Branding lessons from Countess Carnarvon of Highclere Castle (the home of Downton Abbey)

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In the runup to the new Downton Abbey movie, you’d be forgiven for imagining someone with the title of Countess of Carnarvon lounges around her 300-room castle all day sipping tea and planning glittery balls. You’d be mistaken. Instead, the eighth woman to hold this title is creating a branded dynasty that not only highlights the family’s seat at Highclere Castle but also uses the iconic architecture of the property in branding their latest product — a smooth and pedigreed dry gin, aptly named Highclere Castle Gin.

The refreshingly down-to-earth Countess, nee Fiona Aitken, is the best-selling author of “At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey” she’s also a historian who chronicles the family and castle’s history.
Countess Carnarvon met with Ladders to discuss the new gin and the way she’s been working on rebranding a property owned by her husband’s family since the 17th century.

They honor their farm-to-table roots

The Countess explained that the oats that add a particular smoothness to the gin have been grown on the property for centuries. “We’re a farm. We’ve been farming oats for hundreds of years. I’ve got records of oats being grown from the 13th century.”

She explains that also grown was lavender and that there was a brewery at Highclere as well. “We drank much less water in the past. We did not purify our water then, so we created drinks- mead, beer, wine, it’s great fun to be coming back to creating a drink here.” In that vein, the first bottles were actually sold at a local fair.

“We have a country fair every May. And we were selling hay and oats and also gin, the bottles of gin were balanced on top of the hay. And everyone was tasting it and it was a typical Highclere muddle. My husband spent the whole day there selling. Selling gin and hay and oats.”

With a little help from their friends

If you’re unfamiliar with the Downton Abbey backstory, the historical period drama was created and co-written by Academy Award-winning writer Julian Fellowes, who also penned Gosford Park.

“He wrote Downton with Highclere in mind,” shared Lady Carnarvon. “Emma Fellowes is a great girlfriend, so they would come and stay for a while and he incorporated a lot of it into the Downton story. He knew Louis (the Carnarvon family butler) would come up the green baize door and offer him a cocktail.

“He knew how they worked with the dinner service and for that reason so many scenes are set in the dining room because Julian has sat there himself.”

The heritage of a heritage brand

Highclere Castle was once the most famous house in the U.K. Now it’s the most famous house in the world. Lady Carnarvon jokes that someday she hopes it will be the most famous house in the universe, and with the launch of the gin that might just happen. The bold square design of the elegant blueish purple bottle that holds the gin was designed to echo the structure of the castle remodeled by Charles Barry in 1838.

The distinctive color of the bottle was inspired by the Bishops of Winchester, who owned Highclere for 800 years before it was sold to the Carnarvons. Lady Carnarvon describes the color as being “spiritual.”

Then again, that blue was also the favorite color of the Countess’s late father in law and she mentions having a velvet jacket that exact shade. There are so many tiny details that go into building this modern brand that builds on centuries of family and cultural history.

The Downton dynamic

It’s hard for most of us who watched Downton Abbey for years to separate the idea of the castle in the show (and now movie) from the structure belonging to Queen Elizabeth’s godson George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his family.

“The outside silhouette is ours, but it’s a house in the public domain and has been such for a long time. It’s shared now,” the Countess explains. And what is also shared with Downton is the overall concept of entertaining and connecting with family and friends.

“Time goes by so quickly we completely forget to stand by and simply stare. We all live life a pace, and for all the technology I think we have less time than probably our parents have. Because we’ve all forgotten to sit at a table. I’m delighted that what we’ve produced is not just a gin, it’s a slightly broader ethos of what we’ve been trying to suggest to people. So that we all stop and think. What are our roots? How did we get here? And Highclere is a very visible history. It’s been there for a long time and it gives a sense that there may be a future. It’s looking back to stand and go forward.”

Meanwhile, want to hang out on the estate? You and a guest can bid for a stay at the world’s most recognizable B&B starting in October when Airbnb posts a listing for a one night stay in the castle, complete with butler service. Sadly, there’s no wifi though.