Great Britain’s most celebrated residence, not counting Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street, may be Highclere Castle, the magnificent estate that stars in “Downton Abbey.” The emotional journeys of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants have inspired 110,000 visitors each year to seek out the historic residence in the county of Hampshire.
But “Downton Abbey” has also inspired someone in a most unusual way. Adam von Gootkin — a self-described serial entrepreneur in Connecticut who launched the award-winning Onyx Moonshine line in 2010 after successful forays into real estate and digital technology — was looking for an opportunity to expand his business portfolio. But the right idea eluded him until one evening while he was watching television.
“The show ‘Downton Abbey’ was on,” he recalls. “After the show, there was a PBS special on the real Downton Abbey, so I watched it for an hour and learned all about Highclere Castle — a 5,000-acre fully functioning English country home. And I learned about Lord and Lady Carnarvon and the great history of entertaining at Highclere Castle.”
While von Gootkin was impressed with the castle’s rich history, he was even more appreciative of the business focus that the Carnarvons brought to their estate. These were not the idle rich by any stretch, but rather a couple who run their estate with a professionalism that would put many executives to shame.
“They were very entrepreneurial and very hard working at maintaining the estate,” he says.
Von Gootkin, working under his Julii Luxury Brands LLC corporate operation, reached out to the Carnarvons with several ideas that he believed would expand Highclere Castle into hitherto-untapped business channels. To his delight, the couple responded happily to his outreach.
“Lord and Lady Carnarvon invited my wife and I to be guests for the weekend,” he says, describing the aristocratic couple as “fantastic, humble, intelligent, insightful, caring people. That’s what made this a business partnership — and they are partners. This is not a licensing deal.”
The first outreach in von Gootkin’s partnership with the Carnarvons was Highclere Castle Cigars.
Lord Carnarvon is a cigar fan, and his celebrated great-grandfather, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, helped discover King Tut’s tomb in 1922 with a cigar in his hand. Von Gootkin connected Lord Carnarvon with Nick Melillo, owner of Foundation Cigar Co. in Windsor, Connecticut, to fashion a new cigar brand that tapped into Highclere Castle’s history and ambience.
“Nick had access to very rare and expensive tobaccos,” von Gootkin says. “We were able to model the aroma and flavor profile of the cigar after the style of cigars that were smoked at Highclere Castle around the 1900s. The result is a really creamy, super high-quality cigar that smokes like a cigar from 120 years ago.”
The Highclere Castle Cigars trace their tobacco to Nicaragua. Von Gootkin notes that it is still illegal to sell Cuban tobacco in the U.S., but he points out that many Cubans who fled the Castro regime settled in Nicaragua and “spent their lives perfecting the art of growing tobacco.” He notes that the packaging of the Highclere Castle Cigars is also befitting its aristocratic brand.
“The box is hand-chiseled from sustainably grown red cedar on Nicaragua’s eastern coast,” he says.
Highclere Castle Cigars went on sale in the United States and the United Kingdom in October 2017, and reviews from professional cigar critics were as rich as the tobacco blend. Jordan Guttormson of Cigar Dojo wrote: “Moving into the meat of the cigar, it’s hard not to note the smooth texture and delicate flavors of butterscotch, butter and wheat. This is balanced by salted nuts and white pepper, helping to keep the profile from becoming dull. The profile is then joined by a rock candy sweetness, marking the ‘sweet spot’ (no pun intended) of the toro.”
Online cigar aficionado Phil “Katman” Kohn praised the “big smoky cigar,” adding that “plumes of it should set off my smoke detectors. Black pepper with a touch of red pepper makes a perfect combo. Nice … The burn is absolutely flawless.”
For an encore, von Gootkin and the Carnarvons have teamed for Highclere Castle Gin, the first product of its Highclere Castle Spirits brand. For this, the Highclere Castle grounds offered the ingredients.
“We have botanicals grown on the estate, including lavender planted by the Bishops of Winchester in the 1600s, juniper, oranges that have grown in the Victorian-era orangery — even the oats planted on the estate used to sell to very high-end thoroughbred racehorses, including the Queen’s racehorses,” von Gootkin says.
Working with Langley Distillery, Britain’s largest gin manufacturer, von Gootkin and the Carnarvons went through 24 recipes before hitting on a blend that they considered to be perfect.
“We wanted it to be a gin that was not too weird or strange or risky, but also new and fun,” von Gootkin says. “By having botanicals from estate, it is robust and floral. It is different from any gin that anyone’s ever had, but in a high-end, super-elegant way. It’s benefitting of the name and destination.”
Highclere Castle Gin was previewed on this side of the Atlantic last November at an exclusive tasting held at Manhattan’s SoHo Grand Hotel. Von Gootkin is scheduling a wide retail release in the first quarter of this year, with sales planned across the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy and Australia, as well as in the duty-free shops in the Caribbean, Dubai and North Africa.
Of course, cigars and gin may not seem like staples in today’s health-obsessed routines, and von Gootkin advises any usage of tobacco and alcohol should be in moderation. But, at the same time, he believes that the Highclere Castle brands can help find the pause button in today’s digital age.
“People are taking the time to sit down in their busy lives, relax, enjoy quality products with a friend,” he says. “Through that process, you can find it is relaxing, therapeutic and meditative.”