Distilling Technique and Marketing Mystique Helped Bombay Sapphire Make It in America

A New York adman and a French exec made the English gin a success

Today, Bombay Sapphire is the second-largest gin brand in the world.
Raquel Beauchamp

As any connoisseur will tell you, a proper English dry gin comes from the balancing of exotic ingredients. Bombay Sapphire is no exception, but in the case of this storied brand, there’s another key ingredient in the mix: the work of two exceptional marketers.

But first, the gin. Though the premium gin in the famous blue bottle is a product of the go-go 1980s, the story actually begins in 1761, when a 25-year-old distiller named Thomas Dakin assembled choice botanicals and began making Bombay Dry Gin—what many later considered the first quality gin in the country. Dakin’s proprietary recipe found its way down though his heirs and, come the mid-20th century, was the one being used to make G&J Greenall’s Warrington’s Gin.

Bombay Sapphire is distilled at the historic Laverstoke Mill (1), 60 miles west of London, using Thomas Dakin’s 1761 recipe. Using the likeness of Queen Victoria (2), visionary adman Allan Subin (4) introduced Bombay Dry Gin (3) to America in 1960. Bombay Sapphire is actually just one brand in a long line of premium Bombay gins (5), culiminating with the super-premium Star of Bombay, launched in 2015.
Queen Victoria: Popperfoto/Getty Images; All others: Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire

Enter marketer No. 1. In 1960, Allan Subin was a Madison Avenue heavyweight who, seeing the popularity of the dry gin martini, decided to bring Greenall’s to America—but not without a brand makeover. Subin “was the real man’s man of that era—post WWII, [when] Americans loved everything about Britain,” said Bombay Sapphire’s global brand ambassador Raj Nagra. “Subin wanted to go back to a romantic time in gin’s history, and what better time than the British Raj?” So the adman developed an exotic, old-world label prominently featuring Queen Victoria and the founding year of 1761, just below the gin’s new name: Bombay Dry.

The glass: Some drinkers thought the gin itself was blue, but it’s just the bottle—a brilliant packaging move that’s harnessed the allure of a color in service of a liquor. The talisman: Queen Victoria (along with a famous Raj-era gemstone) conjures an imperial mystique for Bombay Sapphire, a brand that’s actually only 30 years old. The technique: Forcing the spirit vapors though copper baskets holding the botanicals makes for crisper and clearer flavors than the more common steeping method.
Glass and Talisman: Raquel Beauchamp; Vapor: Getty Images/iStock Photo

Bombay Dry was successful, but by the mid-1980s vodka was king and gin was in free fall. Enter marketer No. 2. French-born Michel Roux was a nightclub manager turned spirits visionary who by 1981 had taken the helm of a company called Carillon, the House of Bombay’s American importers. Using his proven feel for the American market (this was, incidentally, the man who’d introduced Absolut Vodka in 1979), Roux rolled up his sleeves on Bombay.

Bombay Sapphire’s exotic blue bottle was inspired by a real sapphire, the 182-carat Star of Bombay, which 1920s film star Douglas Fairbanks gave to wife Mary Pickford. As with so much marketing, though, the facts don’t wholly fit the story: The gem is a “star” sapphire—a cabochon cut with no facets. And it was discovered in Sri Lanka, not India.
Sapphire: Chip Clark

As Subin had done, Roux borrowed from the mystique of imperial India—specifically, its famous gemstones—and added a huge sapphire to the label. To the gin itself, he added grains of paradise and cubeb berries, which balanced out Dakin’s 226-year-old recipe, already rich with exotic botanicals like Italian juniper berries and licorice from China. But what got the most attention was the blue-glass bottle into which Roux poured his Bombay Sapphire.

That was 1987. Today, Bombay Sapphire is the second-largest gin brand in the world, and though its innovative marketing hasn’t ceased (the brand has long championed the world’s emerging artists), it has the added advantage of simply being an excellent gin. Its vapor-infusion distillation and 10 botanicals—listed right on the side of the bottle—encouraged drinkers to talk about ingredients, and pioneered the artisanal gin movement. “During the 1980s, gin was in massive decline,” Nagra said, but “Bombay [Sapphire] is largely responsible for gin’s modern renaissance. I don’t think anyone would argue with that.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.