King Charles will be coronated on Saturday, May 6. I spoke with Highclere Castle Gin CEO Adam von Gootkin about his connection to Downton Abbey, his family’s moonshining past, and what to drink to honor the new King of England.
How did you decide to go into the gin business?
My family’s history with liquor production goes back to the 1800’s. During Prohibition, my relatives had a hotel on the banks of the Connecticut River. There was a speakeasy in the basement, and they would do paddleboat runs to New York City. Before Highclere, I built a distillery in Connecticut and turned that into a regionally successful boutique brand. It was true to my family’s moonshining past. I wanted to go bigger. My wife went to university in the United Kingdom, a place renowned for high quality products like Scotch whiskey and Rolls Royce and some of the great gins brands.
The 8th Earl of Carnarvon lives at Highclere Castle, a.k.a Downton Abbey. How did you meet?
I learned Highclere was a real place via Downton Abbey in one of those after-specials where they take you into the real house. Most spirit brands lack a sense of terroir or sense of place. I sent a cold email to the Earl of Carnarvon and the next day, he called me back. A few weeks after that, I was on a plane. Things happen relatively easily if it is meant to be.
And Highclere has an identifiable brand
On many levels. The castle is surrounded by botanical ingredients gardens – all the flavors you might find in gin. The gardens were planted by the Bishop of Winchester before the 1600’s, when the estate was owned by the Anglican church. (Lord Carnarvon’s family received the earldom and the estate 400 years ago.) And the Carnarvon family has been serving gin cocktails to visiting royals for over 100 years.
How does the gin taste of Highclere or the estate?
We pick all of the botanicals here and dry them here. The oats we use are grown locally on the estate. We work with the oldest gin distillery in England. Even the bottles are made in England.
Does the Carnarvon family have a connection to the new King?
The English nobility doesn’t have any direct connection to the royals but the Earl’s father and grandfather were racing managers to the queen. In terms of Charles, there is no direct connection. In Lord Carnarvon’s own words: “We don’t have any direct connection to the King as I am not a courtier, old friend, or indeed, Prime Minister. However, we do have many memories over the years of the very direct connection with my father had with the late Queen and shared interest in farming, countryside and protection of wild and beautiful places.”
So the Coronation Cocktail is really about celebrating the King.
Yes. Highclere is one of the most recognized castles in the world and the Carnarvons have a unique heritage and historic, titled family. They work hard to preserve the estate and the grounds.
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was not quite a year ago. What goes into designing a festive cocktail for a coronation versus a celebration like a Jubilee?
For the Jubilee cocktail, what I’m thinking about is what the Majesties loved. The Queen loved gin and Dubonnet. We took that combo and made a simple cocktail with it. Topped with Champagne makes everything better.
Why mix Scotch and gin?
I thought about what the King loves and he loves gin and Scotch. The challenge for the team was to blend those two spirits which are not typically combined. Don’t use a heavily peated Scotch as the drink will be too smoky. Highclere is citrus-forward gin – the lemon and Curaçao bring out citrus. The Scotch adds smoky notes and the result is a drink that is a touch sour, a touch sweet. The golden color is very royal. It’s a sophisticated, mature cocktail that celebrates the king in his hour of triumph.
(Note: the writer made the cocktail with Bunnahabhain from Islay and the peat overwhelmed the other flavors. She ran out and bought a bottle of Highland Park 12 and the cocktail’s flavors came back into balance.)
What are your recommended food pairings with the cocktail?
This cocktail works well with charcuterie, cheeses like Stilton or camembert, salami, prosciuttos. The salt in sopressata balances well with the citrus. The drink is savory and easily takes on caviar or any seafood. You can even make a mignonette for oysters with the gin. If you are hosting a garden party or brunch, try the cocktail with scallops or deviled eggs with a caviar dollop.
There is so much grumpiness around the royal family (cost to the taxpayers, the self-exiled second son of Charles, etc.) at the moment. Other than a cocktail, what do you say to people to remind them that a coronation is a festive event, best served with gin?
One of the interesting things about our life right now is we are living through a series of perpetual historic events. Some of that is dark and kind of scary – war, recession, strange things on the geo-political stage. This is an opportunity to celebrate an event that is positive. The royal family really focuses on charity work and being kind and positive. They also represent the importance of the United States’ security partner. The coronation is a cool opportunity to celebrate after the sadness of Her Majesty’s passing. If a lot more politicians could emulate how the queen reigned, the world would be a better place.
Let’s cheers to that.