomas’s greatest achievement’ – and the glasshouses as ‘the jewel in the crown’.
The distillery is Heatherwick Studio's largest built project in the United Kingdom, and Brix is proud that Bombay Sapphire was able to collaborate with one of the country’s leading designers to create something memorable for this historic site. ‘People love that the mill has come back to life and appreciate how honest and sensitive the restoration has been,’ he says, adding that as well as learning about the gin-making process and the history of Laverstoke Mill, visitors are able to enjoy ‘the architecture, the horticulture and a cocktail bar’. Not a bad way to spend a day in the countryside.
Photos Winter Vandenbrink
Did you like this article? See this interview along with many more interesting and beautiful projects in Frame 102, the Jan/Feb issue.