During school terms, my family lived in a large sprawling flat in Westminster and, given there were so many of us, my mother had to be very organised. This extended when we were young to a strict rota of bedtimes, depending on our age. By 8pm, however, most of us had been packed off and Nanny used to appear at the drawing room door, large glass in hand. She was looking for a gin and tonic with a slice of lemon and not too many ice cubes. Our father would oblige, and Nanny would happily retreat for a few well-deserved moments of delicious respite from all of us.
My parents own gin and tonic ritual was reassuringly consistent: the ice bucket filled and waiting, lemon or lime slice in a small dish, the bottle opener ready for the tonic. A moment of reflection after the travails of the day. There were fewer gin brands in those days but we probably still use many of the stills that they did. In fact, the Langley Stills in which Highclere Castle Gin is distilled are two hundred years old, the same family still continue to run it and to live and dream gin.
The copper stills can produce both large or small runs and every gin has its own secret recipe. Highclere Castle gin is the result of four years preparation and nine months of tasting. The backbone spirit is made from wheat but then the work of the careful apothecary wizardry begins.
At heart the key botanical is of course juniper but our recipe does not allow it to over dominate. A native British tree, it still grows at Highclere on the ancient slopes of Beacon hill, a monumental hillside of nature and of iron age antiquity. Luckily however juniper also grows in our gardens and more has now been planted to ensure a contribution in the future.
Coriander is present in every gin as is angelica but we have introduced just a hint of lavender to the mix, easily harvested from the old Monks’ Garden. Then there is a flurry of activity when the tiny oranges and the waxy lemons in the orangery can be picked. Geordie rushes them to housekeeper Carol to begin drying them before they are sent by Sally in the gift shop off to the distillery.
When you smell the gin, slowly breathing in its aromas, you can begin to sense the balance between the summer citrus flavours and the juniper, highlighted by the notes of lavender and lime flower. Now add some ice to the glass and slowly sip. It has a coherent refreshing delicious taste and at the end a creaminess. This is due to Geordie’s idea of adding just a few Highclere oats to the mix. We wanted to create something very, very good and it has now won 15 gold awards – so it is “very Highclere” which was the novelist Evelyn Waugh’s shorthand for something excellent. We hope it is, like Highclere itself, for the long view and one which too will grow admirers over time.
Nanny can now continue to enjoy her gin and tonic and even try it with a sprig of rosemary as well as a clever twist of lemon or orange which just squeezes a little fresh citrus into the drink: a favourite trick of Highclere’s butler Luis.
Before the challenging lockdowns of 2020, Friday evenings at the Castle often began with a cocktail – a Luis “special” to welcome friends from London to a weekend in the country, ready to enjoy walks, good food, stories and conversation.
During lockdown, however, rather than just enjoying a “Luis special” on our own, Geordie and I became virtual hosts. It was a way of supporting and promoting a nascent endeavour and a pivot from a world of antiquity to the modern technology of today with the help of our American partners.
There were some hilarious moments as we tried to bring together time zones, streamed with phones held upside down, reached for cocktails that were placed too far away and knocked things over just at the critical moment when we were due to start. PR Hannah would get nervous and, as the DOP and producer, would bark at us to focus and then the dogs would bark too.
Our gin is about fun. It is about conversation, glamour, parties, dancing and celebrations: all the things that have had to be postponed for now. But I hope, as they return, Highclere Castle Gin in its extraordinary purple bottle will be at the centre and lead the way.
In the end we created the largest virtual cocktail party (through Highclere Castle Instagram, and the Facebook and Instagram of Highclere Castel Spirits) and it has been such a fun journey from the “Hanky Panky”, to the “Bees Knees”, through martinis and negronis. I have concluded that I am really very good at trying them all although I have now forgotten how to make most of them. It was such a relief when Luis came back in June to rescue us and make them for us. In the meantime, I have learnt so much, from finding old recipes in a butler’s handwriting in the archives, to researching the origins of some of the drinks. In fact I have realised how much I admire Luis’s skill and the balance of each cocktail.
Now we are looking forward to two more of Christmas themed Friday night virtual cocktail parties on the 4th and the 18th 9pm GMT. A very special and unusual guest opens the proceedings on Friday 4th. Although infinitely more experienced than we once were, thankfully this time Luis will be at our side and I can return to my more comfortable role of just sipping the cocktails rather than trying to construct them.
After a cocktail or two there is the most pleasant justification that the herbs and the citrus from the gin and the quinine from the tonic must certainly all be good for me whilst the purple bottle invokes our ecclesiastical heritage and therefore a certain spiritual comfort. So, all in all it is very good way to end each day. Highclere‘s alchemy indeed.