It was the 1980s and he had been shipping in 'Bombay Original,' a gin from England for long. Overshadowed by those burly vodkas in the white spirits market, gin was almost pushed to a corner, then breathing its last. And even inside the pale and diminishing world of gin, where giants like Beefeater and Tanquerey dominate, Bombay Original could be dismissed as a foot soldier. A clueless Roux had to look back for ideas. Not to the distant past in his home country, France, where he once worked even as a dishwasher, but to the glorious time when he single-handedly redefined the destiny of a vodka brand through groundbreaking marketing strategies. I'm talking about Absolut vodka.
Michael Roux took a closer look at what was in hand. 'Bombay Original' had a legacy that went back centuries, a clear edge over its competitors.
The story began in 1761 when Thomas Daikin at the prime age of 24, purchased a site for starting a distillery in Warrington. It was the first outside of London. What came out of the distillery was, sorry, not Bombay Original, but Warrington gin. Once the Daikin family purchased a new copper still (Carterhead stills) in 1831, they could resort to a new method of producing gin, leaving other competitors far behind. What was that?
Most of you know that the biggest difference between gin and vodka is the assortment of botanicals thrown into the former. The unique ingredients in the palette for making a particular brand of gin marks its identity. But how do you infuse the herbs into the spirit? While other gins boil them in the pot, at Warrington distillery, they put them at the top of the column for vapor distillation. As the vapour of the spirit rises through the column, it infuses the botanicals held in a basket at the top, leeching out from them, rich flavours. The method provides the final drink a lighter, floral taste, quite apart from other gins whose telltale flavour is that of juniper.
As the distillery changed hands in the twentieth century, the identity of the gin also changed, experimenting with names - Bombay Dry Gin and then Bombay Original.
So Michael Roux heaved a sigh of relief, as he understood that the gin he had been importing from England had a pedigree, something to begin with. Just like what he did with Absolut, he only had to unleash the brand's now-dormant potential. A total revamp. Bombay Original needs the same premium treatment he gave to Absolut, years ago, he decided.
Roux started with the bottle. Inspired by a large sapphire, excavated from Srilanka, named 'Star of Bombay,' and later gifted to silent movie star Mary Pickford (she bequeathed that to the Smithsonian Institute as she died), he gave the bottle its legendary blue colour before renaming it as 'Bombay Sapphire.'
You'd find the old visual reference to Queen Victoria on the bottle, but everything else had undergone a sea change. Roux also decided to play up the botanical part of the gin, highlighting each herb picked from an exotic location in the world. Apart from the usual array of the ten botanicals added to the old Warrington gin, two more ingredients were added. They were to modify the balance of the taste and also to catch the fancy of gin consumers.
The magic worked. The newly defined gin made a massive impact on the market, soon trumping all other competitors by a wide margin in sales.
Take a sip of Bombay Sapphire. The luscious melange of botanicals - juniper, coriander, angelica, almonds, cubeb berries, lemon peel, orris, liquorice, cassia bark and grains of paradise will soft-explode in your mouth, leaving behind a warm aftertaste of pepper and fruits. But before that, hold the sapphire-blue bottle against the light, and relish it with your eyes. You'd see how Michael Roux waved his magic wand and drew up a beautiful artwork and one of the most successful stories in the world of spirits from almost nothing.
A word of caution: 'Bombay Sapphire' has only a few things connecting it to the Bombay (Mumbai) we know (and even that sapphire excavated from Sri Lanka had nothing to do with Bombay even though it was called Bombay star). India played a big role in the birth of G & T (Gin and Tonic, the most famous cocktail). It was for fighting malaria and our mosquitoes that the Englishmen had started adding quinine (its bark) to their drinks. That stuck. Gin tonic was born. So take the name 'Bombay Sapphire' as a homage to our local mosquitoes. Just for our relief.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)