How Dr Anne Brock went from med student to bartender, to distiller and more.
It’s fair to say that Dr Anne Brock has something of a dream job as the master distiller for Bombay Sapphire, overseeing their Laverstoke distillery and the spirit for all of the Bombay brands.
She's got a fascinating story: she got a couple years into a medical degree before she realised just how locked in and mapped out that career path would be for her — and how that wasn't what she wanted.
She then became a bartender — it's not an unfamiliar storyline to anyone who has been to university only to prefer being behind the bar, and she credits her time as a bartender with helping her to become the person she is today.
I spoke to Dr Anne while she is in Melbourne this week, where she’s launching their latest gin, Bombay Sapphire Premier Cru, and in this conversation we talk about the lessons she learned as a bartender and how those two jobs — distiller and bartender — have more in common than just working with spirits. We talk about how she managed Covid and the potentially career-ending effects it brings (like the loss of smell), why the human nose still can’t be beaten by science and tech just yet, and what it feels like to see the things you make at work end up in the hands of bartenders around the world.
Below, I've got three key takeaways from the interview, but I do encourage you to give the full episode a listen — she's a smart, hospitality-savvy individual with the kind of role very few people get to do at such a high level.
”Sometimes it can be quite daunting sitting down with a blank piece of paper.”
In a world awash with gin spiked with exotic botanicals, there might be some who think that new releases from brands like Bombay Sapphire don’t go far enough, that they don’t stray as far from their previous releases as they could. I asked Dr Anne if she ever wants to go off piste, as it were, when developing new bottlings for Bombay.
“Bombay is an incredibly balanced gin,” she said. “Ivan [Tonuti, their master of botanicals] always talks about it like being a sphere in flavour. They’re all perfectly balanced when you’re drinking it, you go through a journey, but no one flavour stands out or fights or overwhelms the others. And that actually makes it quite hard to use that as a DNA for another gin because we always want to make beautifully balanced gins. If you add a little bit more citrus, you’ve distorted the sphere. And so you’ve got to build it out in other directions as well to keep that balance — that’s where the challenge lies.”
So the trick for Dr Anne and her team is creating something new whilst retaining the classic Bombay Sapphire DNA — without discarding the core identity of what they do. In fact, it’s that framework that fosters creativity rather than inhibiting it, she says.
“Sometimes it can be quite daunting sitting down with a blank piece of paper,” says Dr Anne. “If you’ve got some structure there to kickstart ideas and thoughts, it’s sometimes less nerve-wracking and less daunting.”
“There’s a beauty in the day to day.”
Talking to Dr Anne it seems that her chief responsibility is to ensure quality across their range day in and day out — whilst other aspects of her calendar might change, maintaining the high quality of the spirit is the one constant in her day at the distillery.
It makes sense — Bombay Sapphire is a well established, premium brand known throughout the world. You don't want to mess that up.
But I did wonder if that repetition doesn’t get monotonous or even a touch boring, to which she quickly and unequivocally disagreed.
“I think there’s an element of understanding that being a distiller isn’t just creating new products all the time,” she says. “Coming back to what you said earlier about, do I get bored? No, there’s a beauty in the day to day. I get a real thrill out of knowing that we’ve had a great production week and we’ve met a lot or even beaten all our plans for the week.”
It's an experience of work that a bartender can recognise, she says.
“You know, there’s a lot of day to day operations in bars — it’s the setup, it’s the close down. It’s just getting those drinks out.” Being creative and releasing new menus rarely happens when compared to the repetition of serving drinks all night long.
“So there is that element of procedure that you have to be happy with, which you get through working in a lab or working in a bar.”
There’s a zen in distilling gin, then, getting every little piece perfect every time.
Technology “won’t tell us if the gins are right or not.”
There’s no doubt a lot of science involved in distillation, and you’ll find plenty of technical equipment even in the smallest of distilleries. But as Dr Anne explains, the most advanced piece of kit in the distillery is one’s nose.
“We have a gas chromatography machine that we use to run traces of all the gin we produce. And that just gives us an idea of the main compounds that are in the gin,” she says. “It won’t tell us if the gin’s right or not.
“I can pick up two samples of Bombay Sapphire — I think one’s great and one’s different and not right; they look exactly the same on the gas chromatography. And that therein lies the issue, because then you’re having to try and find what’s gone wrong, and you can’t, there’s no machine that can tell you that and that’s where your skills as a distiller and looking at the botanicals and the distillation process, the profile, cut points — you have to go back to those.”
So whilst Dr Anne may have a PhD in organic chemistry, and it no doubt helps to understand the distillation process and the workings of a modern distillery, it isn’t the most important element in her arsenal. It’s how she brings that knowledge to bear on the tasks at hand combined with her natural abilities — like having a good nose.
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