In 2015, I had a vision. I wanted desperately to do a project in England – a project with an authenticity and history so rich and deep it could never be replicated. I believe strongly in the terrior of spirit brands, a word typically reserved only for wines. This vision forming in my mind, like with our moonshine, had to be rooted in terrior. It had to scream quality and fit our obsessive journey to produce the very best we could. And so, I reached out to Lord & Lady Carnarvon, owners of the famous Highclere Castle. And by chance, perhaps good luck – they reached out back. I’ll never quite know why they were intrigued with my vision to create a Highclere Castle Spirit or trust a crazy 32-year-old American with such an important representation of the castle. But somehow, it felt right and natural for all of us and that’s the most important thing if you are going to have a great relationship for years to come.
The original plan – Highclere Castle English Whisky. I know whisky inside and out, from American to Scotland to Japan and I felt ready to stretch my legs on some English terrior and utilize the Barley grown at Highclere and shipped to Scotland for this very purpose. I’m excited about the future of English Whisky and was eager to get started. Lord Carnarvon and I traveled up and down Scotland pursuing crucial R&D work…. tasting every wee dram, we could – my wife at the wheel driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the tiny road that majestically wove its way through the greenest hills I’ve ever seen that go on and on forever as the rain poured down sideways. If you haven’t been to Scotland, it is a dream – like walking through the afterlife. We found our favorite whiskies and developed a mental flavor pallet for the recipe.
I returned from the trip with clarity and a plan that was soon disrupted. One challenge we had was that on the site we wanted to build the distillery at Highclere, was recently discovered a medieval village slightly underground that was both protected and needing significant investment to protect – not conducive to my tasting room parking lot idea….
That, among the significant investment needed for whisky aging led us to wonder, what can we produce that is still entirely authentic to Highclere, might cost $10 million less, and actually be available for sale under 5 years. The answer was obvious to Lord Carnarvon and I as we sat over breakfast in New England after a week of working…. Gin.
And thus arrived my big conundrum: I hate the stuff. I’ve been serving Tanqueray and Tonic to my elderly aunts for eons. Gin smacks of pine to me, sharp, often harsh – necessary to be mixed into sugary tonic or other things in order to be hidden as best as possible. I fancy myself a purest – if I can sip a spirit neat and TRULY enjoy it, then it should glow in a cocktail.
I must find a way to fall in love with this product. Afterall, it’s been served for over 100 years at cocktails to many of the world’s finest and most fascinating people. Highclere is surrounded by the very botanical gardens ideal for making a gin. And gin is well…. about as British as spirit as you can get.
And thus began our adventure and my biggest personal challenge in the spirits business. How do we craft a gin that I can truly, unabashedly say, is one of my favorite spirits on this planet? A gin for gin connoisseurs that will be discovered by all the people out there like me – who don’t like gin.
Traveling the world as we grow Highclere Castle Gin, I encounter people every day that say, “beautiful bottle but I haven’t had gin since a terrible experience in college.” Or “I can’t drink, it makes me sick.” It’s actually amazing how consistent these stories are, and definitely why gin only accounts for about 5% of spirits consumed in the US. It was a different era, where only a few gin brands existed, legacy brands that have been around for many decades. Gin was approached lackadaisically for a different pallet, a different consumer.
Our approach to Highclere was a citrus one. After all, the Victorian orangery behind the castle grows the oranges, lemons and limes that were destined to take center stage – adding a fresh, fruity, and mouthwatering introduction to our gin. We backed the Juniper (the pine element) way down, allowing it to serve as the crisp pop – like pepper, to the flavor. We are the first Gin in the world to use oats – grown at Highclere for thoroughbreds. These oats add a silky, bready finish to the spirit that reminds me of the chewable viscosity of my favorite whiskies and cognacs – that 10-second-long lingering magic that only the finest wine and spirits possess.
I’ll never forget the moment it all came together. After over a year of trial and error, we were on the 25th recipe iteration to get it right – my personal quest for a gin for people that don’t like gin. I was sitting at the Bellagio Hotel with Lord Carnarvon in his suite. We were there launching the Highclere Castle Cigar, an adventurous Indiana Jones tale for another blog post. Lord Carnarvon had traveled with one tiny sample bottle to open together. We sat at the window looking over the famous Bellagio fountain. As we popped the bottle, the aroma of Highclere’s gardens wafted around the room. And I swear as I write this, the fountains burst forth, spewing water a hundred feet in the air as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony exploded from the outdoor speaker system. Lord Carnarvon and I looked at each other and smiled.