“Emily and Gertrude make the stuff, Mabel’s the label queen and Ginny helps with deliveries.” It’s a job share that our blue-haired guide Lisa from Perth insists is “the glue that holds production together, particularly the extra hours they’ve been putting in ahead of the holiday rush.”
The working conditions for these feisty co-workers are unusual; a hotchpotch of small rooms, packed with equipment and a constant stream of curious visitors. No one can remember when the ladies last had a day off and they’re not even on the payroll, not technically anyway.
Luckily Emily and pals are in their element here at Edinburgh’s hippest distillery, where they’re gin-making machines, actual mechanical ones that is, and the lynch pins in the production of gin. Emily and Gert are the copper stills, Mabel’s a labeling machine and Ginny is a vintage van used to deliver the finished gin.
To misquote Humphrey Bogart, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I’ve walked into the one that names its’ gin-making equipment after long-dead relatives.” But its quirky touches like this that has put Pickering’s at the forefront of Scotland’s gin revolution. Another is their signature Yuletide ‘ginspiration’ and the reason I’m joining a tour of their Summerhall Distillery.
For a distinctly English tipple, gin is big news in Scotland and no more so than in Edinburgh, where more is quaffed than anywhere in Britain. Its resurgence has been driven by a perfect storm that saw Scottish whisky makers turning to gin for it’s shorter lead times and ease of creating different flavours, and a new generation of Millennial and Gen X gin drinkers seeking out hand-crafted brands.
Today nearly 70 per cent of gin produced in Britain is Scottish including big brands Hendricks and Tanqueray. And with craft distilleries like Pickering’s popping up across lowland and highland, the first Gin Trail Map is already out of date. No wonder Scottish spirits are soaring.
Back at Pickering’s, guide Lisa takes time out from her day job mixing ‘P n Ts’ (Pickering’s and Tonics) in a restored silver Airstream bar out back, to conduct gin tours. Her passion is evident as she exudes how they do things differently here.
For a start, there’s the distillery in the former kennels of a crumbling vet-school-turned-arts-hub where the aesthetic is more eccentric uncle’s workshop than successful gin making hub. From the obelisk-shaped stills to the network of copper pipes, a boiler recycled as a spirit collector and a canoe paddle turned gin stirrer, it’s certainly eclectic. Clearly Pickering’s founders, renovators Marcus Pickering and Matt Gammell have combined their building nous with self-taught distilling skills to great effect.
Almost anyone can give gin making a go. Simply mix botanicals – juniper is essential but everything else is up for grabs – with ethanol and boil to infuse the flavour. But as Lisa explains, like everything at Summerhall, distilling here is inimitable.
Emily steams away cocooned in a shiny metal coat, a bain-marie hot water bath system that Matt, natch, devised to gently cook or macerate their botanical mix to give them time to slowly simmer slowly and release their subtle flavours. It’s an unusual process, but one that after tenacious tinkering with eBay-bought stills and a recipe from an all-but-lost 1947 Indian Bombay Gin recipe, delivers a distinct flavour.
Sampling neat shots of their signature 42% proof gin from cheap plastic shot cups is not how I imagined being served Edinburgh’s funkiest gin. But today’s brew needs no embellishments and delivers a bold flavour of juniper, citrus and gradually a hint of spices like cardamom, coriander and cloves.
There’s even some fennel in there and a smoothness I’ve yet to experience in my usual mass-produced gin. For the first time I’m noting flavour and it’s one I quite like.
Next up the navy strength, a batch launched to celebrate Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo. At a fire-breathing 57% proof, it’s too big a big hit for my genteel gin palette. But I’m a sucker for the bottle top, a miniature replica of a guards’ bearskin helmet hand-made of course, by a lady in Leith.
This hand-made element is clearly on display next door. Here every surface has evidence of a multi-faceted production line, a syringe-like filling station, a cork-press, a tub of cooling purple wax and a large roll of labels.
High on the wall is Mable the First, the original DIY labeling machine. She lauds it in retirement above her snazzier successor, both who’ve mastered the tricky job of embellishing Pickering’s distinct rounded-and-hard-to-label bottles.
At peak production this is a frenetic collaboration of humans and machines filling, corking, sealing and labeling every bottle and bauble of Pickering’s product.
Ah the baubles! A box of Pickering’s signature Yuletide offering sits tantalisingly on a shelf; six coloured Christmas baubles each finished with a lush velvety red ribbon and filled with a nip of gin-filled cheer.
I emit an undignified squeak of delight; since spying them on a cool pal’s social media feed last year they’ve been on my wish list. Me and thousands of gin lovers evidently.
After a few years of low-scale production and a specially commissioned bauble-filling machine – I’m calling her Holly – word got out and demand way outstripped supply.
This year, not to be caught short, production started in May and the expanded bauble-production elves have a lofty million-bauble target. I resist the temptation to pocket the box of gin-infused cuteness even if contraband like this could earn me many bottles of gin. Having already added my name to an on-line bauble wish list, even visiting journalists must wait their turn until the October release date.
As the tour winds up and the hipsters head to the bar next door for some P n T on tap (yes gin on tap, where’s that in Australia?) I take a last look around the girls, Emily, Gertrude, Mabel 1 and 2 and of course Holly tucked high on her shelf. Proof that using a strong team of girls to combine two enduring Christmas traditions, decorations and celebratory tipples, will be the best treat at my place this Christmas. Cheers.