The grand Mansion House on the Wokefield Estate is within easy reach of London – and also Bombay Sapphire's distillery at Laverstoke Mill, a fact which has inspired a gin-themed weekend.
At this point I think it’s pretty clear that if gin were an army, it would be that of Alexander the Great. The young general would by now be shedding a tear, weeping that there are no worlds left to conquer.
The rise and rise of England’s most famous distilled spirit over the past two or three years has been nothing less than astonishing. Barely a day passes without a new small-batch bottling appearing on the market, whether a traditional London Dry or one of the umpteen different varieties infused with all manner of botanicals from around the world. Yet it’s hard to get too exercised about this decidedly first world problem, partly because so many of the new gins have so much to offer, and partly because gin’s popularity has inspired all sorts of nice little ideas.
Take Laverstoke Mill, for example. Bombay Sapphire moved their distillery to this idyllic spot in 2014, reasoning that a charming old paper mill in a Hampshire village would make a better visitor centre than the Warrington industrial estate where it was previously made. They’re right – it does, as we’ll talk about further down below.
Laverstoke Mill is close enough to London to be done as a day trip, but is far enough away to work as a weekend break. And thus the De Vere Wokefield Estate, roughly half an hour away in the direction of Reading, has put together a package that includes an overnight stay for two at the hotel, a three-course meal and a pair of tickets to the distillery.
Wokefield has just completed a £20 million refurbishment, and very nicely it’s been done too, with the Mansion House (rather than the more modern Wokefield Place) being the part of the property you’ll want to stay in. A lot of thought has gone in to the furnishings and the guests’ experience. Take the ‘DIY hot toddy’ set waiting for us in the room, for example: on a cold day, it was both welcome and a lot of fun to mix up the whisky, honey, lemon and cloves with a little warm water.
Rooms were immaculately decorated and finished, staff were friendly and helpful – a glitch with our original room was quickly and courteously rectified by moving us to another – and the grounds are wide open and very pleasant for a stroll. There’s also a golf course on site if you want to make that walk more interesting (or spoil it, if you’re in Mark Twain’s camp on the sport).
If the walk was pleasant, dinner was even more so. Before arriving we hadn’t heard much about the 1560 restaurant – named for the year that the first part of this building went up – and had no particular expectations. Yet the food was very, very good indeed: a ham hock terrine starter was as good as I’ve had, the beef fillet which followed was perfectly-done, and the pork belly with lentils would be the envy of the sort of gastropub which people rave about.
A new spa is opening next year, and if that’s part of your reason for going away it’s worth holding off: the gym and pool as they stand are functional rather than inspiring. The spa will also, of course, make it much easier for golfers to persuade their non-playing spouses to come for the weekend. It is worth aiming for a weekend, incidentally, even if you don’t have to: the hotel’s bread-and-butter is in business conferences, so if you go during the week there’s a good chance you’ll be sharing the place with delegates unleashed for a day or two from their offices.
De Vere Wokefield Estate’s gin lovers’ weekend away costs from £154 for two people, including two tickets to the Self-Discovery Experience at the Bombay Sapphire distillery an overnight stay in a Superior room in the Mansion House, a three-course dinner in the 1560 Restaurant & Bar and breakfast. See www.devere.co.uk/wokefield-estate for more.
Things to do: The Bombay Sapphire distillery at Laverstoke Mill
Bombay Sapphire’s distillery at Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire is, on the face of it, the sort of in thing that’s easy to be cynical about. The gin was only launched in 1987, is currently owned by Bacardi, and has a sense of history that’s borrowed from the image of Queen Victoria on the label, the use of an 18th century recipe and the acquisition of a beautiful old paper mill (prior to that it was made on an industrial estate in Warrington).
Yet the fact is that for anyone with even a passing interest in gin, the distillery really is a couple of hours well spent. The mill – where the Bank of India’s notes were once printed – is in a beautiful spot in a pretty part of the world, and the inspired glasshouse that’s been added to the centre of the plot is an inspired addition. The tour is mostly taken at your own pace, with the benefit of an audioguide telling you about the site and the drink that’s made here. The only guided section comes in the distillation room itself: you’ll see the vast copper stills which make every drop of the 55 million bottles a year sold around the world.
There’s also a room where you can have a sniff of the individual ‘botanicals’ – or ‘ingredients’, as I like to think of them – to see which ones you like best, a decision which will help the bartenders choose you a cocktail at the end. If you’re driving, incidentally – remember, it’s a good half hour from the hotel – they’ll offer you a mocktail and a mini gin-and-tonic takeaway kit, with a Bombay Sapphire miniature and a can of Fever Tree.
For those not on the Wokefield Estate package, Bombay Sapphire distillery self-discovery tour tickets £16 – see distillery.bombaysapphire.com