When it launched back in 2013, Pickering’s Gin was the first new Gin distillery in Edinburgh in 150 years, bringing the tidal wave of craft distilling burgeoning across the UK to the historic city. We initially reviewed it in 2014, but anyone with a sharp eye will note the changes that have wrung out, not just for the brand, but for the Gin world in general. With Brand Scotland at its peak, 2019 seemed a good time to revisit…
Founded by Marcus Pickering and Matthew Gammell, the distillery is based in Summerhall Art hub, in what would have been the kennels of the former School of Venterinary Studies. Since its launch, the team has exploded to become one of the, buzziest groups in Socttish ginsmithing.
The initial idea for the brand actually started several years before its launch, with Marcus and Matthew gaining an awareness of the category’s complexity over many years. Avid fans of making shooting gins (Sloe, Blackberry etc…), Marcus’ interest in the distilling process took hold whilst he held the role as a Senior Butler at Skibo Castle, where he mixed cocktails at work, and took small distillery tours in his days off.
Co-founder Matthew Gammell, meanwhile, was putting his engineering degree to good use in the property renovation and construction sector. When the idea to create a gin distillery started sounding like more than just a dream to the duo, he oversaw the build, converting the space from its veterinary roots and getting water, electricity and heating installed in no time.
The recipe for Pickering’s Gin is based on an original Bombay recipe (the location, not the brand) dated 17 July 1947. Kept as a family secret for over 66 years, it only resurfaced in 2013 when the pair began distilling at Summerhall.
The flagship gin today is a modern recreation of this original recipe, with the balance of the botanicals altered to suit more modern tastes. The juniper was increased by the bucketload, steering the gin away from its original spicy, rooty palate.
There are nine botanicals in the line up: juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, fennel, anise, lemon, lime and cloves. The overall profile treads a fine line, managing to be hugely classic but with a depth of flavour that really lets it stand apart.
For those curious about the finer points of botanical geekery, the lime and lemon peels are dried before being added to the mix, thus creating a more pithy and less fruity flavour. To create the gin, the botanicals are macerated for 24 hours with neutral grain spirit in one of the distilleries two 500 litre Portuguese made copper stills.
What does Pickering’s Dry Gin Taste like?
On the nose, the immediate though is one of classicism. The fresh, crisp pine notes from the juniper are upfront, with spiced undertones just below. It doesn’t leap out of the glass, nor is it subdued as an aroma, merely one that you’ve got to sniffle at to fully explore.
To taste, small citrus notes kick it off, but it’s the core gin trio (juniper, coriander seed and angelica) of flavours that present upfront. Fennel and anise loom in the background, so too does the cardamom but it’s brought back by a citrus twang that ensures they do not get too much air time. Opt for a healthy sliver of grapefruit as a garnish to compliment this gin in a G&T.
Soon after, the flagship gin was joined by a Navy Strength edition – it has the exact same botanical lineup but is cut to a higher ABV. The edition was officially launched to celebrate the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and years later the bottles are still adorned with a ‘bearskin’ helmet similar to those worn by guards in their ceremonial military uniform (don’t worry, the caps weren’t made from actual bearskins!).
What does the Navy Strength Gin Taste Like?
There might be the same botanicals, but the order and intensity they all reveal themselves at are very different here. Firstly, there’s just a lot more aroma. Spirit wafts up spice (fennel, anise) much more freely and the result isn’t just a lot more giving, but far more compelling too.
Tasted neat, this Navy doesn’t burn despite it’s ABV. The spice is far more dialled up across the board, with aromatic cardamom and warming clove much more distinct compared to the original. It lingers longer too (again, botanically, not just the heat from higher proof booze), and other than a residual flavour, the lasting memory is of it being a solid Navy Strength Gin that would please many drinkers. We’d opt for an orange peel as a garnish come G&T time.
Perhaps a little confusingly, the team released their Original 1947 Gin third, but who’s counting. This gin works to a far closer ratio and equivalent balance to the inherited Bombay recipe. They also added a botanical they had removed, cinnamon, back into the mix. It was a move that made sense, because while the Gin world in 2013 probably wasn’t quite ready for this mad mix, we’re currently living in the middle of an anything goes phase. And while this certainly goes, it isn’t just a quick grab at headlines. It’s a bloody decent Gin.
What does the Pickering’s 1947 Gin taste like?
On the nose, it’s a more distinctly spiced aroma where the dried fennel is absolutely clear, this time backed by anise and a sweet twang of citrus. To taste, juniper has taken a back step compared to the flagship dry gin, while cardamom, coriander, clove and cinnamon all start to push forward. It’s a spiced gin but it’s a really balanced one too.
It’s easy to see why this might have been too weird to launch with five years ago. Gin as a category wasn’t as bonkers as it is now and there’s more of a pronounced identity to the 1947. It is very easy to taste how this is a recipe from Bombay. Having said that, arguably it’s now the one that has aged best.
There used to be such a distinct thickness to the flagship dry and to the Navy Strength, and while that hasn’t gone anywhere (we assume), other gins have now joined that burdened botanical profile and made theirs seem less luscious than it once was.
Flavours are bolder, bigger, braver and comparatively speaking they . have caught up to the flagship gin and the Navy, which now seem to be in the middle of the craft pack. They are lovely and easy to return to, but that user-friendly nature is exactly what makes them a little forgettable when the entire world is now making gins that are desperate to grab your attention. There’s no winning for Pickering’s though. The irony of having a workhorse gin is that people want a bit of flair, but if you give them an odd ball profile it makes the gin hard to use time and again , let alone across a multitude of occasions or cocktails leading to critics like us calling out for a bit of subtlety. The ultimate catch 22.
The 1947 Gin strikes that middle ground and manages to keep a touch of subtlety (compared to competitors that are off the deep end of spice), while having a clear personality that would be remembered.
With three gins in the range (and a Sloe Gin to boot), the Pickering’s Gin team decided to place a focus on provenance as they sought inspiration for where to take the range next. What else for a Scottish distiller than the world of Scotch… Casks arrived, gin was laid to rest and a new range ensued…
The Barrel Aged Pickering’s Range
We’re on record about Cask Aged Gins as a sub-genre, and in our typical, delicate Gin Foundry manner, we’ll state again that 80% of them are utterly hideous (and that most of the ones that are actually palatable don’t tend to actually bring more to the gin than what was already there). Wood needs to be both an enhancement of flavour and of an idea, not just an adulteration of botanicals and a quirky gimmick for a limited edition.
Unfortunately that’s a rare occurrence but it is exactly what is clever about the Pickering’s range. It’s not just an Oak Aged offering – it’s five of them, each using a barrel from a region of Scotland. There is the Speyside (with a caramel maltiness), the Island (bringing toasted smoke), the Highland (dragging honeyed caramelised fruit), the Islay (with a bombfire backdrop) and the Lowland (adding just a touch of wood).
As a group they speak to provenance and regionality, they speak about another category through the medium of Gin and they are a real cross contamination, helping to educate about Whisky. They reinforce what people love most about Pickering’s – the fact that they are proud Scottish producers.
We’d opt for the Highalnd or the Islay, as subjective preferences aside we felt they each added the most complimentary additional dimension to the gin, bringing a new character to the spirit. The others were gins that, in our opinion, were merely changed but not enhanced by the experience of spending time in a cask.
Aged Gins are a tricky serve, and we tend to err on the side of drinking them neat over ice or in an Old Fashioned. If you are looking for a longer pour, go with soda water or ginger ale, not tonic.
As Ginvent makers, we love to champion other fellow pioneers of the Christmas gift market, so it is with pleasure that we talk about another of the distillery’s great ideas (arguably, their best-selling one too) – the Christmas tree Baubles. Though ubiquitous now, theirs were the first gin filled baubles, far exceeding the initial forecast by selling tens of thousands of units in less than a day the first year. Today, they make some million or so units to meet demand. What works most about these isn’t necessarily the Ginny content, but the sheer, unabashed embracing of nostalgia. These are colourful, a bit gaudy and fun – everything you want from the festive season.
It’s an impressive range, and while we’ve heaped all of the praise possible on them so far, we aren’t just throwing blind affection around. Pickering’s also has a Pink Grapefruit and Lemongrass Gin Liqueur, and all we’ll say is that the less said about that the better. The less drunk the better too…
Given they are one of the UK’s craft distilling leading success stories, it seems quite absurd to say this, but there’s still a lot further for Pickering’s to go domestically, let alone around the world.
Ironically, however, the very thing that most benefits them across the globe – that strong affiliation with Brand Scotland – isn’t anywhere near as potent south of the border. It’ll be interesting to see how the team marry the need for a slightly different touch to truly flourish across all of the UK while playing to the key strengths that have served them so well both locally in Scotland and in China.
Don’t misunderstand us, we’re not saying there is a need to change nor that UK drinkers aren’t receptive to the idea of Scottish Gins (it’s quite the opposite). It’s not related to the political landscape the UK faces going into 2020 either. It’s actually the apathy for the message that’s the issue, and that being an urban Scottish producer doesn’t conjure, well, much of anything either across England and Wales. Head to the far East, the USA or anywhere else on the other hand (where Scotch has paved a gold standard reputation) and that Scottish title offers massive advantages.
The more intrinsically linked to Brand Scotland the better they will do in further climes, but by embracing it so strongly, there’s little room for other messages to flourish nationally, despite the work that’s going into them. It’s a balancing act, but one thing’s for sure: they are savvy enough to negotiate the path ahead and stay true to what is right for them.
So, what are they about other than being Scottish? The distillery has dozens of answers to that. From ethics, social enterprise and innovation, they are in the thick of some inspiring projects time and again – they’ve just not had the need to communicate them fully yet, which loops us round to our point: You’ve barely seen the beginning of this brand.
Moreover, as one of the early adopters in this new era of transparency and open doors, they have a solid platform of loyal followers and a distillery tour offering that’s deservedly earned a five star reputation, and which continues to create legions of fans each and every day.
There’s a certain confidence you can have when reaching for Pickering’s Gins, that trusty workhorse of a gin come G&T time. There’s also a certain confidence you can have in knowing the best is yet to come from this team too – we can’t wait to see what the next few years hold!
For more information about Pickerings Gin, visit their website: www.pickeringsgin.com
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