After noticing the expanding interest in Scottish gin back in 2012, Pickering and his business partner, Matthew Gammell, who had already worked together to help reinvigorate popular cultural venue Summerhall in Edinburgh’s Southside, decided to try their hand at creating their own juniper spirit after seeing how well a resident on-site brewery at the arts hub had flourished.
Armed with a traditional Bombay gin recipe which dated back to 1947 – given to them by a friend of Pickering’s father – and a mini-still, the pair set about establishing a distillery in a building formerly used as dog kennels, which had been part of Summerhall in its previous incarnation, The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
Much like the rest of the ebullient Scottish gin sector, the resulting business – the eponymous Pickering’s Gin – has grown exponentially over the past five years, its fortunes twinned with the rising popularity of what has become the UK’s fastest-growing spirit.
Results published in the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s latest market report showed that the scorching summer of 2018 saw record highs for gin, with sales of the spirit – at both home and abroad – peaking at £2.2 billion.
In addition, a YouGov poll found the drink to be Britain’s most popular spirit, while accountants UHY Hacker Young reported the number of distillery businesses in the UK had increased by 21 per cent in the year between 2017 and 2018.
Nevertheless, Pickering and Gammell appear not to be afraid to take risks. The pair of Edinburgh-based entrepreneurs have used innovation in product marketing, such as their hugely successful Gin Bauble novelty Christmas decoration range, and partnerships, such as those with the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and luxury liner company Cunard, to grow their business.
It is the enterprising duo’s latest expansion project, however – the opening of a gin and seafood bar in China – that really typifies the pair’s willingness to take a chance on doing things a little differently.
“It almost came about by accident,” Pickering explains. “Charlie McLean – the whisky writer and expert, who is a friend of ours –has put his name to a whisky bar in Beijing called Charles’ Bar. He’d arranged a meeting with the people behind the bar in Edinburgh, Panda Brew, an independent beer company based in Beijing, and I was invited to go along with them.”
The distiller recalls that, after a quick round of research, it became clear that there was a gap in the market, as there seemed to be no dedicated gin bars in China.
Pickering says: “I spoke to my staff and challenged them to come up with a proposal. We only had two days, but we created some designs and looked in a little more detail at how we could do it.”
The resulting conversation with Panda Brew was very positive, leading to Pickering’s getting the go-ahead for their Scottish gin and seafood bar concept, something that the whole team was very keen on. And it all moved very quickly from there.
Pickering says: “I went over to Beijing and looked at three or four different sites with [Panda Brew] and we eventually picked one in the popular Chaoyang district of Beijing.
“It was pretty much a concrete shell, but within four months the build was complete.
“It was so quick and the quality of it all was incredibly impressive. They even had a celebrity chef who came and did the menu for us and it’s been very exciting.”
Members of the Pickering’s team then collaborated with the bar’s award-winning head mixologist, John Hung, to create a bespoke cocktail menu designed to best introduce gin to the people of the Chinese Capital.
Designed to take advantage of a growing thirst for Western spirits among China’s affluent consumers, the opening of the bar in July last year did not go unnoticed by British expats in the city, who have subsequently flocked to enjoy the full range of Pickering’s gins available behind the Chaoyang bar.
Working towards the goal of having the seafood on the menu all sourced exclusively from Scotland’s waters – including lobster, oysters and mussels – Pickering describes his new outlet as a “truly Scottish destination” in Beijing, and claims that representatives of both the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the British Embassy have already begun using it as a meeting place and gin-tasting venue.
Meanwhile, staff from both Edinburgh and Beijing Airports enjoyed after-dinner drinks in the bar, following an important recent business meeting.
But it has not all been plain sailing.
The Pickering’s team has found that although China is burgeoning with opportunity for a small Scottish business, it is by no means the easiest country to deal with when it comes to exporting products.
Pickering admits: “China is probably the hardest of the 17 countries we’ve exported to, closely followed by the United States.
“We sent over 18 of our products for the new bar, for each of them we needed about 150 pages of documentation and everything needed to be tested, with sources declared for every ingredient we had used.
“Not only that, there had to be a hard copy in the UK, a hard copy with customs and a hard copy for the final destination. It wasn’t easy but luckily one of the boys in the office loves a challenge.”
The hard work has paid off, with Pickering hoping that the Bejing establishment will be the first of many in the country – even if his company may have to continue to challenge the perceptions of Chinese drinkers.
“I knew the bar would work initially because it is a cocktail bar, and the trend in the bigger cities in China is definitely cocktails.
“I think Chinese drinkers are very experienced in mixed drinks, just not necessarily what goes into cocktails, so they really know what gin is. This meant a lot of what we do is education – classes, tastings and experiences – to try and explain what it is they are drinking.
“A culture of ‘more is better’ is prevalent, so the gin and tonic is not quite there with the locals yet,but obviously the ex-pats are going ‘at last, we can enjoy a gin and tonic in Beijing’. We hope that we cater to both types of customer.”
Although gin is still in its infancy in the Chinese territory, Matt Gammell recently pointed out that “Brand Scotland” is a very strong presence in the market, due to the popularity of single malt whisky.
This is something the Pickering’s pair believe can really benefit Scottish produce as a whole going forward, in what are sure to be choppy waters following whatever happens with Brexit.
“With the gin and seafood idea, we really wanted to promote not just Scottish gin but the fact that Scotland has the most amazing water, and from our water comes our whisky, comes our gin, comes our rum, comes our seafood – so many of our wonderful products are thanks to the quality of Scottish water.
“Scotland missed out 20 to 30 years ago when New Zealand and Australia started really pushing their dairy and their seafood into China, and now it’s Scotland’s turn to show that we can provide quality, not just in alcohol, but in all Scottish produce.”
So is he not worried about gin distilling and selling competitors from Scotland entering this new market that Pickering’s has pioneered?
Pickering quips: “Even if every single Scottish gin brand got together there still wouldn’t be enough gin for China.
“But, if all of us can work together and really help to promote Brand Scotland, we can build on the reputation Scotland has for quality, which can only create more demand for Scottish products and really benefit us all.”
This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Food and Drink 2019 supplement. A digital version can be found here.