The Soft Diplomacy of Highclere Gin

Garden party at the Wadsworth Mansion (Credit: British Consulate Boston)


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Give credit where credit is due, strip away the trappings of showmanship and anglophile celebrity from Highclere Castle Gin, and you are left with one of the better gins on the market – uncommonly easy-drinking, a classic gin (think Beefeater not Hendrick’s) that soft-pedals the juniper and brings forward sweet orange and lavender.

As Adam von Gootkin, CEO and co-founder of Highclere explained it, so-called “brown spirit fans” wanting something a bit lighter are discovering that they can have their gin like they have their whiskies.

His go-to?

“On the rocks with a wedge of orange.”

“We found that actually putting a slice of orange and some rosemary brings out our botanicals fantastically,” said co-founder George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon. “We don’t rely on lemon with it.”

I’m not sure how many American drinkers are ready to adopt a habit of a sipping gin, served neat or on a bit of ice – though they probably should – but if ever there was a gin that asked for a light touch it’s probably this one.

“We wanted to avoid any bitter early- or after-taste of any sort, which puts some people off it,” explained Carnarvon, who credits the smoothness of the spirit to his idea of introducing oats grown at Highclere estate to the gin basket, an old-time technique shared with whisky distillers in Scotland.

Highclere is distilled at Langley distillery in the East of England in perhaps the oldest copper pot gin stills in the U.K. – a distiller that von Gootkin said combines “old country” craft production and still turns out 80 million bottles a year.  In the case of Highclere, that means a basket of angelica root, cassia, dried lime peel, lemon, orange and lavender is steeped overnight in a base spirit distilled from English wheat, and then redistilled to make gin.

In late July, von Gootkin and Lord Carnarvon invited us to their wood-paneled office, decorated with assorted hides and hunting trophies, a leather sofa and chairs tucked into a second-floor warren of rooms in the Witch Hazel Works in Centerbrook. Boxes of cigars – a side project of the partnership – were stacked on a coffee table. Bottles of gin, including a gold-adorned aged edition of Highclere, decorated a sideboard.

Von Gootkin was drumming up interest in crowd funding an expansion of the business, which has so far attracted over $600,000 and more than 500 investors, before serving drinks on the back terrace of the Wadsworth Mansion outside of Middletown to 80 or so people invited by von Gootkin and the British Consulate Boston to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

The remarkably top-heavy garden party attracted Gov. Ned Lamont, the British Consul General to New England Peter Abbott, Rehman Chishti – who was until recently in the running to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minster of the U.K. – and assorted candidates and state officials including Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General William Tong.

Peter Abbott, British Consul General to New England, speaks to guests on the terrace behind the Wadsworth with the Earl of Carnarvon (L) and Adam von Gootkin (R)

Until there is a broader post-Brexit trade deal between the U.K. and the U.S., this sort of state-by-state “pop-up” diplomacy is a point of emphasis for Abbott, who in the past has been eager to discuss the opportunities of wind energy off Connecticut, and fintech.

For Chishti, who previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief, and now with the Biden administration, as Minister for North America, Sanctions and Consular Policy, it was opportunity to underscore an uncompromising approach to Russia’s territorial aspiration in Ukraine.

Carnarvon appeared most animated discussing agriculture – the heat wave and the coming harvest, the English wheat used in the base spirit, lavender grown in the walled monks garden at Highclere, and a small plot producing sparkling wine in chalk soil shared across the channel with Champagne.

All in all, a remarkable showing of the soft power that Downtown Abbey exerts on business and relations between the two countries.

On the terrace at the Wadsworth, they served French 75s and Bee’s Knees cocktails, but at home on ours we tried something different…

A Revival Spritz

1 oz Highclere Gin

1 oz Aperol

1 oz Orange curacao

1 oz Lemon juice

A dash of Absinthe or Pernod

Sparkling wine

Swirl a dash of absinthe or Pernod in a glass, discarding any extra. Fill with ice.  Set aside.
In a shaker with ice add equal parts gin, Aperol, lemon juice and curacao. Shake and strain into the ice-filled glass.  Top with sparkling wine.