Most everyone is familiar with the award-winning and internationally-acclaimed TV series Downton Abbey, a historical drama set in early 20th-century England that followed an aristocratic family and their domestic servants. From the show, viewers got a captivating glimpse into the life of British nobility during the post-Edwardian era, complete with stellar cinematography capturing the magnificence and authenticity of the environment. What many may not know, however, is that the location where Downton Abbey was shot is a veritable castle where real-life nobles live, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, in which the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife Countess Fiona call home. Lord Carnarvon recalls the filming of Downton Abbey as an exciting time at Highclere.
“It was very full-on when they were doing the TV series. They would come in the winter in February and not really finish until the end of June or early July,” he said.
Lord Carnarvon said the filming was “fun to watch” and “amazing,” commending the cast and directors for their outstanding work.
“They were so professional. They did everything so well. . . It was great to work with them and help them make it all work because it turned out to be such a massive success around the world. There’s hardly a country in the world where it hasn’t been shown,” he added.
Downton Abbey ended in 2015, and in the years since its conclusion, Lord Carnarvon has taken on another exciting venture. In 2019, he partnered with spirits entrepreneur and author Adam von Gootkin to launch Highclere Castle Gin, an award-winning gin that conveys the eloquence and hospitality of the Highclere estate. Lord Carnarvon said it all began with “a bit of rare serendipity.”
“I fell in love with Highclere through Downton Abbey like many millions of people did. I watched the series, and I had been distilling spirits since my mid-twenties. But my family’s been doing it since the 1800s in various ways. And so I was looking to do a project that was deeply authentic and very genuine with a lot of heritage. I love history and I love England, so I was looking to do something in that direction, and I had the wild idea, while watching a PBS special about the Highclere Castle, to just reach out,” von Gootkin recalled.
He sent an email to Highclere Castle’s general office, and Lord Carnarvon called him the very next day. Just a few weeks later, von Gootkin found himself on a plane to meet with Lord and Lady Carnarvon at their iconic estate to learn about Highclere and everything it represents. Highclere Castle has a long-standing history of hospitality, having hosted some of the world’s most fascinating figures through the years.
“It really goes back to my great great grandfather who would have famous house parties on the weekend with lots of people, and there would have been wonderful food, cocktails, champagne, and certainly gin,” said Lord Carnarvon.
Von Gootkin noted that this hospitality coupled with the estate’s beautiful botanicals was a recipe for success.
“To merge together extreme hospitality and the terroir of the estate in liquid form is Highclere Castle Gin,” he expressed.
According to Lord Carnarvon and von Gootkin, Highclere Castle Gin is in a class of its own in part due to its history and its unique formulation.
“We didn’t just want to put our name on someone else’s not very great spirit. We wanted to do it from scratch, so it was an original creation,” Lord Carnarvon stated.
Highclere Castle Gin is made with botanical ingredients grown right on the estate including oranges, lemons, limes and lavender. There’s also one special ingredient that is largely responsible for the gin’s smoothness.
“We are the first gin in the world to use oats. That’s a big differentiator,” said von Gootkin, with the brand’s authenticity being another big differentiator.
“We come from one of, if not the most famous castle in the world. One of, at least, the most recognized properties where they’ve been serving gin for 100 years. There’s no other brand that can really claim that. There’s history, there’s beauty, there’s smoothness. And finally, we’ve won 104 international awards in just a little over three years, so we’re on track to be the most awarded gin in the world. I think the oats had a big part to do with that,” he added.
Lord Carnarvon and von Gootkin each have their favorite ways of enjoying their gin. Lord Carnarvon likes it in a gin and tonic with ice, a slice of orange zest and a rosemary sprig. His mixologist, Luis Coelho of Portugal, has crafted an eponymously named cocktail that Lord Carnarvon also loves.
“It’s called the Lord Carnarvon, which has lemon, a little bit of elderflower and then orange marmalade. You have to melt the marmalade a bit to mix it, but it is absolutely delicious,” he explained.
Von Gootkin enjoys it best in a classic martini.
“It’s just so smooth with a very good dry vermouth. Stirred, not shaken, double strained, one olive,” he said.
Highclere Castle Gin has enjoyed a warm reception around the world, including here in Georgia. In fact, Georgia has become one of the brand’s largest markets in the United States thanks to its popularity in Atlanta and Savannah. Locally, Highclere Castle Gin is served at several establishments including Churchill’s, Plant Riverside District’s Myrtle & Rose, The Olde Pink House and Garibaldi's. It makes sense that the Hostess City would be a good match for the brand.
“Savannah is such a very Highclere city because of its focus on hospitality, excellent cuisine, great cocktails and a very fun culture, and . . . that represents Highclere pretty well in the realm of entertainment and fun,” von Gootkin explained.
Lord Carnarvon, von Gootkin and their team members recently made their way to Savannah for a reception at Garibaldi’s, which took place on Thursday, March 23. The public was invited to come out, meet with Lord Carnarvon and von Gootkin and enjoy a dynamic evening featuring Highclere Castle Gin cocktails, heavy hors d'oeuvres and live music. Von Gootkin had visited Savannah quite a few times before, but it was Lord Carnarvon’s first time in town, and he particularly enjoyed the warm spring weather and our picturesque squares.
Noting the historic ties between Savannah and Britain, von Gootkin is proud that Highclere Castle Gin is an Anglo-American brand. Lord Carnarvon expressed that Highclere has many great friends from the U.S. and Canada, welcoming everyone who is interested in coming to visit.
Those interested in learning more about Highclere castle and the history of the family that has lived there for generations may want to read some of Lady Fiona’s books. Her titles include “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey;” “The Earl and the Pharaoh,” which chronicles the life of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, an Egyptologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb; “At Home at Highclere;” and “Seasons at Highclere.”
The books and the gin offer the public a taste of what Highclere represents, making it accessible for all.
“I think the gin gives people a chance to have a little touch, memory and thought of Highclere,” said Lord Carnarvon.
To learn more about Highclere Castle Gin, visit www.highclerecastlegin.com.