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  • Writer's pictureLewis Robertson

An afternoon at Pickerings gin, learning the Science of gin and tonic

“Would I do it all again? If you started me a day one with the knowledge I’ve got now. Would I go into the industry, no.” Dram Talk speaks with Matt Gammell head distiller and Co-founder of Pickerings gin.

It has to be said, there are far worse ways you can spend a Tuesday afternoon. Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Pickerings gin distillery at Summerhall for a tour of the distillery and of course, for a taster of the gin itself.

I arrived at the distillery for their tour, “The science of gin and tonic”.When you are stood in the courtyard outside the distillery there are still no obvious pointers that a multi award-winning gin is being created behind these old walls. The distillery itself used to be an animal hospital in which both the owners; Marcus Pickering and Matt Gammell renovated. The brilliance of the distillery is not only in the gin it produces. But It is also in both men’s ingenuity to use and respect the old exterior and interior of the late Royal Dick Veterinary School and blend that with the modern-day technology and design available to them to create a great gin.

Emily and Gertrude, the two stills which make Pickering's gin

Combining old with the new is a reoccurring theme in Pickering’s gin, everything from their building right down to their gin. It’s hard to think that Pickerings has only been around since 2013 with their plethora of awards and products. But the original recipe for their gin has been around for much longer, dating back to the 17thof July 1947. Marcus Pickering inherited this recipe from his late father and teamed up with his business partner Matt Gammell to start Pickering’s gin.

The two men have extensive backgrounds in engineering and property renovation, which aided in their quest to create a great distillery and arts venue. Pickering’s gin, really is a gin that encapsulates Edinburgh. Marcus and Matt helped turn Summerhall into a venue that celebrates performance arts in Edinburgh and loosely boasts around 120 businesses inside Summerhall. There really could not be a better gin company to start in Edinburgh for the first time in over 150 years.

The tour costs around £15.00 and it really is a modest price for what you learn and see. It starts off with in the best possible way. A free drink of the good stuff. As mentioned previously the distillery used to be an old Veterinary school and it still holds a lot of the old features of the school. White tiled walls cover the interior and amongst all the brewing equipment are the original dog kennels. Along with this are obviously, the pot stills and multiple copper pipes snaking out across the walls. The distillery gives more of an impression as a scientist’s lab rather than a modern-day distillery.

Brewing equipment at the distillery, if you look carefully you can see the original kennels behind the pots.

Matt then proceeds to tell us about the botanicals and processes behind the making of Pickering’s gin. He passes round various botanicals such as, Juniper berries and Angelica for us all to smell and have a look at. He explains each botanical in detail and then proceeds to take you through step by step the process of making Pickering’s gin. The openness of the tour allows for a unique opportunity to understand how great gin is made and it really doesn’t hide anything. To make my point abundantly clear that the tour hides nothing, they even have the original recipe on the wall.

The original Pickering's recipe from 1947

We then got shown around the rest of the distillery, which only really comprises of two average sized rooms. Matt shows us various bottling stations for the gin. One of the stations which stands out is the Christmas gin bobble station. Last year Pickerings released Christmas bobbles filled to the brim with their gin. The shocking thing is the station is really no bigger than a meter and a half and it produced one million bobbles last year.

Some freshly filled bottles waiting to be sealed in wax

For the final stage of the tour we got to taste three of the products. Pickerings 1947, Pickerings Navy strength gin, and the Pickerings original gin Unfortunately, the trouble for myself was having already had a drink of gin and then being offered the equivalent of three shots of the gin, meant I had restrain my temptation to throw all three down my neck as I had to remind myself, I was here for an interview with Matt. And it would be significantly more challenging after four drams.

Finally, after the tour I was able to speak with Matt. We went to one of his conference rooms above the distillery to talk. As he sat down, I noticed behind him the plethora of awards quite literality covering the whole wall, this was when I really began to understand the magnitude of Pickerings success.

Dram Talk:You have an extensive background in engineering and property renovation, why did you decide you had to get involved with gin?

Matt Gammell:“Marcus came to me one day and said well we’ve got a brewery, we’ve got a pub we should have a distillery. Question put to me was do you fancy making gin, my answer very simply was yes. Beyond that what did we know about making gin. Absolutely nothing at that point other than we both enjoyed drinking it. And had a passion for gin, always had. And as for making it, well we went off on a voyage of discovery."

Dram Talk: How have you found the learning process of making Gin and Tonic?

Matt Gammell:For me it’s been a really interesting one… Marcus and I, our goal was to create our perfect gin and tonic. That was our mantra when we set about trying to create Pickerings gin. The influence of the Indian recipe gave us some really interesting flavours and you’ll have noted when were doing the tasting, the difference between the orange and the red and the diversity. If we launched with the orange top the really spicy recipe the Bombay recipe when we launched five years ago. People would have thought we were mad. That’s how far the gin industry has come just about anything goes.”

Dram Talk: What is it about gin that makes it so approachable for many people, which perhaps Rum and Whisky lack?

Matt Gammell:“Public perception has changed in the fact that a guy standing drinking a pink cocktail, no one bats an eye lid, but the persona ten years ago or fifteen years ago that wouldn’t have happened. Public perception has allowed this to flourish… You say you want to go to a whisky distillery it’s going to, no matter what, it won’t completely alienate women, but it does alienate a lot of women because it’s still traditionally, maybe the same as rum less so perhaps than whisky, I’m not sure. Until they can shake off that persona that gin has managed to achieve. Then it will be kept as traditionally something your gran drank or something a guy drank in a golf club.”

Dram Talk: The Scottish Gin Society estimates there are around 70 active distilleries in Scotland. There are new gins appearing all the time. How do you in the gin industry keep on top of the competition?

Matt Gammell: "The DNA of your brand is a result of the people who own and run and set up a brand and I guess the fact we have got our little Austin A35 (Ginny) was the first vehicle we got, our little red car, this set the tone. Marcus bought that before he bought a still. He came back and said I’ve bought this car. I said what are you doing!? Now, it’s one of the most photographed and iconic bits of branding of our brand.

But our Monkey bike downstairs, you would have seen our martini maker, all these things we have got as part of our whole sort of eclectic mix of vehicles, we have now got a Japanese fire engine. All these things are what set us apart.

I think location helps, being in the city centre of one of the major arts venues means people can find us and approach us… this lot behind me, these awards, that’s a fraction of them. Being able to get world respected awards in spirit competitions for the quality of the liquid in the bottle as well as the marketing and all the things we do. It’s all small margins.”

Dram Talk: Looking at the awards behind you, did you ever expect any of this?

Matt Gammell: “God no! Marcus and I never expected to sell. The reason we went to a wax dip seal rather than capsule seal was we didn’t think we would sell 30,000 bottles. So that is the genuine truth. Never ever, expected to get to the level we have got to.”

Dram Talk: How important is it for you to collaborate with other Scottish brands be that drinks or food?

Matt Gammell: "Yeah, we have worked with Tom Kitchen, we have worked with a number of chefs on how to pair food. In fact, one of the fish mongers in Stockbridge uses our 1947 to marinade fish in and it sells incredibly well!”

Dram talk: If you could go back to day one, what would you change?

Matt Gammell: "Would I do it all again? If you started me a day one, with the knowledge I’ve got now. Would I go into the industry, no. The answer is no. Now, because I don’t think there is space for more gins.

Unless you find something incredibly unique that can set yours apart from the thousand gins that are in the UK, let alone around the globe. Then the only other route to market is pay your way in with an enormous marketing budget and enormous amount of product."

Dram Talk: What has been the most rewarding part of the process?

Matt Gammell: "I think the most rewarding for me is, seeing my product somewhere. I remember back in 2015 going to Australia. We were barely a year old. And Marcus and I went to Australia because we were the official gin of the Edinburgh military tattoo. And the tattoo went to Australia in early 2015. We were going out there to see how this would work for us and we went into a bar in Sydney and there behind the bar was a bottle of Pickering’s gin. And that is an incredible moment… none of this was expected off a mad idea one day to make some gin."

Pickering’s gin is truly something Edinburgh and Scotland can be proud of, the willingness to share their product and knowledge with Scotland and the world in an age of commercialisation is admirable. I highly recommend giving the distillery a visit as the tour works well for bartenders looking to get to know their products better as well as gin enthusiasts.

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