Behind the Bar Stick People

From PhD to ABV: How One Distiller Uses Chemistry to Make a Great Gin

Hype Photography / Stuart Freeman

Bombay Sapphire master distiller Anne Brock has loved gin for as long as she can remember, but it took years of science schooling before she considered a role in the spirits industry. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “That was my dream.”

Once Brock realized that medical school wasn’t for her, she spent her time working in restaurants and pubs until she enrolled in academia once again, this time to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. She was starting to look for jobs in the science field when a conversation with a friend led her to think otherwise.

“He had told me that the only other chemist he had met in his life was a distiller,” she says. “A lightbulb went off for me. Finally, I could bring these two sides of my life together.”

Historical Dakin stills used in the unique vapor-infusion process at Bombay Sapphire’s Laverstoke Mill.

Brock spent four years as lead distiller for Jensen’s Bermondsey Gin before she was invited to take on the master distiller role at Bombay Sapphire. “It was an opportunity you can’t turn down,” says Brock, who started the role in September 2017 at the award-winning Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire, England.

The Warwickshire native discusses her energy-efficient practices, how chemistry shapes her creative process and what’s ahead for women looking to enter the spirits world.

Bombay Sapphire glasshouses where the botanicals are grown.

What is the most important aspect of your work?

I’m the guardian of the spirit. I oversee a team of 14 distillers who make every single drop of Bombay Sapphire consumed around the world, and I’m responsible for delivering the quality that people everywhere know and come to expect from it.

How do you start your work day?

One of my favorite moments of the day is when I walk on-site in the morning, see the botanical glasshouses and take a left turn into the distillery. The first thing that hits you is that unmistakable smell of gin. Because of the nature of gin and gin making, different aromas come off in the distilling process at different times, and when I’m there in the morning, I can often tell where my distillers are in the process.

Botanical dry room with the 10 botanicals used in Bombay Sapphire gin.

In what ways are you putting your stamp on a 33-year-old company?

When I started here, I remember wondering if I would truly feel a sense of ownership over the spirit, and really quickly I did. The team puts the product in my hands to protect it, so I do what I can to ensure that, from acquiring the best botanicals to pushing back on any ideas that I feel may not be best for the spirit. My role is rooted in keeping the liquid consistent but also in exploring ways to achieve the same quality of gin through more efficient methods.

More efficient in what ways?

Distilling isn’t exactly an eco-friendly practice; the process uses a lot of water. But here at Laverstoke, we’re incredibly lucky. It’s a new site that was built to incredibly high specifications, so we’ve been able to install several sustainable processes to ensure we’re using the minimum amounts of gas, water and electricity. This past year, water usage was a big focus for me and the team. We now have a rainwater-harvesting system and flow-restricted water devices set up, which reduce our main water usage a significant amount. We have heavy rainfall throughout the winter here, and it’s fantastic to be able to leverage that.

The Mill Bar at Bombay Sapphire.

Why is sustainability such an important consideration in the world of distilling?

It’s a responsibility we all share. We only have this one planet, and I think it’s only good sense for any business in this day and age to try to do what it can to preserve the natural resources that surround us, especially when they’re what we rely on to make our products.

How do you use your organic chemistry background in your work?

When you work in a laboratory, you’re controlling interactions, controlling mixtures of liquids and the way compounds react together and bind together into something you want. In that sense, it’s quite similar to distilling. We manually add the botanicals to the still to make sure we have exact amounts and that they’re layered in a precise way. This helps them to react with the vapor and heat at the perfect moment to extract the flavors we want. That’s where chemistry helps; it’s all about understanding the product you want to make in the end so as to shape the steps of the process from the very beginning.

Anne Brock. Hype Photography / Stuart Freeman

How has the U.K. craft distilling boom impacted your work?

When U.K. laws changed to allow for smaller distilleries to set up, it meant that they didn’t have to take on a huge still to be able to get a commercial license to produce and sell here. Because of it, we’re seeing a lot of people start to really care about the provenance of their food and drink and ask questions about it. People want to be more knowledgeable about what they’re consuming now. We’re also seeing more gin drinkers, those who have become curious and adventurous about trying it. It’s a really exciting time for spirits overall and particularly for gin.

How do you view the spirits industry for women in the years ahead?

The number of jobs in distilling and the interest in getting a job in the distilling world has increased as a result of the interest in the production world. We’re seeing more and more companies support women in leadership roles. Dewar’s has a woman named Stephanie MacLeod as their master distiller, and Noidys Herrera is a blender in training with Bacardí. We’re definitely starting to see women in more senior roles across the industry, which is really great news.