At the end of last year, Gary Mehigan joined Bombay Sapphire to create the Project Botanicals pop-up gin bar, during which I got the unique opportunity to interview with Raj Nagra, their Global Brand Ambassador!
How long have you been working in the industry?
From a very young age, over 25 years..
Behind the bar?
I was initially exposed to various aspects of front and back of house focusing on events before I really stepped behind the bar. I had been quite partial to Black Russians from the ripe age of 15 or 16.
It was while working at a notable Sydney hotel around studies, that I got to work with three old London bartenders who taught me about real bartending. I learnt a lot from those guys and it was an important step in my evolution within the industry.
From there I went on to the club scene and ended up running a few bars at quite a young age, trendy places, that was a lot of fun!
I then moved back to London and ran a club for a couple of years before coming back to Australia for a short stint before moving to Dubai in 1999 to work for the Sheik and consult on the Emirates towers hotel with a team of old friends. A move back to Australia, more consulting and bartender training led to Bacardi approaching me in 2001 for a ‘new role’. I had grown up surrounded by Bacardi and had a keen interest in the brand.
How did you become Global Brand Ambassador for Bombay Sapphire?
Being involved in some innovative bars, I became quite well-known in the industry. Bacardi asked if I was interested in working with them. Initially I worked on Bacardi Rum and Bombay Sapphire and had two separate business cards. It was a lot of miles and lots of hard work and even more fun! I wouldn’t trade those memories.
I was travelling around Australia more than half the year doing training and events and was one of the first ambassadors in Australia. I won Brand Ambassador of the Year for Australia in 2006. I travelled overseas, visiting bars and training bartenders as the role developed over the next six years. It got to a point where I was spending more time across Asia than back in Australia, when the opportunity to move to Shanghai came along to focus on the region. After a couple of years I was offered a national US role which saw me make a move to work in Miami. I became the Global Brand Ambassador for Bombay Sapphire about 4 years ago and have been based out of New York.
It sounds like the best job in the world!
It’s definitely a lot of fun and quite a diverse role. It also happens to be a very exciting time to be involved in the Bombay Spirits Company given the recent opening of our new distillery and as we look toward the future. I work with some incredible people across lots of projects and programs. Our new distillery Laverstoke Mill opened in 2014 and that propositions the brand a great opportunity to innovate. It’s going to be really exciting to explore our potential over the coming years, working with the likes of our Master Distiller Nic Fordham and our Master of Botanicals, Ivano Tonutti.
What’s a typical day for you?
The great thing about this type of role is that its very purpose leads to a great amount of diverse locations and engagements. One day you might be at a trade show in New Orleans or Berlin, the next you might be judging a cocktail competition in Tokyo or Montreal. As I’m based in the States I take an active role in the NY and US market. I also lead our Global Cocktail competition that is now in its 4th year: The World’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition. It centres on pushing the levels of creativity, while being exposed to exotic locations that are linked to Bombay Sapphire. So far we’ve been to Morocco where we source our coriander, Tuscany where we source our juniper and orris, and most recently we previewed our distillery. We have some incredible new plans for 2015.
Do you get involved with the strategy for the brand?
Yes, being part of the global marketing team and with the high level of exposure I have to markets and the trade means I have an important role to play within this context.
The best thing about the job?
It’s not stagnant or idle; I love the diversity of my weeks and experiencing so many different things while being privileged to represent such an amazing brand.
Bombay Sapphire has to take credit for the gin renaissance, how do you feel about the explosion in the gin category? Is it good for Bombay?
Innovation is something that has been a part of Bombay gins throughout our entire history. From the creation of the 1761 recipe to the launch of Bombay London Dry gin in 1959 in the US. It was Bombay Sapphire that was launched in 1987 when gin was in decline that revitalized the category, and more specifically thanks to Michel Roux working with Ian Hamilton our master distiller at the time to create a modern classic gin, placing it in a groundbreaking blue bottle. You can’t ignore the fact that Bombay was the gin that made gin cool again. It singlehandedly opened the doors for all modern-day gins to exist. It was the first super premium gin and has its place in gins modern history. For the 5th year running we are the fastest growing gin brand in the world, we’re the number one gin globally by value so we are in great shape as a brand. Bombay Dry is very much a bartenders gin and expanding to new shores this year.
I think it’s wonderful that people are either exploring peripheral new gin brands or drinking real gin martinis again. It shows that consumers are becoming more discerning and educated when it comes to their palate choices and social drinking experiences. Gin is hot right now, and innovation rife.
It’s healthy for the category and great for bartenders who of course love pouring gin!
Do you think people are steering away from mass-produced and more towards craft products?
I think there is definitely a trend toward supporting locally produced products, and a great way for these small brands to gain traction. Smaller however does not always mean better! What is craft? Craft only means ‘hands on’.
We have just opened our new distillery which I would encourage anyone to visit. Laverstoke Mill is situated in rural Hampshire and has the cleanest chalk stream river in England running through the heart of it. The distillery is sustainable and boasts a 60% reduction in carbon emissions and is 85% more improved than the benchmark set by the building research establishment’s environmental assessment method. With this type of care and attention in everything we do, I think we very much embody terms like craft!
Do you only deal with exclusive suppliers?
Unlike other gins that buy botanicals on the open market, when we’re talking about producing a brand like Bombay Sapphire we’re talking about the only major gin brand to have its own Master of Botanicals in Ivano Tonutti, whose very purpose is to work directly with our farmers – some of whom he’s been working with for some thirty years – in gaining the finest quality botanicals from the source. He personally checks all ingredients and personally has them packed for distillation. It’s uncommon for myself to take guests to these locations to meet with our farmers.
So will there be any new products coming along the line?
Bombay London Dry gin will finally be arriving in Australia this year. We’ve had success with Bombay Sapphire East (with the addition of Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorn) and Amber (black cardamom and bitter orange rested in French Oak) in travel retail of course. With the new distillery we now have the means to venture into the future. Stay tuned!
How involved were you with the Laverstoke Mill project?
We needed a full-time team to work across a project of this scale. Lavertsoke Mill has been around for 1000 years and produced bank notes for up to 100 territories and colonies for the British Empire from 1724 and during the reign of Queen Victoria (who of course features on our label). Digging up artifacts and re-gentrifying the River Test, as well as accommodating the various local flora and fauna took a lot of time. In all we spent four years bringing Laverstoke Mill back to life. It is breathtaking.
We have Will Brix who is the General Manager. Nic Ford our Master Distiller had the enormous task of overseeing the refurbishment and move of our aging stills and runs production. Thomas Heatherwick designed our magnificent Victorian inspired glass houses and oversaw the design aspects of the build. Sam Carter is our designated Lavistocke Mill Ambassador. And of course we have our full-time on site horticulturalist Chris Cotterall.
What’s your favourite gin cocktail?
I am in fact quite partial to a classic Bombay Sapphire martini. We are seeing a lot of interest around this drink by consumers and for the right reasons.
I also enjoy a good Negroni. We work closely with Luca Picci, a friend of mine from Florence, who’s probably the foremost expert on the negroni and through my time with him I’ve come to appreciate them with just a dash of soda which adds the dilution and helps bind the ingredients. I also like them with a big slice of orange!