You could say Dr. Anne Brock drinks for a living. But please don’t say it in earshot. Dr. Brock is the master distiller for Bombay Sapphire, overseeing gin production in the English village of Laverstoke.
We talked to her about her background in chemistry, her gin club, and her favourite cocktail trick.
Location: Hampshire, UK Current gig: Master distiller, Bombay Sapphire Gin Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone SE Current computer: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 One word that best describes how you work: Doggedly
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today?
When I was younger I wanted to be a doctor and secured a place at medical school. After eight months there I was 100% sure that a career in medicine was not for me and I quit.
I then became a bartender, working in hotels across the UK and travelling in between jobs. After a few years I decided to return to university, this time to study chemistry. Having finished that degree and a subsequent Ph.D. I decided to investigate becoming a gin distiller - a career that brought together two sides of my life, the bartender and the chemist.
I moved to London and was lucky to be given the opportunity to build and run a small gin distillery in central London. I made sure I immersed myself in the gin world and was made a director of the Gin Guild a few years later. In 2017, I was approached by Bacardi when they were looking for someone to take over as Master Distiller at the Bombay Sapphire distillery in Hampshire, and I jumped at the chance.
Take us through a recent workday.
As a master distiller I am involved in many different aspects of the production and promotion of Bombay Sapphire and my day can vary. Although I do get to travel, I can usually be found at our distillery in Hampshire.
Every day at 8:15 a.m. a distillery team meeting takes place to cover any safety, quality or production issues that the distillers are dealing with. I try to arrive an hour or so before this; the earlier I get in, the more I can get done before the day gets busy.
Afterwards, I’ll head to the lab to nose and taste the new batches of gin we’ve made, to check that I am happy with the quality of the product that is being sent to be bottled, a task I return to throughout the day. The rest of my day is divided up into overseeing distillery site projects such as the installation of a new still, addressing safety, quality and sustainability concerns, identifying areas for process improvement, discussing product innovation, managing people and developing my vision for the site.
I can also have days where I get involved in filming of the distillery or show VIP guests around site. I find it easiest to focus on one day at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
My Kindle and Google Maps. Having moved out of London I often find myself on a train with a good hour’s reading time, so I carry my Kindle everywhere with me. If I’m not travelling by train, then I’m in my car in need of directions to somewhere in rural England.
What’s your workspace setup like?
My office is a small room at the top of the gatehouse entrance to the distillery. As well as the basic office furniture of desk, storage cabinet and flat screen, I also have a rapidly growing gin collection, some tasting glasses and a cupboard full of PPE.
On the wall there is a large map of Hampshire and a beautiful photograph that a friend of mine took of Tower Bridge and the Shard in London. I hope to install an in-office tasting lab and a cocktail trolley, but they’re projects for later in the year.
What’s your best gin-related hack?
My favourite gin hack is making fruit flavored gins. All you need is a bottle of London Dry gin such as Bombay Sapphire and some fresh fruit. Chop the fruit up and put the pieces into the gin, leave the gin a few days until the fruit looks pale. You can then enjoy a unique gin & tonic with a creative fruit twist.
Most summer fruits work well, especially strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb & blackcurrants.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
My team must account for every single mL of alcohol that arrives at the distillery. Each drop is followed through the process by recording volume, temperature and density at each stage until it either leaves site as gin or gets removed as waste.
This data is reported to HMRC. It can get quite involved—finicky is a great way to describe the process.
What do you wish more people understood about the work of a distiller?
The role of a distiller is incredibly diverse. There is the fun aspect of it that involves sipping carefully crafted cocktails and talking about your products to passionate people. However, there is a lot of exacting physical work and a need for close attention to detail.
Distilling involves high pressures, high temperatures and large volumes of highly flammable liquid. Serious accidents can happen in distilleries and making sure the team is working safely is the most important task I have.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My distillers. They keep the stills running night and day producing every single drop of Bombay Sapphire in the world.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I write lots of lists, either on OneNote or just using a pen and Post-its. If a task is not on a list, it will not get done.
How do you recharge or take a break?
During the week I do regular yoga sessions and go for short runs. Every year I try to have a travel adventure and lose myself in a different culture. The further from home I feel, the more quickly I switch off and have a proper break.
What’s your favourite side project?
I run an onsite extra-curricular gin club at the distillery. Each month the members are given a small sample of a new gin or a classic that some of us haven’t tried. I film a video about the gin for the rest of the club to watch and suggest a cocktail that would work well with it and we compare tasting notes.
It’s good to keep track of other products that are out there. The world of gin is rapidly expanding and changing, and I like to make sure I am keeping up.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My father had several pieces of advice that he would repeat whilst I was growing up. One that has stayed with me is “a person who has never made a mistake has never made anything.”
In the past I have beaten myself up too much over what I saw as failures, but I’ve learnt to move on from mistakes and to not be afraid to challenge myself.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
I’m trying to work out how we further reduce water usage onsite. Traditionally distilling is not a particularly sustainable process, but at Laverstoke we work hard to be as sustainable as possible and have won several awards in recognition of this.
However, we don’t like to rest on our laurels and every time we manage to reach a difficult target we set ourselves a harder one.
The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Nick.