Walk into a distillery, even a micro-distillery, and you do expect to see a still.
A small still, at the very least. That’s not the case in the micro-distillery in a small basement room beneath the award-winning Orchid Bar in Aberdeen, Scotland, where they make Porter’s Gin. Instead, there are several rotary evaporators (rotavaps), which are more normally found in laboratories.
Rotavaps work by lowering the pressure inside a flask, which means that whatever is in the flask will boil at a lower temperature. The people behind the Orchid Bar thought this might make for more intense flavors in some distillates for their cocktails, and this proved to be the case. Then when they decided to make their own gin, they experimented to see if it worked equally well on potential botanicals, and it did.
The result is a unique way of making gin, in collaboration with G&J Distillers, who make such well-known gins as Greenall’s, Opihr, Bloom, and Thomas Dakin. G&J make the base spirit in its pot still, and then Porter’s add the rotavapped botanicals.
“But why is it called Porter’s?” we ask Martin Farmer, the director of operations. “It’s named after Andrew Porter,” he says. ‘Andrew was one of our earliest supporters and was a biology professor at the university. Somehow one of his rotavaps ended up in our basement, but we won’t go into that.”
The founders of the Orchid Bar in 2009 were Ben Iravani, Josh Rennie, and Alex Lawrence, who honed his bartending skills here in Aberdeen before moving on to become head bartender at London’s Dandelyan when it was voted Best Bar in the World in 2018. It’s one reason that it says on every bottle of Porter’s: ‘Made in a bar, not in a boardroom.’
“We renovated the bar for more of a Prohibition/Speakeasy feel. Four years ago, we decided to launch Porter’s Gin. We had the ambition to be the best cocktail bar in the world, but Aberdeen doesn’t get the tourists that Glasgow and Edinburgh do, so we thought we’d get into making spirits.”
Two of the botanicals that go into Porter’s Gin are very unusual—the leek and Buddha’s hand.
“Leek does sound odd,” Martin agrees, “but it gives the gin a scent of citrus. There’s pink peppercorn in there as well, and another unusual botanical is called Buddha’s hand, which we macerate for two days. It’s also a citrus fruit that comes from Asia and helps give us that very citrus-led profile that we wanted. It took us nine months to perfect the recipe.”
Porter’s second product is different yet again: Porter’s Tropical Old Tom Gin. This is the same base gin but with passion fruit, guava, and white tea, plus 2% sugar to add even more tropical sweetness. On both the nose and palate it’s definitely tropical, with the passion fruit dominant.
“There’s nothing much like this on the market,” Martin says, “and sales are rising. We’re now working on a third gin, an over-proofed gin, which is nice and spicy. And we’re working on a canned cocktail.”
One other advantage the rotavaps give them is the ability to have fun and experiment in small batches. Martin fetches from the shelves some samples of gins they’ve produced which haven’t made it to the market, including a tomato gin and a strawberry gin, both very different and both very delicious.
“One of our cocktails was called a Battered Mars Bar. We macerated a Mars Bar and I can tell you that it makes for a banging cocktail!”