In common with many driven, successful people, Dr Anne Brock never intended to go into the profession which she has made her own. She wanted to be a doctor – specifically for Médecins Sans Frontières – and started out at medical school with that aim in mind. But it wasn’t to be. “I loved the idea of being a doctor but I hated being at medical school,” she told Club Oenologique. “I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for university at all in fact, so I dropped out and worked front of house in restaurants for a couple of years doing seasons: you’d work in the summer and then go backpacking in the winter. A very easy way of life.”
Evenutually Brock decided that she needed to go to university so she took her degree, followed by a PhD in organic chemistry at Oxford University. The route to distilling still wasn’t clear though: Brock was keen on the idea of perfumery. “I am fascinated by the power of smell. I thought about being a perfumier and did some research into the routes I might take. Smell is so evocative. I remember my mum’s perfume as a child would fill the whole whole car. For me and my siblings, whenever we smell it, we feel car sick.”
She had long had “a passion for spirits – I was always given gin as a present” but it wasn’t until a chemist friend suggested it that she fell into distilling. “It was a light-bulb moment. I hadn’t thought of it before but it made perfect sense: it brought together all the things I liked doing – hospitality, science, and the very practical element, the feeling that you’re achieving something every day.”
She started at Bermondsey Distillery, which operates out of a railway arch near London Bridge, before moving onto the very much bigger Bombay Sapphire (“We’re the fastest-growing premium gin brand in the world at the moment”), which occupies Thomas Heatherwick’s striking glass distillery at Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire.
We’re still loading botanicals by hand, and all the cuts are made by nosing and tasting
Bombay Sapphire, owned by Bacardi, is a huge international operation selling 3.8m cases a year in 149 countries, but Brock stresses the “hands-on” nature of the process. “There’s this idea that a distillery our size will be all automated, but one of the nice things is that this isn’t the case at all. We’re still loading botanicals into the still by hand, and all the cuts [the process of discarding unwanted chemicals during distillation] are made by nosing and tasting. At the end of the day, I’m accountable. I’m responsible for sending out Bombay Sapphire that smells and tastes like Bombay Sapphire. It’s my nose that says go, or no.”
What was your childhood ambition?
To become a surgeon and work with Médecins Sans Frontières
What exercise do you do?
Yoga has been my favourite form of exercise over the past few years. I used to run regularly, but training for a half marathon took away the joy, so I stopped. I now mix yoga up with short HIIT exercises that I do at home, and I try and go for long walks at the weekend.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I’d love to be able to say no without feeling guilty
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
I was a student for 10 years so modesty was forced on me. Tuition fees were my biggest outlay until I bought my car – a dark green Mini named Percy. Generally, whenever I spent a lot of money, it was for plane tickets to go travelling. I’ve never bought a property
If you could do any other job what would it be, and why?
Make perfume for one of the luxury perfume houses – a job that still keeps both the creative and scientific sides of my brain engaged. I don’t wear perfume now – I need my nose unaffected by other aromas and ready to nose the gin as it comes off the stills – but I used to love trying on my mother’s perfume when I was young
What’s your favourite restaurant – anywhere?
I love exploring countries through their cuisine and I’ve been to some incredible restaurants in my time – both through work and on my own when travelling. For a top end, definitely-on-expenses restaurant I’d say Crown Shy in New York. I went there just over a year ago and it was brilliant. I don’t need a restaurant to be fancy though: I’m happy sitting on the kerb eating a taco, or on a plastic beach chair with some beers and a curry.
What luxury item (except gin) would you take with you to a desert island?
A blanket. Shade in the day (I burn to a crisp very easily) and warmth at night (I hate being cold).
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
There are a lot of countries on my travel wish list which I haven’t yet managed to get to. I love exploring the beautiful planet we live on. It is one of the many reasons I am so passionate about sustainability at the distillery – we need to look after it. Japan and Myanmar are top of my list. I love south-east Asia; I love the food and I have a connection, as a great-aunt of mine was a midwife in Burma (present-day Myanmar) just before World War II
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
There are some basics in life that I would make sure everyone had access to irrespective of their personal wealth – food, safe shelter, healthcare and education. And I’d protect the juniper crops across the world by royal decree to reserve the very best for gin making.
Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
Right now? My friends and family, inside in the warmth, sharing food, cocktails and a lot of hugs. I miss this so much. I’d also invite Michelle Obama, Katherine Jackson [the NASA mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the early Apollo missions], Miriam Margolyes and Dorothy Parker. All these women would have fascinating, witty stories and would also be up for some cocktails and fun. I thought of inviting Marie and Pierre Curie but I feel they’d come straight from the lab with plutonium in their pockets which would poison us all…
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Apparently, I say ‘awesome’ a lot.
What’s your greatest regret?
I try not to regret anything, I focus on learning from my mistakes and moving on.
What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?
Like many people I am watching far too many boxsets right now. Killing Eve, Schitt’s Creek and several documentary series have got me through nights in lockdown. I particularly love Schitt’s Creek – it’s mindless, very easy watching but it’s well-written, clever and very funny. There’s a level of intelligence while at the same time it’s really easy to watch. I love the fact it’s the rich sophisticates who are the idiots, and the country hicks just stand on the sidelines and watch them make fools of themselves.
What time do you go to bed?
I try and get to bed before 10pm in the week. I get up before 6am and I love sleep. This is much easier to do now that I live in the countryside; when I was in London I’d be lucky to achieve it.