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db Meets: Lord Carnarvon

George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, propelled his family seat, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, to international fame when it was used as the setting for historical drama Downton Abbey and the subsequent feature film. Keen to move with the times, Carnarvon opens up his home, which he shares with his wife, Lady Fiona, and their son Edward, to the public in the summer, hosting everything from proms to picnics. His latest venture is Highclere Castle Gin, which is made using botanicals from the castle grounds. We caught up with him over the phone this week to find out the story behind the gin.

Lord and Lady Carnarvon with their dogs at Highclere in Hampshire

What inspired you to make your own gin?

I love spending time in our Victorian orangery, which is full of sub-tropical plants, and often wondered what I could do with the area. A few years ago I got a call from Adam von Gootkin, a young entrepreneur from Connecticut who was keen to collaborate with me on a gin inspired by the castle gardens. A week later he flew over to visit Highclere and we developed the project from there.

How did the gardens at Highclere influence the recipe?

We wanted to use botanicals inspired by what grows in our gardens. Juniper is at the heart of the gin. It grows in the scrubland on the slopes of Beacon Hill in the centre of the estate. It’s an area of scientific interest, so we’re not allowed to use that specific juniper, but I’ve planted an area of it at the estate that we can use in the blend.

Highclere Castle Gin is made from botanicals grown at the estate

We also use lavender as a botanical, which has grown in the grounds since the ninth century, when it was first planted by the Bishop of Winchester. In Medieval times Highclere was a church property and the bishop had a summer palace here with a sophisticated garden set up.

We still have the remains of the monks’ garden where we have beds of lavender, which has always thrived here. The lime flower we use is inspired by a long avenue of lime trees at the estate, which give off a magnificent scent in the summer, and the orange peel is in honour of our orangery behind the monks’ garden.

Does the gin boast any unusual botanicals?

There are a lot of gins on the market so it was really important to make a distinct one. What sets Highclere Castle Gin apart from other gins is the inclusion of oats. While we were trialling different recipes for the gin we went through a lot of iterations with the juniper, lavender and the different citrus elements. I felt like we’d nearly got there with it but the taste was a bit sharp.

We’ve been growing oats on chalky soils at our estate as fuel for racehorses for years, and I wondered whether adding them to the blend might help smooth it out. We made a batch using a small amount of oats and as soon as I opened the bottle and smelt it I knew we’d struck upon the right recipe as they add a lovely smoothness to the blend and extra palate weight.

Where is the gin made?

We have collaborated with Rob Dorsett of Langley Distillery in the West Midlands, which boasts some of the oldest working stills in the UK that date back to the 1800s. We launched the gin last year and are on track to produce 30,000 cases of six this year. It’s on sale at Waitrose and is doing well in local pubs, but Adam and I expect the US will be the main market for it.

Why the purple bottle?

I really like the colour – it reminds me of the purple robes of a bishop. The purple we’ve gone for is on the blue spectrum in honour of the red and blue on our flag and family crest. The glass is made in England and its square shape is modelled on the castle’s main tower.

The Carnarvons at the orangery that inspired the gin

How do you like to drink it?

I think it’s smooth enough to be able to drink on its own or on the rocks, but I like it best in a G&T with a traditional tonic water, a twist of orange peel and a sprig of rosemary. My butler, Luis, is an accomplished mixologist and makes wonderful classic cocktails. The gin works well in a White Lady, or a Negroni if you fancy something stronger.

Highclere has a long history of entertaining esteemed guests, which have been the most memorable?

Highclere has had all sorts of exciting people to stay over the years, from American novelist Henry James and Lawrence of Arabia to Sir Winston Churchill, who, I’ve been told, was fascinating company. Cigars were always part of the scene when he was around, as were cocktails, and Champagne, and brandy, and Scotch.

My great grandmother, Lady Almina, had an extraordinary eye for detail and a passion for entertaining in the style of Downton Abbey, though to an even more lavish degree. She loved getting every detail of the menu right and deciding on the drinks. When Edward VII came to stay she really went to town, and had the bedroom he slept in redecorated red in his honour.

Evelyn Waugh, who stayed on more than one occasion, used to say something was “very Highclere” if it was of the highest standard. He ended up marrying two Herbert relations, though not at the same time.

Your great grandfather, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, pioneered the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, did this instil in you a love of Egyptology?

I got into Egyptology later in life. My grandfather was quite superstitious of the story, and chose not to trumpet it as the extraordinary feat it was. After he died my father discovered an incredible collection of Egyptian objects in a hidden cupboard between the drawing room and the smoking room while doing an inventory in 1988 with his very Carson-like butler, Robert.

Among the objects was a ladies make-up set, tweezers and an eye decorating kit dating back to the time of Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs who pioneered expeditions to the Horn of Africa. We have some wonderful film footage showing my great grandfather taking things out of Tutankahmun’s tomb with his daughter Evelyn and the archaeologist Howard Carter.

Sadly, he died in the hour of his triumph. While in Egypt he got bitten on the face by a mosquito, which got infected and led to pneumonia. Curiously, the weakest part of Tutankahmun’s gold mask is exactly the same place where my great grandfather got bitten.

At 9pm on Friday 17 April Lord and Lady Carnarvon will be hosting a Cocktails at the Castle toast in the library at Highclere via Facebook Live. You can take part in the virtual tasting via Highclere Castle Gin’s Facebook page.

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