Aside from the geographic distance, East Hartford and Highclere Castle couldn’t be farther apart culturally. One is a dynamic but hardly scenic urban area, the other a historic English estate so picturesque it was used as the backdrop of the “Downton Abbey” TV series.
But in his relatively short career, Adam von Gootkin has done business in both locales. Now, based in Essex, von Gootkin is betting big on the appeal of Highclere Castle to U.S. liquor drinkers with his latest venture Highclere Castle Spirits, which employs 20 people.
“It’s heritage, it’s tradition — it’s super old-school yet at the same time it’s very modern,” von Gootkin said of his product, Highclere Castle Gin. Von Gootkin started working with the earl and countess who live at the castle several years ago to develop the gin, now distributed in the U.S., U.K. and parts of Europe.
As a working country estate, Highclere grows products that could make the spirit stand out from the pack: lavender first planted by the Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century, citrus grown in the castle’s “orangery” and top-quality oats grown on the property that were once set aside for the finest racehorses.
“The idea was to liquify many centuries of the highest levels of entertainment … into the world’s best gin,” von Gootkin said.
Gin connoisseurs have taken note: Highclere Castle Gin has won more than 30 awards at international spirits competitions and is among the fastest-growing gin brands in the world, von Gootkin said.
Startup track record
Highclere Castle Spirits is not von Gootkin’s first outing in the spirits business: He co-founded Onyx Moonshine in Manchester in 2009 and opened a distillery to make the clear spirit in East Hartford in 2013.
By 2018, Onyx had expanded into a 11,000-square-foot former Wonder Bread bakery on Oakland Avenue in East Hartford with a tasting room and a range of products including Secret Stash, the first barrel-aged whiskey produced in Connecticut in recent history.
But the company was forced to close its East Hartford location in May of 2018 after a Canadian company bought the Oakland Avenue building, von Gootkin said. Onyx was planning for a new location when the pandemic hit.
“The pandemic has really messed up our plans, like so many businesses,” von Gootkin said. He said he hopes to reopen Onyx somewhere in the state as soon as the COVID-19 disruption improves. In East Hartford?
“I’m not sure yet,” he said.
Von Gootkin’s latest bet on Highclere Castle Gin may yet lead to bigger things: According to The Spirits Business website, big liquor brands have been targeting gin startups as the market grows for “super-premium” versions of the spirit. Premium gin is both trendy and considered highly profitable because it is inexpensive to make and requires no aging, according to the website.
Von Gootkin calls his latest venture “proudly a very Anglo-American company” and has aspirations to grow sales worldwide, in part by utilizing cryptocurrency transactions.
He estimates he will sell over 20,000 cases globally this year.
“It’s kind of neat in a way that such an old brand, like what Highclere Castle Gin represents, is simultaneously doing some of the most futuristic things,” he said. “That’s exactly the place we want to live.”