Few have been raised in the spirits industry to the same extent as lifelong entrepreneur Adam von Gootkin. His family ran a distillery in the 1800s, and his great-grandfather operated a speakeasy and shipping operation on the Connecticut River in the Prohibition era. In 2017, British-American von Gootkin brought that legacy to the next generation when he founded Highclere Castle Spirits with the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, the owners of Highclere Castle, informally known as the “real Downton Abbey.”
Since the company launched Highclere Castle Gin in 2019, it has won over 130 international spirit awards and is well on its way to becoming the most highly-awarded gin in the world. Von Gootkin spoke to The Untitled Magazine about building his empire and how he crafted a gin that continues to take the world by storm.
Read our interview with Adam von Gootkin below.
You have such an interesting family history in the spirits industry. Can you tell us about your family’s background in spirits as well as their Prohibition-era speakeasy?
My family immigrated from England to New England and ran a very successful whisky distillery through the 1800s. By the time of Prohibition, my great-grandfather owned a hotel in Middletown, CT on the Connecticut River. It was a beautiful Victorian-era hotel. When Prohibition was enacted, the basement was turned into a rather famous speakeasy. They had owned two steamship ferry boats that would make daily runs to Manhattan to pick up goods. Hidden amongst those goods was the booze! It was very much a big part of my inspiration, which led me to open one of Connecticut’s first distilleries making authentic New England moonshine.
Tell us about Onyx Spirits Co., which you co-founded. What was the inspiration for launching the company and the background for the name? Who did you launch it with?
Opening Onyx Moonshine was my entrée into the spirits industry, which resulted in a passion that I hold dear today. Not only does it celebrate my own family’s heritage, but it was also a way to demonstrate that we can still make things here in Connecticut! We harvested corn from the land, used Connecticut’s spring water from one of the last remaining springs, and grew the company into a leading brand in New England. I launched it with my co-founder, Peter Kowalczyk, who also has an interesting family history in Prohibition. Peter is also now our COO at Highclere Castle Gin. At the time, we had no idea what we were doing. I was literally selling moonshine from the trunk of my car, but my God, was it fun!
After co-founding Onyx Spirits Co., you wrote Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive the American Spirit. Can you elaborate on some of the unique approaches to business that you cover in the book?
I wrote Living Proof to inspire other would-be entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and just go for it. As a college dropout, I knew my prospects were limited. I was deeply afraid of getting trapped in some corporate bore machine, for the rest of my life. It is a very difficult path, but for some people, it’s well worth it. In the book, I shared some of the challenges of getting a business started. I hope that people can relate to my insight, which will help them avoid some of my mistakes. I also share many of the philosophies I have acquired over the years. This culminates in a very important style, that I embody, called responsible entrepreneurship. This helps you approach business with a very holistic mentality. I wrote the book some years ago and to be honest, I poured my heart into writing it. I must admit, however, I never read the published version.
Tell us about your partnership with the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, the owners of Highclere Castle. How did that come about?
After Onyx’s local success, I was looking to create a local brand applying the lessons we learned before. I searched for the right brand for a year, having the desire to go back to my family’s heritage in England. I learned of Highclere Castle, like many millions of others, through Downton Abbey. It was a cold call, or I should say, a cold email, that caught the castle’s attention. Lord Carnarvon responded the day after I sent it; a few weeks later I was on my way to Highclere Castle. Over a few years, I was there many times, and I learned a lot regarding their responsibilities of running the castle and estate. I fell in love with it all. I also felt very strongly that I could build an epic brand around this amazing tale, that comes from the very terroir of the estate. With Lord and Lady Carnarvon’s partnership, we could craft a gin worthy of being the finest gin on the planet. The journey of life is interesting, especially when it takes us to places, we never expected. We just need to always remember to remain open, as sometimes we need to act!
Your first collaboration with them was Highclere Castle Cigar Company. What makes the cigars special?
One day, I was walking through the Highclere Castle library with Lord Carnarvon. He commented, nonchalantly, that Winston Churchill was a person who frequently came in for cigars and cocktails over the years. I thought immediately of my dear friend Nick Melillo, a world-renowned cigar blender, as he and I had been looking to collaborate on a project. Being an aficionado of cigars I thought this might be just the project. I pitched the idea to Nick, but he wouldn’t do the project if he didn’t blend the cigars. I felt he was the only one who could blend the perfect cigar that reflected Highclere over a hundred years ago.
Nick Melillo has access to some of the best tobacco in the world, with knowledge of the leaf second to none. He accepted. The Highclere Castle Cigar was created. Just a few weeks later, Lord Carnarvon and I found ourselves in the jungles of Nicaragua. We were testing various blends of cigars to choose our final one. After a vote, it was unanimous, and the Highclere Castle Cigar was born! Cigar Aficionado announced that our Highclere Castle Victorian Toro Cigar was ranked in its Top 25 Cigars. Our cigar business continues to grow rapidly. Find and enjoy our cigars in US and UK lounges as part of the premier line of Nick Melillo’s portfolio.
These incredibly special cigars, use the rarest tobaccos and are hand-rolled in Nicaragua. The various blends, developed by Nick, are an echo of history. They share a flavor profile from the past; a past where these cigars were enjoyed by fascinating people for epic weekend parties over a century ago.
You followed that launch with Highclere Castle Spirits and the award-winning Highclere Castle Gin. Can you share what makes the gin unique?
Highclere Castle Gin is unique because it is citrus-forward, not juniper-forward. We are also the first gin in the world to use oats in our botanical blend, creating a creamy, round finish to the gin. Highclere Castle Gin’s composition is of premier quality. This has been validated by the 130 prestigious awards we have received and our recent 100-point score rating. The gin is also unique because it comes from a place that is real and is still living and breathing. Many spirits these days are mass-produced in factories with made-up marketing stories. Highclere Castle Gin is as real as any super fine wine with family terroir, history, heritage, and pedigree. I think it might be the greatest gin ever produced!
Why did you choose to launch a gin over other spirits?
Gin has been enjoyed at Highclere Castle for over 100 years. We even found handwritten butler notes, on how to make gin cocktails, dating back to the 1920s. Highclere Castle is surrounded by botanical gardens and a couple of thousand acres of oats. This naturally manages to provide us with the perfect assortment of ingredients to make gin. The lavender alone was planted in the ninth century, by the Bishop of Winchester, and we proudly include that in our blend. Lastly, gin is quintessentially British. The finest gins have come from the UK. Now I am proud to say that we are part of that legacy.
Highclere Castle Gin has won over 130 international spirit awards – can you share some of the highlights of the awards you have amassed in the last few years since it launched?
The success of Highclere Castle Gin is due to attracting people who want “real quality” and have a passion for it. It is for those who understand what it means to make something worth making. The awards we have won are a result of the detail we have put into our prestigious gin. We want the spirit of Highclere to come to life with every bottle.
Highclere Castle Gin “merges British pedigree and style with American innovation and drive for perfection.” Why was it important to you to craft a gin that maintains that unique British/American identity?
My family is of British heritage, and as an American, we are true “cousin countries” today in our language, trade, and even in our defense. I think this spirit of collaboration brings us all back to our roots. It allows us to share in our strengths and virtues of being a uniquely British-American brand. It is a journey we all can share, and Highclere is just the perfect place to do so.
Can you shed some light on how you crafted it and your commitment to sustainable agriculture?
Lord and Lady Carnarvon take immense measures to maintain the Highclere Castle estate in an amazing and sustainable way. You can read in length on their website or on Lady Carnarvon’s blog. They have both created quite an incredible ecosystem of wildflowers, bees, natural habitats, and even sheep to help keep the land clear. For the gin recipe, it took us nearly a year and a half to experiment. This included drying citrus from the orangery and other botanicals to Lord Carnarvon’s brilliant idea of adding oats to the botanical blend for added viscosity. We did over 20 recipes before we felt it was perfect. It was a long process, but our aim was perfection, which we achieved.
Where can we find Highclere Castle Gin in the US?
Highclere Castle Gin is available in seven countries: the UK, Malta, Poland, France, Dubai, Switzerland, Denmark, and 27 US States. Additionally, it is available in many of the finest hotels, private clubs, and restaurants. We are also the featured gin on Viking Cruise Lines. We are also available for e-commerce in about 40 states and 27 EU countries.
Aside from your exciting career in spirits, you are also an advisor to the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. Can you tell us about what that means to you as well as some of your other notable projects?
I started off as a young entrepreneur, who had limited resources. I have always felt called to help young entrepreneurs and young leaders whenever I can. I was introduced to the QCT before her majesty passed and was honored to attend the Queen’s Jubilee Celebration at Buckingham Palace. I was inspired by her message and global legacy for positivity. The QCT team has an incredible mission, helping many young leaders around the world to fulfill their potential. We have designated the QCT as the official charity of Highclere Castle Gin. I will continue to serve in any capacity in assisting in raising money, marketing their message, and adding value to their great organization. People can visit their website to learn more or donate.
What can we look forward to from you next? Any other exciting launches on the horizon?
We have many great things in the works, but my main priority is to continue to build the Highclere Castle Gin brand and continue to bring it to the finest hotels, restaurants, and retailers across the world.