Everyone is familiar with the black rooster label, which has come to symbolize one of Tuscany's most famous areas and products, the Chianti Classico and its full-bodied red wine. Not many people, however, would associate the iconic vivid blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire London Gin with the fields of Tuscany, let alone link it to a select few local producers in the rural countryside of Arezzo. However, only a short drive into the wilderness near Michelangelo's birthplace, Caprese Michelangelo, TF discovered one of Bombay Sapphire's secrets: their juniper berries are all grown, farmed, harvested and selected right here in Tuscany.
Juniper is just one of the 10 ‘exotic botanicals' distilled by vapor infusion in Bombay Sapphire. Take a close look at the bottle to see each listed with its country of origin, including coriander from Morocco, lemon peel and bitter almonds from Spain, angelica root from Germany and cassia bark from North Vietnam. Tuscany is the source not only of the gin's juniper berry but also its orrisroot, from the iris flower, farmed in the Arno valley and, at three years, has the longest cultivation period of the 10 ingredients.
Bacardi, which distributes Bombay Sapphire, regularly host trips for select industry representatives, offering them the chance to visit the origins of the raw materials used in making the company's products so they can learn about and better appreciate them. This past November the location was Tuscany, and 10 top barmen from the United Kingdom, including the manager of one of London's newest hotspots, Bunga Bunga (www.bungabunga-london.com), were accompanied by Bombay Sapphire's global brand ambassador, Raj Nagra, and its master of Botanicals, Ivano Tonutti, for a three-day experience of picking, mixing, tasting and drinking.
I was lucky enough to join them for welcome drinks preceding a presentation by Tonutti, and was immediately greeted with an expertly crafted Bombay Sapphire gin & tonic (naturally) followed by a Floral Bee-a Bees Knees Bombay Sapphire cocktail with a Tuscan twist: lavender honey and a fresh sprig of lavender garnish. These people know their drinks, but I watched while they all sat, captivated, as the master of botanicals himself invited them on the Bombay Sapphire journey, revealing why the contents of the brilliant blue bottle are so special.
In the living room of the private Tuscan villa rented for the occasion, the table in front of me resembled a display in an apothecary. Powders, roots, berries and peels were passed around, and I was soon nibbling on a Chinese licorice root, sniffing West African grains of paradise and crunching on an Indonesian cubeb berry as we listened to Tonutti and learned the marvels of Bombay Sapphire's botanicals, which start in the hands of the farmers.
The relationships with the farmers who cultivate each botanical are a precious and fundamental part of Bombay Sapphire's ethos, which is ‘Care, Skills, Relationship and Passion.' Tonutti showed us footage from one of his recent trips to North Vietnam: local farmers peeling bark from 15-metre high, 10-year-old cassia trees in perfectly formed crescents. The footage included the manual harvest of the Spanish lemons in Murcia, where each fruit (not the tree) is selected individually, hand-peeled by local families and the peel is then dried under the sun for an average of two weeks.
The attention then shifted to Tuscany. At 80 years old, Alessandro and his wife still harvest juniper berries at their family farm in Arezzo, and they are one of Bombay Sapphire's biggest juniper suppliers.
After an early start, following a late night of swapping cocktail hints, the band of bartenders where whisked into the hills to meet Alessandro and visit his farm, situated in a microclimate between the sea and the Apennines. ‘It's so refreshing,' commented one of the barmen, ‘to appreciate the process of production in so much detail and understand the quality of what is being created.'
If Alessandro detects a bad crop, Tonutti is the first to know, as he understands the importance of the selection process. Indeed, an average of 50 percent of raw harvested material is rejected through rigorous quality controls. It is interesting to note that an impressive five tonnes of juniper constitutes just one sample for quality checks.
Not only does he hold a doctorate in pharmacy and counts 20 years experience in the industry, previously working as a herbalist for Martini, but Tonutti's sense of smell and taste rank among the most finely tuned in the business. He explains that despite all the advanced computer testing and electronic-nose techniques, the human nose simply can't be beaten in terms of accuracy.
Professional tasters are hence the last of the five different stages of testing of the final product, after scrupulous visual, physical, analytical (gas chromatic) and sensorial tests. Being a 100-percent natural product, quality is paramount, and if the professional taster is not 100 percent satisfied, a re-evaluation of the entire testing process could be necessary.
Every single ingredient has an important part to play in the ‘symphony of flavours' that Bombay Sapphire creates in every bottle. The bright freshness of the two Tuscan ingredients hit the high notes every time!
One sensory test I especially enjoyed was a simple shot of Bombay Sapphire gin accompanied by a pure dark chocolate segment, one of Tonutti's food pairing suggestions, and a marvelous one at that!
As the festive lights bring up the party mood in the lead-up to the holidays, why not discover an alternative Tuscan tipple from the three Bombay cocktails that have a very Florentine flair.
Happy Holidays and remember to drink responsibly this Christmas!
Bombay Sapphire, Martini Rosso, Sugar, Angostura Bitters, Prosecco
The Italian Job
Bombay Sapphire, Martini Bianco
Bombay Sapphire Negroni
Bombay Sapphire, Martini Bitters, Martini Rosso