The Big Interview: Gin supremo Marcus Pickering

Marcus Pickering entered the gin industry as a novice, but he and his partner, Matt Gammell, have since built a reputation as botanical engineers. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Marcus Pickering entered the gin industry as a novice, but he and his partner, Matt Gammell, have since built a reputation as botanical engineers. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Have your say

Marcus Pickering recounts how, aged 11, he got his hands on a bathroom cabinet his mother had thrown away. “I sanded it down, polished it, and turned it into something quite nice – and I thought, ‘There’s something that was worthless, and I’ve turned it into something with value.’”

He now co-helms the eponymous Pickering’s Gin business, which launched in 2014 after a similarly radical revamp of its Summerhall Distillery base in Edinburgh.

Housed in the old dog kennels of the Small Animal Hospital that was formerly part of the Dick Vet School, the building had been “virtually derelict”, he explains, but is now a hive of activity.

Sitting among a cohort of creative businesses, Pickering’s Gin has a laboratory-style space for experimenting with flavours, as well as the stills and other equipment needed to produce its spirits.

It filled 150,000 bottles last year and has turned out some 500,000 bottles to date, exporting to 17 countries, while turnover is now £3.5 million.

The business is on a rapid growth trajectory catalysed by the success of its gin-filled Christmas baubles, which sold out in 82 seconds last year and received the seal of approval from fans including US domestic guru Martha Stewart.

Furthermore, this year saw Pickering’s scale production by 33 times from 2016 volumes to meet global demand and produce a million of the baubles, boosted by funding from Edinburgh-based peer-to-peer lender LendingCrowd as part of £2.75m provided by Scottish Enterprise to lend to SMEs across its platform.

The baubles also scooped the inaugural Innovation of the Year prize at the Scottish Gin Awards.

UK gin sales have doubled in value in the past six years, amounting to £1.2 billion over the past 12 months, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA).

A YouGov poll found the drink to be the UK’s most popular spirit, while accountant UHY Hacker Young reported that at least 35 craft distilleries have opened in Scotland since 2014, offering more than 100 varieties of gin.

With such a high level of competition, Pickering admits it’s challenging to stay ahead of the pack. And while he believes the business has an advantage in being one of the earlier market entrants (he credits Girvan-based Hendrick’s with spearheading the craft gin movement), he points out that he and Matt Gammell, who is head distiller as well as co-founder, still come up with a new idea every day. “But you have to remain on brand [and] you have to keep focused on the core products. There’s no point saying we’re going to do gin-filled candy canes next Christmas – there has to be a good reason for it.”

Pickering’s core offering comprises three gins, distinguishable by their red, orange and black tops “and everything else just helps sell those products”.

The black-topped, navy strength version wears a miniature bearskin hat, and came about after striking a deal to supply the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which was looking for a gin sponsor to add to its drinks offering.

Pickering, who heads up the export side of the business, also notes that the Tattoo is being staged in China in 2020. He hopes his firm is “well-established” in the country by then, as, along with the US, it is a market showing high growth.

Exports currently comprise about 10 to 15 per cent of the business, but Pickering’s is looking to double that by the end of next year, with growing demand apparent in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere in Asia.

A key landmark for the company has been sealing a partnership with luxury liner company Cunard to create gins for its three ships, the Queen Victoria, Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Elizabeth.

“As a tiny, tiny little company we’re probably their smallest supplier and they’re our biggest client,” he says of the cruise specialist.

Cunard’s parent company, Carnival Corporation & plc, describes itself as the world’s largest leisure travel company and last week reported record full-year revenues of $17.5bn (£13.1bn).

Pickering said when the deal was announced that “it is possible for David to play nicely with Goliath in such uncertain times”.

The spirits resulting from the tie-up launched in June, an achievement particularly important to Pickering as his great-uncle, George Gibbons, sailed as a captain of Cunard White Star liners from 1909 to 1944.

The gin boss once dreamt of being a Cunard captain himself, and by his own admission has found navigating the world of business just as choppy, having done more than 25 jobs before moving into distilling.

Such roles included picture-framer, letting agent and builder. “Basically I couldn’t settle on anything… always pursuing this success dream. Getting absolutely nowhere near, I might add.” Looking back, he believes such a variety of jobs was a great training for his current duties, helping him get the best out of himself and others.

His role immediately before Pickering’s was MD of Summerhall, which had seen an on-site brewery flourish.

“I thought: ‘If we’ve got a craft brewery then we ought to have a craft distillery,’” he says, explaining why he turned away some larger players that he felt didn’t quite tie in with the craft and artisan surroundings.

Pickering had been experimenting with a mini still, which remains on-site, but then decided to move full scale into the gin trade, backed by a “very small” inheritance from his father and joining forces with friend and business partner Gammell.

Additionally, Pickering received a gin recipe, dated 17 July, 1947, from a friend of his father’s named Gopal. “We had a space, we had a recipe, we had a little bit of money and we decided to build the distillery ourselves.”

Some of his many previous roles would prove particularly relevant, such as working as a butler at Skibo Castle, and taking tours to Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain which gave him his first glimpse of mash tuns and stills.

But he stresses that he and Gammell, an engineer by trade, were entering the drinks trade as real novices. “Not a clue,” he says of their experience then, though now they are nicknamed the “botanical engineers”, and own the majority of the business in a 50:50 split.

Full-time staff number nearly 20, rising to more than 30 in the summer. They are expected to hit about 50 in the next couple of years.

As for whether there are plans to use more external capital along the lines of the LendingCrowd arrangement, he says: “We’re hoping not to need to so much [in 2018] because we’ve had a good year. At the end of this year we will go into profit and that profit will be used to fund projects next year.”

Targets now include more exports of the baubles, and a revamp after London-based Sipsmith Gin announced its own version in the autumn. Opening gin bars is also on the cards, “not in the UK, strangely enough, but with partners overseas – big projects for next year”.

Pickering also highlights the need for “an element of normalisation with the business, so steady, controlled growth”, and old products to “fade away” as others arrive.

Looking a decade down the line, he wants the brand to be a household name along the lines of Ajax, Twinings or rival Gordon’s.

Additionally, the aim is to always to distil at Summerhall, but have the ability to move other parts of the production line elsewhere. The firm has also branched out into distilling Ginerosity, branded the world’s first social enterprise gin, and plans to do more similarly philanthropic projects.

As for potential hurdles, Pickering is unconcerned about the prospect of consumers turning their attentions to, say, another spirit.

The biggest challenge Pickering sees is distribution, saying obtaining a single order is relatively easy, but the follow-up is the difficult bit.

All in all, he stresses that he never set out to be a gin distiller. However, he adds: “Now I look back at everything that went before, it seems like there was also something inevitable about it… everything fitted into place.”