In America’s Test Kitchen with Dan Zuccarello

The word “mud” derives from a Middle Dutch word (16th century) meaning to make muddy, hence the English expression “as clear as mud”. Our new piglets love the mud, children love mud pies and, for much of the year, mud is definitely part of everyday life at Highclere. From mud comes muddle and I often feel that my working day is not so much streamlined organisation as more of a “muddling along” or “multi-muddling”.

Last week, however, during a whistle-stop visit to New York, Rhode Island and Boston, I witnessed another sort of “muddling”, or “mashing” as it is also called, when I watched Dan Zuccarello in America’s Test Kitchen making gin cocktails: they are bringing out a great new cocktail book.  Luckily, our Highclere Castle Gin is now available in six states in the USA, with ten more due by September. It was an amazing experience and somewhat novel, as normally, I must admit, although I excel at sipping a gin cocktail, Luis, our butler has “muddled” it behind the scenes – or behind the green baize door, so to speak.

In today’s world of course, unlike the world of 100 years ago, life behind the green baize door is also part of my life in that those differentials have long gone. Thus, over the last four years, we have been researching cocktails and gins as part of the creative process of developing our own Highclere Castle Gin, an Anglo-American enterprise with some friends and colleagues. Along with friendship, hard work, laughter and much persistence, the Castle gardens, in particular, were a key part of the story.

I never tire of walking along the pale golden gravel around the Castle, before cutting across the lawns and meandering down towards the ancient mellowed flint and brick arched walls which mark the western side of the Monk’s Garden. I think gardens give us all so much pleasure. From a feeling of peace to a recognition of beauty, they also encourage our patience and our industry. They remind us of cycles and seasons, sleep and regeneration, with different plants ripening and flowering each in their own time. Some of the plants and trees we have planted are for our enjoyment today, others are for future generations. It is a sense of continuity.

Juniper has grown here for centuries but, whilst an essential ingredient, is used only in moderation in our gin. It does not overwhelm and is balanced by oranges, tiny and intense, from the orangery, as well as other citrus, a touch of lavender from under the walls, lime flowers, some coriander (which is a favourite herb of mine) and a number of other botanicals to complement. After nine months of tasting, my husband and the distillery then introduced a few oats at the very end to add creaminess and a smooth finish, which has already led to many plaudits and awards.

The purple bottle reflects our ecclesiastical heritage – the Bishops of Winchester owned Highclere for 800 years and the Monk’s Garden is a surviving remnant of those days. Like the gin, the bottle is made here in the UK. When empty, I think they would make great candle holders, a sort of throwback to my youth when we used empty wine bottles to light our student tables. I think I should ask Sally in the gift shop to find me some long purple candles for fun.

Team Highclere Castle Gin

Our business partners are based in Connecticut and are led by Adam, who is most appropriately named for a garden-based enterprise. For my husband, it is lovely to explore some of his mother’s American heritage – she was from Wyoming – and there is never a better time to work with friends across an ocean to create something quintessentially British. Something we can all enjoy sitting on the lawns at Highclere, against the skyline of New York or, as I did last week, in Rhode Island, New England. Neatly, this is not far from New Hampshire whilst Highclere, of course, is in “old” Hampshire.

In Downton Abbey, Shirley Maclaine’s character, Martha Levinson, came from Newport, Rhode Island and we celebrated our US Gin launch nearby at Ocean House, on green lawns surrounded by hydrangeas, much like here – although, it has to be said, somewhat warmer.  I was delighted to meet our distributors and hope we shall all have some fun with our latest enterprise.

Gin has such a long British heritage and I have found cocktail recipes in the archives from the 1920’s. The Anglo Saxon word “mod” appears quite close to mud but means, in fact, the inner spirit of a person and leads me to consider that we should all strive for nobler purposes whilst muddling our gin cocktail.

What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes?” ~ Winston Churchill