Pickering's Gin: the start of something big

Matt Gammell from Pickering's tells Sonya Hook how he unwittingly created the first exclusive gin distillery in Edinburgh in more than 150 years.

A short walk south of Edinburgh city centre, across picturesque public park The Meadows, will bring you to a striking red-brick building known as Summerhall. On its website Summerhall is described as “a vibrant cultural village” and “a place where things happen”, and a raft of events, from comedy and independent films to university science lectures, is listed.

For many years the building was an animal hospital and later fell under ownership of the University of Edinburgh’s Veterinary College, where it was affectionately known as the Dick Vet (after founder William Dick).

The story of Pickering’s gin starts in 2011, when founders Matt Gammell and Marcus Pickering were called in to help renovate Summerhall and convert it for public use so it could house its current total of 120 businesses.

Gammell tells DRN: “We really liked the space and when tenants started going in we decided we wanted to be part of it.”

Pickering had recently inherited a gin recipe from a friend of his late father – a piece of paper from India dated 1947 – and the pair, who had a mutual love of gin, decided to set up a distillery.

Gammell says: “With my background as a mechanical engineer we were able to build and install it all ourselves. At the time we had no idea what the market was like. We had no plans to sell lots and lots of gin. Really at the start it was just a hobby we wanted to explore.

“Our bottles have a wax seal, but even that wasn’t intentional. When we looked at tear-tops we discovered the minimum order was 35,000 units and we just thought that would be impossible, so we looked at smaller-scale options and that’s what led us to hand-sealing the bottles individually with wax.“

When Pickering’s started out brands such as Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Hendrick’s, The Botanist and Caorunn dominated the Scottish gin market.

Gammell says: “Eden Mill was about to come on stream and Edinburgh gin was around at that time but it didn’t have its own distillery. And we thought the market was a bit crowded.

“Very quickly we became aware that the fact we had built our distillery ourselves was unique, but we literally hadn’t known there were other options available. We had no concept that you could contract-distil your products.

“So it was an opportunity because, although it was never meant to be a big thing, we realised we were sitting on Edinburgh’s first exclusive gin distillery in 150 years.”

The pair then looked at scaling the business up and in five years it has grown rapidly, with 22 members of staff and a distillery producing 20,000 cases a year.

Gammell says: “As it grew we started to look at distribution to the off and on-trades and we also had to look at how we could set ourselves apart. Early on Marcus bought a van – before we even had a still – and now it has become one of the most photographed assets of the business. That then set the tone of what has grown to be us as botanical engineers.”

Other items joined the van, including an old Japanese airport fire engine (re-engineered as a “thirst extinguisher”, dispensing gin through its hoses), an Airstream trailer, a trunk (the lid opens to lights, music and gin), and other “weird and wonderful investments and differentials”.

Gammell says: “These are great assets for us and for consumers to engage with.”

CAPACITY FOR GROWTH

Pickering’s takes up a small segment of the Summerhall space – and it is complemented by a brewery and a popular bar called The Royal Dick – but Gammell says the business still has plenty of capacity to grow.

“We are physically constrained by our building and by our decision to do it all ourselves, but we have been able to store things off-site to enable us to keep on using this space. We have been awarded best visitor attraction for the area by Trip Advisor and we see 30,000- 40,000 people through our doors each year.

“Although we have focused a lot on the brand, it all stems back to our original plan, which was a desire to create our perfect G&T. We also wanted to be in a sensible price bracket – we knew we wanted to be £30 a bottle. If you have made a discerning choice with your disposable income to upgrade to a premium product then if it’s a £30 gin you might buy it again. If it’s £45 you might like it, but it’s less likely you will buy it again.”

Pickering’s also has a good export market, according to Gammell, and it was one of the first of the newer-wave of UK gins to enter Australia. He says: “We have been lucky in that we have been ahead of the curve in lots of respects when you look at the level of saturation in the UK.

“About 20-30% of our business is now exported and it started in 2014 before we were even a year old. We had the opportunity to link up with the Edinburgh Tattoo and it was touring to Australia, so we went along. This also extended us into South Korea and Hong Kong, and then New Zealand. Europe is probably one of our smallest export markets. We are in 22 states of the US, Canada, Denmark, Austria and we are currently looking at China.

“Our associations have been quite clever and these have helped us enormously. We are the Edinburgh Tattoo’s official gin and we created a gin especially for the Royal Yacht Britannia. We also produce gins for each of Cunard’s luxury liners. “We have made some strategic decisions and all the people we have brought on board in the journey help us to make it work.”

Looking to the future, Gammell is confident the authenticity of the brand will help ensure its success in the crowded gin market. He says: “Gin has definitely opened up the market as it is the least gender-specific spirit. Vodka was always traditionally female and whiskey male, but gin has really been disrupting people’s perceptions and it was been really interesting.

“But now it is a hugely cluttered marketplace and I think there will have to be some legislation at some point about what can be called a gin.

“When I look at the market now I am astounded. Would I set up a gin now looking at the current marketplace? No way.

“But we have loads of plans for Pickering’s for the future. A key innovation was our gin baubles and we are looking to do unique things with that this year. And we have some other plans ahead. We have tried to stick to products we believe in.”

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