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At Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire, UK, Bacardi has redeveloped a disused paper mill to create a new distillery for its Bombay Sapphire gin brand. Ben Cooper met with Bombay master distiller Nik Fordham to learn how the company has prioritised both environmental sustainability and heritage in regenerating a once-derelict site.

Bacardi opened its Bombay Sapphire distillery in the UK last year

Bacardi opened its Bombay Sapphire distillery in the UK last year

When attempting to define what a sustainable business model should be, rather than referring to water usage intensity or CO2 emissions per unit of product, people often speak of companies "putting something back", being responsible "stewards" of the environment and, above all, preserving what they have inherited for future generations. On those criteria, Bacardi's award-winning redevelopment of a disused and derelict paper mill in rural Hampshire to create a new home for its Bombay Sapphire gin brand appears to have a good start before any of the distillery's sustainable innovations are even considered.

However, the picturesque Laverstoke Mill on the River Test also offers plenty to interest those with a rather more prosaic view of what a sustainable "facility" should look like.

Generating steam from biomass

At the heart of any distillery is steam generation and, at Laverstoke Mill, Bacardi seeks to do this sustainably by running a biomass boiler alongside its conventional gas boiler. In fact, the biomass boiler alone is capable of generating 90% the steam required for the distillery's two primary stills. The distillery also has two smaller stills, which are fully operational but also form part of the visitor tour. One of these will also usually be running along with the two larger units.

While the primary feedstock for the biomass boiler is sustainably-sourced woodchip, from a supplier located only five miles from the distillery, the boiler also burns the spent botanicals from the distillation process. These are also a more energy-rich fuel source, providing 16.2 kilojoules per kg against around 12.5 kj/kg for woodchip. Ash from the biomass boiler is collected by the company's woodchip supplier and used as fertiliser.

Innovative heat recovery

Maximising heat recovery and exchange from the operation of its stills is "critical" in maximising energy efficiency at the site, master distiller Nik Fordham explains. Among the heat exchange innovations, Bacardi uses recovered heat from the distilling process to keep the two glasshouses built on the site at their respective tropical and Mediterranean temperatures "to showcase the botanicals in their natural environment". Fordham adds that the glasshouses eliminate the need for a "heat sink", which would in itself have an energy and carbon cost.

The glasshouses actually contain as many as 120 species of plants in order that the ten botanicals are cultivated within appropriate ecosystems.

The site is rich in flora and fauna, providing a habitat for many species including otters, kingfishers and heron, and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Among the protected species indigenous to the area are bats - surely no coincidence considering the company's logo. The company has placed 20 bat boxes around the site in likely roosting locations.

River Test lends beauty and power

While helping to conserve the trout, grayling and eels of the River Test forms part of Bacardi's commitment to protect and nurture local biodiversity, the river pays some of that back by providing electricity. This in itself harks back to the site's origins as a paper mill when water power was also used. Now, rather than a water-wheel, the site boasts a reconditioned 1963 open-flume water turbine to generate electricity. With the solar panels also on the site, Fordham says Laverstoke Mill can derive between 5% to 10% of its electricity from renewable sources.

The distillery won the 2014 Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM) Industrial Award, which Bacardi describes as "a momentous accolade" for the distillery and its visitor centre. However, Fordham sees the quest for continuous improvement, evolution and optimisation as a vital component in the distillery's sustainable approach. "A lot of design work has gone in to make sure that we are very sustainable but there is also a will to continuously improve on that," Fordham says. For example, the company is currently considering investing in a steam generator to harness the energy the biomass boiler continues to put out during the "overrun" period after it is switched off.

Waste to landfill is currently "very minimal", Fordham says, but he plans to reduce this to zero by the end of the next year, which is "totally achievable".

The contrast between some of Laverstoke Mill's modern sustainable innovations and its 18th and 19th Century buildings speaks to the question of whether putting up new, purpose-built units or redeveloping old buildings is the more sustainable option. Fordham concedes that in terms of sheer cost effectiveness, new builds will win and that there were significant challenges in redeveloping Laverstoke Mill, but on the other hand what could be more "sustainable" than the idea of reusing something, whether it is a glass bottle or a building?

He also maintains that winning the BREEAM award, which is open to new builds, brown-field developments and restorations, underlines that sustainable innovation need not be confined to modern, purpose-built facilities. "We're the first ever refurbishment to win," he says, "and the first distillery to win."

Commitment to culture and heritage

It has been suggested that there is artifice in what Bacardi has done at Laverstoke Mill, that it acquired heritage and superimposed Bombay Sapphire onto it to gain brand marketing advantage. Purists - and certainly those who remain sceptical about the motivations of multinational businesses - may well hold to that view. However, it should be noted that the company honours the history and original use of Laverstoke Mill on its visitor tour and is preserving the site's history rather than distorting it.

An alternative may have been at some point to redevelop Laverstoke Mill for residential use, but Bacardi's regeneration keeps it working as a light industrial site and, in so doing, preserves stronger links with its history and heritage. As a paper producer, Laverstoke Mill produced banknotes for countries across the British Empire, and gin certainly has something of an "Empire" story itself. The main stills are situated in the Grade II-listed India House where banknotes were manufactured for colonial India.

Fordham puts things rather more bluntly, stating that the site was going to "rack and ruin" and Bacardi "saved it". When the company acquired Laverstoke Mill, he explains, it was derelict, only being used for training police dogs and being regularly plundered by scrap metal thieves, one imagines not at the same time. History, culture and heritage undoubtedly sit in the sustainability space but it is more difficult to place a value on them in terms of cost efficiency or the "business case", than with criteria such as water or energy efficiency. Undoubtedly, Bacardi has built itself an enviable location for corporate entertaining but once again placing a value on this is not straightforward.

In a sense, however, the fact that there is a less direct and quantifiable link to the "business case" in this redevelopment should be welcomed. While sustainability can be viewed in terms of the triple bottom line of social, environmental and economic sustainability, this cannot always tell the whole story.

To most people, there is something inherently more sustainable in a business which cherishes culture, heritage and natural beauty. If there is room for aesthetic and even romantic dimensions to sustainability, the regenerated Laverstoke Mill might lay claim to providing an example of best practice.

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