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Photograph courtesy of Highclere Spirits )
Photograph courtesy of Highclere Spirits )
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Essex entrepreneur Adam von Gootkin initially wasn't sure the hit PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey was his cup of tea. Period dramas can be an acquired taste.
In the end, it's become his beverage of choice, so to speak.
Von Gootkin's wife, Regina, loved the Sunday-night show, and when she suggested he join her in watching the period series set in the early 1900s in England, he became a fan too. Indeed, when Masterpiece aired Secrets of Highclere Castle, a docu-series about the castle in which most of the series takes place, he tuned in to learn more about the history behind Downton Abbey.
What is now an iconic castle for many American viewers is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family. The current structure was built in 1838, when the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned Sir Charles Barry to construct "a grand mansion which would impress the world," according to Highclere Castle's website. Centuries later, the Jacobethan-style structure dubbed Highclere Castle remains in the Carnarvon family, with the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon its current part-time residents.
Von Gootkin, an admitted history buff, was impressed — particularly by Lord and Lady Carnarvon's responsible management of the property, which is a wildly popular attraction for visitors from all over the world.
"I was just overtaken with the beauty and how authentic the place is," von Gootkin says. Beyond the castle's impressive architecture and long history, the 5,000 acres on which it sits feature a showcase of renowned gardens and woodlands, populated by dozens of flowers, herbs, and native plants and trees.
Soon enough, the occupants of those gardens would star in von Gootkin's latest business venture — Highclere Castle Gin.
Heading to Highclere
Downton Abbey might have sparked von Gootkin's foray into gin production, but he is no newcomer to the spirits business. His mother's family, the Chaffees, has a history of moonshining that goes back to the 1700s. He is also the co-founder of Onyx Moonshine, "New England's first legal moonshine since Prohibition." The popular product launched in 2011 and is served at bars all over New England.
Years later, von Gootkin and his business partner, Pete Kowalczyk, started searching for their next big spirit project.
"We were looking to take the lessons that we had learned in spirits and apply them to create a global brand of real prestige," he says.
Two years and a few hours of "Masterpiece" later, von Gootkin had found it.
"As I'm watching the show I realize Highclere Castle would be the most amazing place to put a spirit brand behind," he says. Gin, what von Gootkin calls a "quintessentially English" spirit, emerged a natural choice for a Highclere-branded liquor.
Plus, much of Downton Abbey takes place during the Prohibition era in the U.S., a time when illegal spirits like gin were produced in secret distilleries and served in speakeasies.
Those days are over, but, according to von Gootkin, "Gin is having a complete rebirth all around the world. It's the fastest growing spirit category."
Von Gootkin wasn't sure what to expect when he sent an email of introduction to the general information email address listed on Highclere Castle's website. Certainly not a response within one day from Lord Carnarvon himself.
The two strangers corresponded and spoke and became fast friends — so fast, the Carnarvons invited von Gootkin and Regina to spend a weekend at Highclere. Two weeks later, they arrived on the doorstep of Downton Abbey itself, in Newbury, a town in England's Berkshire County. As expected, it was a memorable visit.
"We really spent that time talking about family more than anything," von Gootkin says. "Talking about what's important to us and what really is our philosophy around business."
Like many other Highclere meetings before it, this gathering would have its own impact on the world.
"We were so aligned in our philosophies that it became a very, very natural and easy friendship first and then business partnership," von Gootkin says. "All of our timing, and alignments, and the little things and how they connect were so perfect and natural."
The secret ingredient: A dash of history
When Cousin Rose introduces cocktail hour to her family in season 3 of Downton Abbey, it's likely Mr. Carson poured gin martinis.
Menu notes and recipes found in the archives at Highclere Castle show that the Crawley family's real-life counterparts most definitely enjoyed and served gin to their frequent guests. The documents, written by the butlers of Highclere over the years, illustrate exactly how to prepare a cocktail in "Highclere Style": mix "gin, tonic, a fresh orange squeeze and peel ... finished with a rosemary sprig from the garden" and enjoy.
So in a nod to the grand traditions of Highclere, von Gootkin knew exactly where to start in crafting the botanical blend on which to base his prestige gin: the gardens of Highclere Castle.
"Highclere's stunning gardens go back hundreds of years, so the provenance of the botanicals themselves is fascinating. Juniper has been recorded as growing there since the Romans occupied the area. Even the lavender that we use was planted by the bishops of Winchester in the 9th century," he notes. Even the orange peels used in the blend originate at Highclere, in its Victorian-era orangery.
Working with a master gin distiller at Langley Distillery in Birmingham, England, von Gootkin worked for approximately one year on what would become their distinctive blend. Still, he felt something was missing in earlier iterations of Highclere Castle gin.
"It was the thickness on the palate. That smooth creaminess that's very, very hard to achieve in spirits," he explains. "We wanted to be very careful about getting the flavor blend to be perfect ... because the desire from the beginning was to create the best gin in the world but also to do it in a way that really speaks to the heritage and history."
Fittingly, it was Lord Carnarvon who determined the secret ingredient: oats, which grow in abundance at Highclere.
Von Gootkin admits that grain does not typically feature in the botanical blends of gins, but the addition of it to Highclere's blend sets it apart from its peers he says.
The finished product "really is the spirit of Highclere. It's the essence of its spirit. It's representative of the hard work of the fields, all the way up through the classy parties Highclere is known for," he says.
And now, guests of the castle imbibe Highclere Castle Gin in cocktails crafted by Luis Coelho, the current butler, who follows the archival recipes.
But you don't need to travel to the U.K. to enjoy a Highclere-style cocktail. Highclere Castle Gin debuted on Aug. 1 in Connecticut and soon thereafter in stores across New England. Within a few months, von Gootkin hopes to introduce his creation to customers in 25 more states and 15 countries.
Find recipes to mix your own Highclere Castle Gin cocktails at www.highclerecastlespirits.com.
Smoke on the side
Fans of Highclere Castle Gin might like to pair their cocktails with a cigar. May we recommend a Highclere Castle cigar?
Adam von Gootkin launched his cigar company in 2017 and now offers two premium cigars crafted by master blender Nicholas Melillo of Foundation Cigar Company. They are inspired by "the style and flavor profile of cigars imported by the earlier Earls of Carnarvon to Highclere Castle at the turn of the 19th century," according to the company website.
Viewers of Downton Abbey will recall the many times Lord Grantham and his guests would retire to the library after dinner for cigars and nightcaps. Guests of Highclere today still partake in post-dinner cigars, a ritual that inspired the Highclere Castle Edwardian. Using rare tobaccos sourced from family farms in Estelí, Nicaragua, von Gootkin worked with Melillo and Lord Carnarvon to create an award-winning cigar that produces notes of cream, coffee, leather, vanilla, and pistachio.
A new cigar, the Highclere Castle Victorian, is making its way into stores now. The more robust Victorian presents notes of nougat, cedar, cinnamon, and leather.
For more information, visit www.highclerecastlecigar.com.
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