Queen Elizabeth's Godson (and Real-Life Downton Abbey Owner) Creates New Gin in Time for Holidays

Downton's Lord Caernarvon, New gin Adam and Lord Carnarvon
Downton's Lord Caernarvon, New gin Adam and Lord Carnarvon

Highclere Gin Company

The real-life Downton Abbey is getting in the party spirit!

The owner of Highclere Castle, where the beloved Downton Abbey show and movies are set, has created a new gin in time for the holidays -- and its in honor of an adventuring ancestor.

Lord Carnarvon — whose godmother was the late Queen Elizabeth — and his business partner aged some of the estate's own-label gin (flavored by tropical fruits and herbs from the house's Orangery) in former whiskey and brandy barrels for over two years, and a new drink was born.

And they've done so as a way of marking the anniversary of Lord Carnarvon's great-grandfather, the 5th Earl — who helped discover Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb 100 years ago this month.

The new endeavor comes at the end of a poignant, sad year for the current lord of Highclere Castle and his wife, who like many Britons are still mourning the late Queen following her death in September. "It's as if a whole central pillar, or large part of one's life, has disappeared," he says. "It's the same for many of us with her being the longest reigning monarch, it's extraordinary."

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Downton's Lord Caernarvon, New gin Lord Carnarvon
Downton's Lord Caernarvon, New gin Lord Carnarvon

AHP Photography/Highclere Gin Company Lord Carnarvon

During a zoom call with PEOPLE from Highclere Castle, Lord Carnarvon sips the golden, champagne-colored spirit over ice and — unlike most cocktails — without a mixer. "As an on-the-rocks drink, it's got such a unique taste," he says. "You get these different flavors that are taken from the barrel. It is a new idea and can be an on-the-rocks drink before dinner or afterward with a cigar! It's a whole new thing but only a limited one!"

The barrel-aged gin was dreamt up with co-founder of Highclere Castle Gin, Adam von Gootkin, and goes on sale this week at $99 a bottle. And their inspiration was in the past. Recalling the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who joined his friend Howard Carter in November 1922 on the expedition that led to the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the current earl tells PEOPLE, "He was an extraordinary, eccentric maverick character from the late Victoria/Edwardian period."

"He was a pioneer for early technology and the earliest cars and an extraordinarily good photographer. He always took very good pictures of his discoveries."

Carnarvon, whose wife Lady Carnarvon penned the book The Earl and the Pharaoh on the 5th Earl, adds, "He had a combination of embracing these new technologies, and a quest for the most perfect of the old — he really respected the ancient Egyptians in what they'd achieved in their art and design and construction of their buildings."

Lord & Lady Carnarvon
Lord & Lady Carnarvon

Courtesy Highclere Gin Company Lord and Lady Carnarvon

They've tried to pay some heed to that history on the bottle (it includes some hieroglyphics and language translated by two Egyptologists from Yale University).

It was a history of a different kind that has been on the minds of the Carnarvon family and others since the death of the Queen in September.

"Her Majesty had been a good friend of my father, as he helped her with all her [horse] racing interests over the years," he says of his family's close ties — his father, the 7th Earl and known by his nickname as "Porchie," was her great friend and former horse racing manager. "When I was a boy she used to come and stay and go racing."

"I'm sure King Charles will be brilliant and do a fantastic job, but it is a sad thing and some structure seems to have been taken away with the Queen's passing," he says.

Adam and Lord Carnarvon
Adam and Lord Carnarvon

Courtesy Highclere Gin Company Lord Carnarvon and Adam von Gootkin

The Earl and his wife were at the funeral service for friends and family at Windsor Castle's St. George's Chapel.

"All those things are done so beautifully. This country does those things so well and the country paid the most fantastic respect to her life and reign," he says. "It was the same for Prince Philip, which was so moving."

He adds of the committal service: "Everything is done so immaculately and paying tribute to a much-loved Queen who reigned so long."

Lord Carnarvon said they received the "most extraordinarily kind messages," many from America, to the castle and via their social media channels in the wake of the death.

Von Gootkin, who is also CEO of Highclere Castle Gin, is honoring the late Queen too — he has taken an advisory role with the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, which helps support inspiring young leaders across the 54-nation Commonwealth and their company has chosen it as its charity.

"We're doing it to help Her Majesty's legacy," he says. "This was a charity that she founded. She didn't want it to be top heavy but be simple and get resources into the people who need them and supporting young leaders and entrepreneurs throughout the Commonwealth."

Downton's Lord Caernarvon Barrel Aged Gin
Downton's Lord Caernarvon Barrel Aged Gin

Courtesy Highclere Gin Company Barrel aged gin from Highclere Castle

Von Gootkin says when he sourced the old barrels that had formerly been used for Armagnac, Bourbon and Scotch whisky to give the gin a new unique flavor.to make the new spirit, he did so knowing the Scots, Americans and the French "are the best of the best, and to infuse that spirit in this brings whispers of history."

He coyly says that he won't reveal more about it — apart from the fact it is a little stronger than their flagship gin. He jokes, "I'm going to be buried with the recipe."

They are hoping it builds on the success of the Highclere Castle Gin, which comes in a distinctive purple bottle and is on course to ship 20,000 cases a year.

"Gin was a key thing at Highclere house parties," Lord Carnarvon adds. "There was a lot of entertaining going on — my great-grandmother was a great entertainer and full of life."

Entertaining took a back seat, of course, when the coronavirus pandemic struck. During the lockdowns, the Carnarvons hosted virtual cocktail parties, recreating some of the magic of the house parties that have echoed through the historic halls. On one occasion, they had 65,000 people involved — when one of their ponies came into shot and their butler mixed summer cocktails. They are an ongoing success, and one is another one planned for next week.

Since the easing of restrictions, the visitors have returned — helped in part by the publicity from the second Downton Abbey movie that opened in the spring. Lord Carnarvon adds the movie was "well received. It was a creative and fun idea."

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"You never know, they may well make a third movie," he adds. "That's certainly not confirmed at the moment, but that was certainly something they once thought of."