Whenever anything longer than two or three sentences is written about Bombay Sapphire there are always the requisite mentions about the brand single-handedly rescuing gin from the pits of decrepitude or something similar and mildly hyperbolic, yet also apparently fairly accurate. In the mid-80’s, as far as I can remember, gin had been relegated to a drink for secretive old English ladies, old American men with bulbous noses, nostalgic maritime types, and those who had to do a shot on a dare. It had been floundering in the wake of Vodka’s takeover since the early 70’s. By 1985, the Bombay brand had passed from founder Allan Subin’s hands to Grand Metropolitan, which would become Diageo 12 years later. Michael Roux, Bombay’s American importer, who was fresh off his success in growing the Absolut Vodka brand, had an idea that would hopefully reboot his gin brand. Working with Ian Hamilton, Bombay’s master distiller at that time, he helped to develop a new gin, which used the same production process and base botanicals as the Bombay Original, but added two new ingredients and steered slightly away from the traditional juniper-forward London Dry style. This new recipe produced a lighter, less intensely juniper-y gin in an effort to appeal to a broader crowd.
The gin was christened Bombay Sapphire and debuted in 1987 sporting the now familiar blue glass bottle. Supposedly, the name takes inspiration from the 182 carat sapphire that was ripped out of Sri Lanka and set into a ring for Douglas Fairbanks to give to Mary Pickford. Douglas Fairbanks’ and Mary Pickford’s real names were Douglas Ullman and Gladys Smith, though what that has to do with gin, I have no idea. Bombay Sapphire’s clear nod to the days of the British Raj isn’t the most flattering marketing approach in the world. After all, some serious colonial oppression, including British policy decisions that helped kill tens of millions during India’s famines of the 18th and 19th centuries, doesn’t seem like something you’d want to celebrate. Booze marketers have never been known to be overly concerned with or sensitive to history’s darker moments.
Bombay Sapphire was apparently a success pretty much right off the bat. The combination of the refreshed flavor profile, standout blue bottle, and strong marketing worked well. Along with Absolut, and Jim Beam’s Small Batch line which emerged a few years later, Sapphire helped to spread the idea of “super premium” spirits to a much wider audience. From there, it could be argued that all that helped lead to the craft spirits/whisk(e)y/cocktail resurgence we’ve been in the middle of for the last couple of decades.
The creation of Diageo forced the new megalithic company to shed a few pieces, and in 1998, the Bombay brand was sold to Bacardi. Up until a few years ago, Bombay Sapphire and Bombay Original (and quite a few other gins) were produced at the G&J Greenalls/G&J Distilllers distillery. Beginning in 2014, the brand found its own production home at a new state-of-the-art distillery in Laverstoke. As with the Original, Sapphire uses an infusion basket technique, meaning that the distilled vapor rises up through the botanicals, picking up oils and flavors along the way. The use of combination pot and column Carter head stills means the gin is created in one run with only water added later to bring it to proof. Bombay is a bit of a rare bird in that regard. Most mass-produced gins are “multi-shot” gins produced in several still runs that generate a concentrated spirit to which both neutral spirit and water is added later to ready it for bottling. As I mentioned earlier, Sapphire uses the same ingredients as Bombay Original; Angelica root, Almonds, Cassia Bark, Licorice root, Coriander, Lemon peel, Orris root, and Juniper berries, albeit in a different combination. The two additional botanicals used in Sapphire are cubeb berries and grains of paradise. Cubeb is another variety of vine pepper native to Indonesia. Grains of Paradise is a spice related to cardamom and is native to the west coast of Africa. Both cubeb berries and grains of paradise are characterized by an almost pine-y peppery-ness, and a hot, pungent heat.
The Nose: A light, quite fresh nose that’s also quite spirit-y. Sapphire is dominated by citrus, mostly lemon. There’s all sorts of lemon – lemon drops, lemon juice, lemon pith, and lemon furniture polish. The other ingredients play second fiddle here. There’s juniper of course, but it’s soft, rounded, and fairly quiet. There’s quite a bit of black peppercorn, just a little cinnamon heat and a touch of almond extract. The other botanicals are well-integrated, mostly adding depth and breadth to the citrus and juniper
The Palate: With a surprisingly oily mouthfeel, this begins with a relatively empty, honeyed sweetness. The lemon/assorted citrus quickly comes in, pithy and full of oils expressed from the peel. It’s more herbal here, with the coriander and the licorice more prominent. The juniper is sharper and more fresh as well. Quite peppery towards the end, with fine ground black pepper, cinnamon stick and hints of tannic wood.
The Finish: The lemon-y citrus, woody juniper, pepper, and coriander provide a balanced fade.
Thoughts: In its own way, Bombay Sapphire is a classic. It’s hard to fault it for being what it is – a well-made, lighter, more approachable London dry gin that, within its citrus-forward profile, integrates and balances its ingredients nicely. I found it more spirit-y than I was expecting, and as I’m a fan of more juniper-y, herbal gins, I also found it a little too light and monochromatic. Then again, I’m not really Sapphire’s target audience. This one was a revolution of sorts, and now it’s an elder statesman. It was a gin designed to appeal to a wider audience and played a big part in revitalizing an entire category of the spirits world. For that at least, it deserves some attention.
As gin is usually a cocktail spirit, here’s how I thought this one held up in a trio of classic drinks…
In a Gin & Tonic: This makes a decent G&T – crisp, citrus-filled, bright and perhaps too easy drinking. It’s also a little perfunctory, and doesn’t offer much complexity or excitement. Is there such a thing as a session gin for Gin & Tonics? If so, this might be it.
In a Martini: For me, this is perhaps the best application of Bombay Sapphire. It’s sparkling clean, bright and refreshing. Wet or bone dry, it allows the vermouth to come through nicely.
In a Negroni: Definitely not my favorite Negroni gin. It’s too light and citrus forward. You really need to up the gin and cut back on the Campari and vermouth to find anything approaching balance, and even then, it doesn’t provide the complexity other gins do. In the traditional 1:1:1 setting, I find it’s too citrus-y, and the gin gets a little lost and comes across as too spirit-y.
- “Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill.” Difford’s Guide. N.p., n.d. Web. July 2017.
- “Bombay Sapphire – One of the Most Enduringly Popular British Gins.” Gin Foundry, 21 Dec. 2014, http://www.ginfoundry.com/gin/bombay-sapphire-gin/.
- Broom, Dave. GIN: the Manual. MitchelI Beazley, 2018.
- “History – Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill.” Difford’s Guide, http://www.diffordsguide.com/producers/553/bombay-sapphire-distillery-laverstoke-mill/history.
- Stephenson, Tristan. The Curious Bartenders Gin Palace. Ryland Peters & Small, 2016.