Cocktail hour at Downton Abbey is always high drama for the fictional inhabitants of the stately home, and every revelation around the dinner table is usually accompanied by at least a few glasses of alcohol. But for one Connecticut entrepreneur, it wasn't the staged high life that inspired a spirited idea -- it was a peek inside the real-life castle where the series is filmed.
“My wife Regina was a big Downton Abbey fan, and she got me into the show," said Adam von Gootkin, the man behind Connecticut’s Onyx Moonshine and Secret Stash whiskey. He described a Sunday night around four years ago, when they were both watching the show on PBS.
“After the episode ended, there was a documentary on the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle. It was a one-hour special with Lord and Lady Carnarvon," said von Gootkin. "And I sat for an hour, completely enthralled. And as I kind of fell in love with it, I said to myself, 'My God, wouldn’t that be the most amazing place to tell a story through a spirit!'”
Von Gootkin, it turns out, is not a person to let the grass grow under his feet. The next day he sent an email, to the only contact he had, a generic "info" address on the Highclere Castle website.
“And within a matter of a few hours I got a phone call from the Earl of Carnarvon.”
That phone call led to an invitation from Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the owners of Highclere, for von Gootkin and his wife Regina to fly to England to spend the weekend.
“We really liked him, we’ve become good friends," said Lady Carnarvon. "It’s become a great adventure, and it’s wonderful -- there’s a great Anglo-American partnership.”
Fiona Herbert, the Countess of Carnarvon, has become almost as well known as the series filmed at her home, through her blog and her best-selling books. The partnership the Carnarvons formed with von Gootkin has launched Highclere Castle gin -- a spirit that’s created using botanicals from the grounds of the house itself.
“There’s been a home at Highclere for 1,200 years, so we’ve got garden records which go back to the 13th Century,” explained Lady Carnarvon.
Von Gootkin believes it’s that authentic connection to the house that will give this brand its appeal.
“When you look at Highclere Castle’s extensive gardens, the monk’s gardens for example, the lavender that we’re using in the gin -- it was planted by the Bishops of Winchester in the 9th Century," he said. "Some of the juniper that we’re using -- juniper’s been growing wild on the Highclere estate since the ancient Romans occupied it during the Iron Age.”
And having a great story to tell might just be key for a small startup trying to launch a global brand.
The alcohol business is dominated by multinational giants, and it can be extraordinarily hard for small players to make an impression. Von Gootkin had a notable regional success with his Onyx Moonshine brand -- but he deliberately kept that enterprise small.
Ted Yang is one of the Connecticut entrepreneurs who’s helping him raise the money -- several million dollars so far -- for this bigger play.
“The investors that get it, really get it," said Yang. "Let’s be honest -- the liquor business is not for everybody. And it’s a much more complicated business than most people think.”
The legacy of prohibition means that in the United States alone, a brand looking to break into the market must contend with 50 different regulatory regimes (just think of the recent struggles over Connecticut's blue laws.) And that’s not to mention the global complications.
For Yang, who came from the fast-moving tech world, building a luxury brand is a whole new challenge.
“The start-up scene is very dominated again, by tech-oriented businesses, where it’s about fail fast and throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. That is not this business,” he said with a smile.
For instance, the recipe for the Highclere gin went through 24 iterations before it was launched. And if you make the wrong decision on this kind of project -- the recipe, the bottle, the marketing -- you can’t just issue a patch the next day.
“A good example is the glass," explained Yang. "We spent months and months and months getting the right shade of purple on that glass, getting the design just right, the height of the bottle. These things matter.”
But what about the drink inside?
Gin has been a quintessentially British staple for centuries. In the 18th Century, the Royal Navy mandated that a certain amount of gin was to be carried aboard ship on every voyage. The gimlet, a gin cocktail, was invented in the 19th Century as a way to get sailors to take citrus with their gin and avoid scurvy on long voyages. And gin and tonic became the drink of the Empire in Britain's colonial days, because the quinine in tonic can help ward off malaria.
But in the U.S., gin is much less established, as anyone who had a bad experience with the spirit in college can tell you.
In fact, it’s only five percent of the spirits market here, compared to the most popular spirit of all, vodka, which is more than 30 percent.
Von Gootkin is betting that means there’s lots of room for growth -- and he’s hoping that catching the coattails of Downton mania will give his brand a lift.
For Lady Carnarvon this latest venture is more of a nod to the past, to the days when she remembers her own parents making a gin and tonic each evening before dinner.
“I enjoy the drink, and funnily enough the young people in England are also enjoying gin again, so it’s kind of going full circle -- like everything else in life,” she said.
Highclere Castle gin, which is made at the oldest distillery in England, launched in the U.K. over the summer. It's now available in a handful of states including Connecticut, and will continue to roll out in the U.S. in coming months.