Interview with Leah Shaw Hawkins
As employee number 5, Leah has been integral to the development and ambitious growth of the Pickering’s Gin brand which has been making and marketing award-winning gin at Summerhall Distillery since 2014. From humble beginnings producing a batch a week from an old kennel, Pickering’s now employs 19 full time staff members and is available in 16 countries worldwide. Following their successful Pickering’s Gin Baubles campaign in 2016, Pickering’s Gin is on track to quadruple their annual turnover with one product alone.
Over the past few years, there has been a flood of independent distilleries and breweries popping up all over the place. What sets Pickering’s apart from the rest?
Unlike a lot of Scottish Gins in the market, our provenance story is not based around Scottish botanicals but rather an Indian Recipe handed down to Mr Pickering by a friend of his late father. The fragment details a nine botanical gin recipe, jotted down in the last days of the Raj in Mount Mary, Bombay in 1947. In terms of taste, it gives our gins a distinctive flavour profile where juniper and citrus meet the fragrance of cardamom, coriander and clove. We do absolutely everything on site at Summerhall (formerly Edinburgh Uni’s Vet School). The bosses come from an engineering and building background so actually built the distillery themselves, re-purposing and inventing contraptions that allow us to: distil, bottle, label, wax and ship all of our products from what used to be a small animal kennel. Which in itself is pretty unique, even before you pop it in a bauble…
Your Pickering’s Gin Baubles went viral back in 2016, did you guys have any idea that they would be such a success?
We started making Pickering’s Gin Baubles back in 2014, in truth as a bit of a laugh for our local Christmas Fair. Two hundred sold out in minutes and so we thought that we might be onto something. However, I don’t think any of us could have predicted just quite how popular they’d be last year. For example, USA Today and Elle Australia covered them extensively even though we didn’t export a single bauble last year. We’d scaled up to 30,000 but once they went big on Facebook it really was a runaway train.
Back then you had 9 members of staff – has the business scaled much since then? Is that down to the Gin Baubles alone?
In a word- yes! We’ve quadrupled our workforce and have been planning for Christmas 2018 since January 1. In turns of growth, the Gin Baubles have done a lot to boost our turnover but has had brilliant knock-on effects outside of that. We have gained 3 new export markets for our bottles as well as baubles and the increased profile of our brand has led to listings for our bottles in large multiples nationally. All in all, we are on track to quadruple our annual turnover, aggressive growth that would have been very difficult for a company of our size in such a competitive market otherwise.
The distillery in Summerhall in Edinburgh has opened its doors to the public with tours and even its own ‘Locked in the Distillery’ escape game. How important is it for Pickering’s to be public facing and what effect has that had on the company?
We’ve been doing distillery tours in some form or other since day 1, and it has been so important for us. The real shift in the premium drink sector has been a focus on provenance as consumers are increasingly interested in where and how their tipple is made. Our distillery tour has now won some great accolades, like Best Visitor Attraction in Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders at Visit Scotland’s Thistle Awards, and we think that it is all the quirks of our tiny distillery- like the handmade machinery and cat cages- that clinched it for us. Our tour is so different from the larger distilleries people might have visited up north as visitors can see the whole process from distillation to wax-dipping the bottles. Here at Summerhall we also have our own Pickering’s Escape Game run by the lovely people LockedIn where you’re given an hour to save the “distillery” from a disgruntled employee threatening its demise.
For us, it’s just as important that the brand experience at events is remarkable, and so we have a range of inventions- like a gramophone that mixes martinis, or a motorbike that transforms into a gin and tonic bar- that put a smile on people’s faces. As our baubles prove, injecting a bit of fun into a crowded market goes a long way to getting you noticed.
Last year, the baubles sold out in 82 seconds. This year how have you adapted your production to accommodate the rush?
We chose to scale up our production 33 times and have even brought in custom-designed machines to fill the baubles at Summerhall. We had teams of bauble elves filling up to 20,000 baubles a day from April at the distillery. It really was a herculean task to manage downstairs but we really wanted to make sure we had enough to meet the global demand this year.
What was the motivation to enter the Star Awards last year?
If anything our campaign illustrates what can be done with a marketing budget of peanuts and with an innovative product. We utilised the channels open to any small business, and hope that it is testament that you don’t have to have a massive marketing team to make a difference to the course of a business.
How did you find the process?
The prospect of condensing our campaign into 1500 words was originally pretty daunting but evaluating and organising our results have been hugely helpful moving forward. I’ve subsequently used the information gleaned from putting together the entry to build our customer profile, and to target press outlets for this year. Especially if you are a first-time entrant, why not give it a go?
Leah on Twitter