Porter’s gin had an organic beginning. First in the mix was myself – a young engineering graduate not afraid to break the mould and spurn a stable career for the more exciting, enterprising project of opening a cocktail bar. This was easier said than done. Years of bartending and a passion for creating the finest mixed drinks had to be coupled with level-headed business sense. In 2009, I opened Orchid, the first late-night cocktail bar in my home town of Aberdeen.
Since we opened, Orchid has had continued success and recognition for the quality of bartending and drinks, and this led to two more projects in Aberdeen: a partnership with Japanese restaurant Yatai Izakaya, and an acquisition of the quirky and fun-loving 99 bar and Kitchen. The downside to this was that I was too busy to pursue another ambition: to create a real, tangible product that could be appreciated by people outside of the bar, Aberdeen and Scotland, and even outside the UK.
Move on 2 years, and along comes a chap to work in Orchid called Danil Nevsky. Dan was about as brash as they come, and equally enigmatic, but his drinks were ridiculously delicious and his passion for progressing our bar was second to none. We chatted endlessly about drinks and cocktails, and fatefully started something we called ‘the gin project’. We didn’t have any distillation equipment, nor did we have a licence to distill, which left us with the Dickensian-sounding option of making “bathtub gin” by “cold compounding in the cellars of orchid”. After a lot of discussion, the gin project was put on hold, and Dan then went to Amsterdam to join one of the world’s best cocktail bars (and one of my personal favourites) – Tales and Spirits.
Mr Nevsky himself behind the stick at Tales and Spirits, Amsterdam.
Next in the mix, and the real catalyst for Porter’s gin, came when an intensely driven young bartender, Alex Lawrence, joined Orchid. Alex was just sinking his taste buds into cocktails, but his thirst for knowledge and his intelligent ability to look at cocktails from an analytical viewpoint meant his skills quickly developed. He soaked up more information in his first year in Orchid than anyone else that has passed through its doors. From the outset, Alex was intent on distilling his own spirits to use in cocktails.
The necessary distillation equipment was called a “rotary evaporator” (aka rotavap), a scientific tool that can distill at low temperatures. By chance, two of the bar’s investors, Professor Andrew Porter and Dr Keith Charlton, both worked within bio-science at the University of Aberdeen, and they helped us source the various parts required to build our own rotavap! This looked like something out of Frankenstein’s lair, a far cry from the nice shiny Buchi equipment that we have today.
From then on, Alex started to make some really creative and interesting cocktails, slicing flavour profiles and really creating some ground-breaking drinks with distillates made from grass, coffee, various milks and fats and we also worked on some fun loving projects together like Scotland’s infamous “Deep-fried battered Mars bar”. Insane as it may sound, a Deep-fried Mars Old Fashioned is an absolutely delicious cocktail.
Alex Lawrence behind the bar in Orchid, Aberdeen.
That sparked a ‘lightbulb’ moment which re-ignited the gin project. I began to dedicate my time to studying distillation and flavour extraction, specifically using the rotavap. I became fascinated by the flavour and fragrance industry, and spent my spare time reading food-science journals and discovering how the big flavour and fragrance houses create their products. I visited as many gin distilleries as I could and started to uncover how the gin industry worked. With time now divided between this and running the two bars and restaurant, and Alex busy with competitions and international trips, I couldn’t do everything alone. Luckily an old friend, Josh Rennie, had just returned to the UK after 5 years of working in China and was interested in starting a new project.
I had known Josh since we were 12 when we were shooting some b-ball and listening to gangster rap. We also studied at university together and although I studied engineering and Josh studied law, we both had a passion for fine food and drink. While most students drank the cheapest drinks and uni campus food, when we could afford it, Josh and I would skip the canteen for fine dining and seeking out the finest cognacs to enjoy, our student loans well-spent.
After uni, Josh went to work in Hong Kong before starting an education company in Beijing. On his return, we went for a craft beer and a catch up and he was excited about the idea of creating a gin.
Josh quickly turned into a distiller / botanical researcher, and was turning up at Orchid daily with bags of unusual herbs, plants, fruits and spices which he had procured from various sources. We spent a lot of time distilling these at different temperatures and pressures to see how they would react, and what kind of flavour extraction we achieve with each distillate. Before long, we’d created a distillate “library” of hundreds of different botanicals.
Myself, Alex (left) and Josh (right)
We also distilled all the traditional gin botanicals in our rotavap, however we quickly realised that cold-distillation wasn’t the optimum method of flavour extraction for many of the classic botanicals. The lower heat meant that a much lighter aroma and flavour was created, not what we wanted from some of the robust, deeply flavoured botanicals like juniper. It was at this point that we decided to utilise a combination of modern and traditional distillation techniques.
A few of the hundreds of distillates we have in our library
We also spent a lot of time tasting various gins and researching the industry. It seemed that the more gins we tasted, the more we came back to the London Dry style of gin. We appreciated the subtleties in the more refined gins such as the punchy characteristics Tanqueray, the citrus and creamy notes of Sloanes, the vibrancy of Broker’s, the staple classic that is Beefeater and the easy to ‘gin-face’ Martin Millers.
We don’t like the marketing gimmicks that appear all over the gin industry, and we wanted to make sure that we did everything a certain way for a reason and a purpose. Unlike a lot of brands, we don’t have a marketing department which is detached from the way that the product was actually created. We wanted to represent the brand ourselves and let our efforts in creating (or attempting to create!) a world-class gin shine through in our branding. In other words, we wanted to present Porter’s as it actually is, rather than create a separate story or image. This philosophy influenced our botanical choice and method of production, which we wanted to be purposeful.
It’s from these conversations and tastings that we created the desired flavour profile for Porter’s gin. We wanted something that was subtly brilliant, citrusy and refreshing but still led with a punch juniper front similar to that of the classic gins. So why throw in a quirky botanical just to be unique if it doesn’t improve the flavour? Why distill juniper and coriander in a cold method, when it tastes punchier distilled at a higher temperature? And why distill the beautifully refreshing Buddha’s Hand in a copper still if it ruins the freshness of the flavour?
This inspired the fusion of modern and traditional distillation techniques. We decided that the taste that we wanted from our gin would require us to distill some of the botanicals in the rotavap in our bar, and seek out a copper pot-still to partner with for the rest. So off we went to search for a pot still. This started with me talking to gin distilleries both locally and nationally to see if they would be willing to work on this project with us. This mission brought my wife and I to some interesting locations, and we had some great discussions with gin producers around the country.
Finally, following an insightful road trip with Josh across three of the largest distilleries in the country, we decided to partner with G&J Distillers, who are based in Warrington. In spite of being the oldest distillery in the UK (established in 1771) and one of the UK’s largest, they seemed eager to work with us and were interested in our story and our ambition. It didn’t hurt that they have a world class record in gin production and a team that has created some of the best traditional as well as modern recipes.
The 200 Litre still used for creating part of Porter’s gin with G&J Distillers
At that point we had our flavour profile in mind, our distillation process figured out and our botanicals more or less finalised, so we then set ourselves the goal of perfecting our recipe. This is an extremely difficult task, and is the real art of gin distillation. The slightest increase in one botanical can completely unbalance the flavour, and with our 12 botanicals the different combinations of different quantities is infinite. Not to mention the other variables such as whether to use a pot still or rotavap and the temperature, maceration times, sourcing of the botanicals…the list goes on. It turned out to be a great partnership and G&J provided us with expertise and additional manpower that allowed us to speed up the whole process of perfecting the recipe. It still took us about 18 months, during which time we created hundreds of gin samples, and almost drove ourselves insane.
As every master distiller will tell you, it’s easy to make gin, but making a good gin is another ball game. If we just wanted to release an ‘average’ gin, we could have done that 50 times over with all of the fairly good gins that we had created. Likewise, being from the north east of Scotland, we could have easily made a quirky product with local provenance and thrown in hand-picked mushrooms, filtered it through granite and stored it in whisky barrels. But that’s not what we are about. We championed the philosophy of making things difficult for ourselves for the purpose of perfecting a simple but good recipe. We enjoy traditional gin but we wanted to genuinely add something to the category rather than selling a gin with a strange USP and a fabricated marketing story. I
In short, we subjected ourselves to doing hundreds of small scale distillations, monitoring pressures, temperatures and maceration times for each of our botanicals. It was very laborious, requiring a lot of time spent with botanicals resting in alcohols of different strengths, then distilling them all with altered variables before finally tasting the resulting distillates. Fractions of millilitres became important, and the most frustrating moments came when an extra microlitre (yes, micro) of pink peppercorn turned a promising gin into a disaster.
Then came the Buddha’s Hand chapter. This botanical is a rare Asian citrus fruit that has “fingers”, no juice, fragrant peel and loads of pith. When we couldn’t find a European supplier who could provide us with large quantities of the type that created our ideal flavour profile we turned to the internet. This allowed us to talk directly with Chinese farmers who grow, dry and wholesale Buddha’s Hand, and we became possibly one of the largest importers of this product in Europe! There’s a reason why very few gin distillers actually sources their own botanicals – it’s insanely hard to get a consistent flavour from a reliable source. After 10 wildly different samples we almost gave up hope before finding the one we use today. On top of this, it turns out that “dried Buddha’s hand” raises a bit of an alarm with customs and excise officials who perhaps read into the name too literally. Finally, to add to our workload, the tremendous amount of pith that is attached to the dried peel soaks up and wastes alcohol, meaning that we need to hand cut the precious peel from the pith before we macerate the Buddha’s Hand in alcohol.
The journey for creating Porter’s gin has to put us up there as one of the most labour intensive gins in the world. We are proud to drink the delicious gin we created and we stand behind the philosophy that everything we have done, has been done for a reason and a purpose.
We look forward to seeing where the future goes, and we hope that you enjoy our deliciously, passionately and tirelessly created gin.
by Ben Iravani