They keep their stocks of gin in old dogs’ cages, their gin tank is made out of an old water heater, their labelling machine was sketched out on a paper napkin and hand-built (which is plain to see), and until recently they bottled their gin using a turkey baster. Then they went wild and bought a vacuum filler. Pickering’s Gin in Edinburgh sounds like a cross between Willy Wonka and Heath Robinson, yet it’s one of the amazing new wave of outstanding Scottish gin distilleries and has already won Gold and Silver Medals for its three gins.
Despite the fact that it only produced its first gin in March 2014, Pickering’s is clearly doing something right as it has already been established as the official gin for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I was in Edinburgh for another event, the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, but I decided that Pickering’s was another story I wanted to hear while I was there, so arranged one of their hour-long tours.
The dog cages – and a few cat cages too – are explained by the fact that Pickering’s distillery is based in a much-loved old Edinburgh building, fondly known as the Royal Dick School. The official name was the Royal School of Veterinary Studies, one of the world’s top veterinary schools, and one that was made famous in 1996 when it cloned Dolly the Sheep.
Today the buildings house the Summerhall Arts Centre, at the back of which is a brewery and a distillery. One of the founders of Summerhall just happens to be one of the UK’s leading gin writers, Geraldine Coates, and Geraldine thought it would be an excellent idea to have a distillery there. She knew Marcus Pickering, who made gin as a hobby, so Marcus and his business partner Matthew Gammell founded Pickering’s Gin.
‘Nine people work here altogether,’ says my tour guide Erica Macasso, who’s from Vancouver and doing a Masters in Brewing and Distilling. Working at Pickering’s gives her some hands-on experience, and in the case of a small company like Pickering’s, it’s very hands-on. When I arrive for my visit it’s October and Erica’s helping fill Christmas tree baubles with gin. She shows me their Military Tattoo gin bottles, each topped with a little furry guardsman’s hat, all hand-made by a guy up the street.
‘The company was established in 2013,’ Erica tells me, ‘and the first batch of gin was produced on 27th March 2014. They were the first gin distillery in Edinburgh for 150 years, almost neck-and-neck with the Edinburgh Gin Distillery. Marcus’s father had a friend living in Bombay in the 1940s, and they got their gin recipe from there, though they refined it for a more modern taste.’
The original gin recipe is framed and on the distillery wall. Matthew Pickering’s background was in engineering and so he researched everything he could about distilling before turning his hobby into a business.
‘The gin tank used to be a water heater,’ says Erica. ‘When you have engineers around they say things like, Let’s use that. It’s made of copper. It’ll work. Matthew also decided to raise the temperature of the gin using a bain-marie, which is quite unusual, but he decided it would give him more control over the temperature and there wouldn’t be any hot spots anywhere.’
Pickering’s chose to use the peacock as the symbol for their gin, firstly because it is the national bird of India, where the recipe comes from, and because their distillery is in what used to be the vets’ school. Before it was a vets’ school there was a brewery here, and they use the same water that the brewery used, from a well below the buildings, for their condensers.
Pickering’s Gin is a London Dry style, and they begin with a 96% spirit they buy in from Essex. The distillery has a refreshing openness about their production, with no hype about the process or the ingredients. They use filtered Edinburgh tap water and juniper bought in from Italy. They use nine botanicals in all, including lime, lemon, coriander, anise, and fennel, and macerate for 24 hours.
‘The lime is hand-peeled,’ Erica says, with the resigned air of someone who has hand-peeled a lot of limes, ‘because no supplier can provide us with what we want.’
Next day the distillation takes place, which takes about eight hours, and that’s the way you make an award-winning gin. At a tasting after the tour, the results speak for themselves. It’s a refreshingly crisp gin, with a hint of the liquorice that I like, and citrus notes too.
Tours at Pickering’s are available Monday-Saturday but must be booked ahead. If you’re in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival, look for the bright red Pickering’s Airstream bus. It has gin on tap.
For more information about Pickering’s Gin visit the Pickering’s website.
For more information on visiting Edinburgh see www.edinburghfestivalcity.com.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.