28 Sep September 28, 2020 – Highclere Castle Spirits Adam von Gootkin and Profit or Wealth Ruth King
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We don’t do a lot of advertising. I believe advertising is a tax
you pay for not being creative.
Adam von Gootkin is the Co-founder of the Onyx Spirits Company and Highclere Castle Spirits. Adam is a passionate moonshine and whiskey-loving entrepreneur who is dedicated to helping other entrepreneurs reach their dreams and boldly take part in changing the world for the better. He flunked out of college after only one semester and decided to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure that has encompassed eCommerce, muscle cars, and the music industry. Adam’s pedigree in the spirits industry dates back to his family’s distillery in the 1800s, while his lineage as a risk-taker can be traced directly to his great grandfather’s Prohibition-era speakeasy on the Connecticut River. Over a century later, Adam has more than a decade in the spirits industry and brought his family’s legacy into the next generation by co-founding Onyx Spirits Co., an award-winning craft distillery offering America’s first ultra-premium moonshine and New England’s first whiskey. In 2015, his nationally released book Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive the American Spirit, chronicled his unique approach to traditional business principles. In 2017, Adam co-founded the Highclere Castle Cigars Company and Highclere Castle Spirits, partnering with the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and world-renowned cigar blender, Nicholas Melillo of Foundation Cigar Company.
You can be profitable and go out of business. Before you can have
wealth, you have to have profit, because profit builds wealth.
Ruth King, President of Business Ventures Corporation, is a serial entrepreneur and best-selling author, well-known as The Profitability Master. Ruth has a passion for helping small business grow profits and wealth. She started the Decatur, Georgia branch of the Small Business Development Center in 1982. She also started the Women’s Entrepreneurial Center and taught a year-long course for women who wanted to start their own businesses. More recently, Ruth was the instructor for the Inner-City Entrepreneur (ICE) program in conjunction with the Small Business Administration. After 12 years on the road, she knew there had to be a better way to reach businesspeople. She began training on the Internet in 1998 and began the first television-like broadcasting in 2002, launching her own TV channel, HVACChannel.tv. In her newest book, Profit or Wealth? Simple Rules For Sustainable Business Growth, King gives business owners the best ways to avoid business failure, highlighting the fact that while many business owners focus solely on profits and ignore wealth building, a business needs both or they can still go bankrupt.
Highlights from Adam’s Interview
Let me start with the story of how I came into the industry. My family goes back to the 1800s with a prominent distillery here in New England. Of course, during Prohibition, we had a renowned hotel on the Connecticut River with a speakeasy that operated in the basement. It was about 12 or 13 years ago that I really felt drawn, almost on a DNA level, of fascination with the spirits industry. I just love the beauty of the journey of what we call from grain to glass, everything from the farming all the way up through the beauty of the packaging and storytelling. I feel like so many of the brands that we drink are just created in marketing boardrooms. The stories aren’t real, there’s no soul to them, they’re just made to sell and that’s the end of the transaction. So I felt like spirits is such a fascinating industry and there are so many stories to tell, there’s so much history, and then ultimately, bringing people together for fun quality time, and just merriment and enjoyment. That led me about five years ago to Highclere Castle.
I was looking for a brand that had such a level of heritage and history and pedigree and authenticity really, yet was grand and stunning and beautiful, and of course, had an agricultural component or a farming component. So I had been searching for what the next brand was going to be for us for about a year. My wife got me hooked on the show, Downton Abbey. I hadn’t thought much of it until I watched this beautiful PBS special that featured Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, and of course, Lord and Lady Carnarvon. So I reached out, I got to know Lord and Lady Carnarvon and we became friends. That resulted in a beautiful partnership, using the botanicals from the estate and developing this gin, it took years to put it all together so that it was perfect.
As far as reaching out to Lord and Lady Canarvon, to be honest, I just went on to the main website which had the info or contact or whatever. I just sent an email and I said, I’m a spirits entrepreneur, I’m absolutely in love with the castle and everything, I’m learning about it, and I really think there could be an opportunity to liquefy the spirit of Highclere and all of its hundreds of years of entertaining and super high-quality standards, and also use the botanicals and the grains that are available on the actual estate. So I guess it tickled them enough. All good partnerships begin as friendships, I think that’s very important. I didn’t want to do a licensing deal where we just slapped the castle on the front of a bottle, it had to be a genuine partnership. So Lord and Lady Carnarvon are active in the business every day, and of course, we do events at the castle. It’s really quite an adventure.
After I sent the email to the main Infobox, the very next day, Lord Carnarvon just picked up the phone and called me, and we probably spoke for about an hour. I talked to him a bit about the industry and where the industry as a whole is heading. I learned more about the castle and the kind of activities and projects that they had at hands. You can imagine the immense amount of work that it takes to keep up a 5,000 acres state that is still being farmed, and the castle as well. Then, Lord Carnarvon was kind enough to invite my wife and I to the castle for a long weekend. So two weeks later, I was on a plane to go state hike there. It was pretty amazing. For anybody who’s a fan of the show, you can imagine, call it a driveway, it’s more of a road, but once you come through the castle gates, it’s quite a ways to get to the actual castle as you drive through the beautiful park that surrounds the castle. It was actually designed by Capability Brown, it’s quite a famous Parkland. Once you crest that hill and the castle kind of raises up and you see it in real life in all of its glory, it’s pretty breathtaking.
We use a whole lot of the ingredients grown right there at the castle. I was lucky enough that not only was the castle cool and depicted all of the brand that I wanted, not only was the castle owner willing to meet and do business with me, but his particular gardens produced the 10 out of 10 secret recipe of gin. So I feel at a soul of the brand level, it couldn’t be more perfect. For inspiration on the recipe development, we literally walk out of the back door of the castle into the Victorian era Orangery where these stunning little oranges the size of golf balls grow that are so fragrant. So, of course, we started harvesting them, and then we looked over towards the Walled Monks Garden, where the lavender grows as it was planted by the bishops of Winchester in the ninth century. So there’s a lavender component to the gin, just a bit of floral notes on the aroma.
But we finished the whole recipe off with something that no gin has ever done. Highclere is rather famous and thoroughbred race horsing circles for the quality of oats that they grow for thoroughbreds. So Lord Carnarvon had this brilliant idea to incorporate them. They add this creamy, soft, almost velvety finish to the gin. I think that that’s a big part of the Gold awards. Actually, in the last couple weeks, we’ve won another four international triple Gold awards and a score of 95 from Sunset International. So we’re on our way, I believe in the next six to nine months to being the most awarded gin in the world. It’s just been amazing to see people’s reactions to it. We’ve got whiskey drinkers that are saying I don’t even like gin, and they’re drinking Highclere Castle gin right on the rocks like a whiskey. That’s how smooth it is.
Now, let me also walk you through the whole process, from getting the production done, to branding and everything. The glass bottle itself took a significant amount of investment because it’s a custom bottle produced in England, and that was very important to me. We created a custom color, it’s not a Pantone, it’s purple actually. We wanted the bottle to glow in different lighting. So if you put it up to a light or you bring it outside or in a window, it glows different shades of purple. So this is a completely custom color, we wanted it to be distinct and unique. The color is called Highclere Purple. So finally, we got the bottle done. The recipe itself we completed after a year in 25 different recipe iterations, that was quite an intense process. It’s distilled in England’s oldest gin distillery, which is actually located above an ancient underground water source. So there’s just really rich historic components around the brand, which brought us up to last year.
Last year, production was delayed a bit because of Brexit. Last spring was our target and Brexit hit the latest a few months. So we launched in the UK first in the summer, and then August we landed here in the US. Again, because of the brand and our relationships around the world, we had a very robust distribution right out of the gate. So we set up US distribution in 25 states, between literally August and November. Basically, what we prefer is mid-sized distributors, because the very large ones have a very large portfolio of spirits and wines, as you can imagine, so you can get very easily lost in their portfolio. So we try to find the middle-sized companies that have a good team, and certainly the integrity and the work ethic, but also, we represent a very unique opportunity for them, that was important for us. So that’s what we looked for in the US, and as well as France and Switzerland and the UK, which got us rolling out immediately in many of the finest hotels and restaurants and, and liquor stores.
Then we got through the winter, and of course, COVID hit, which made this year very interesting and exciting, to say the least. Everyone is home now, and that’s why we’ve spent so much of our effort on the PR and social media. We grew our social media from zero to 130,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, literally in just a few short months. We don’t do a lot of advertising, I believe that advertising is a tax you pay for not being creative, the PR angle works much better for us. So as a result, we’ve been in the press a lot, of course, the awards are helpful.
Then during COVID and the quarantine, we found that it’s sad and dark times for everybody. So we started doing this really unique thing called Cocktails at the Castle, where we started hosting a live video feed hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon at the castle for an hour every Friday to welcome people in by Facebook Live and Instagram Live to have a cocktail with us and just basically tour the castle and talk and hang out. We had almost a million people tune in, it was the largest virtual cocktail party in the world. It’s Lord and Lady Carnarvon showing different rooms of the castle while having different cocktails. Louie, the head Butler is also an amazing mixologist. So cocktails were whipped up and they basically just hung out and answered questions. We’d have 15,000 to 25,000 people tuned in live, and then it would grow from there. We stopped it a few weeks ago, just because we want to keep things that special. But it’s been a great success. So pretty neat marketing tactics that we use during COVID. We have a good team who come up with brilliant ideas. I was a little reluctant, I wasn’t sure about the virtual thing as I am now. Of course, we’ve all had to make adjustments and embrace technology a little more. But it was a brilliant idea.
The year has definitely been weird, we’ve seen so many great restaurant partners struggling and closing down, and hotels the same. Our friends at Viking cruise line where we are offered, they had to pull the ships obviously for a while. So it’s been a weird year. Restaurants to a new liquor brand are important because so many people are exposed to the spirit off the cocktail menu in their favorite restaurant, and so that trickles down into becoming customers on a liquor store level. So it has disrupted the industry, like so many industries are disrupted. But we’ve gone very focused and super guerilla strategy on how we’re going to market and supporting customers now, and it’s paying off.
I think choosing this path in life can be stressful, it’s intense, and it’s not necessarily for everybody. To succeed at it quite candidly, you have to be very on-point and you have to know exactly what you’re doing and why. Especially because I’ve got a three-year-old and a one-year-old at home, so you can’t afford to lose really. You’ve got to be thoughtful and have the energy behind that and keep your head and your body right, and then you just go.
My wife and I, we’ve been together for 20 years. She always knew I was a little crazy, so she’s been along for a very exciting ride. This is one thing that I think that’s important for CEOs and entrepreneurs is, she’s also a rock. So if you’re going to be on the edge and live a life that’s kind of on the fringe, then it’s really helpful when you have a partner at home who really is a foundation and a rock, and kind of slow, steady and true. So she provides that for sure when I’m off around the world doing my thing, I guess. In the chaos of starting and running businesses, it’s easy to just get lost in the sauce. So when you have a team and when you have a wife and a great family and support around you, it really helps to keep you grounded so you can consistently remember to get above the trees and see where you’re really headed, what is the landscape really looking like on decisions and choices and things like that. So I think it’s key.
We’ve been together for 20 years, but we waited until three years ago to have children. Actually, we took seven years before I proposed. My parents were divorced and I just didn’t want to put prospective children through the challenges that that comes with. So we decided to take a long time before we got married. She went to law school, I was doing business and learning my way about the world. We traveled a lot, so we had seven years of that, and then we got married and waited another seven years of just enjoying marriage and figuring out our life goals, also traveling and having adventures. So I think having grown up in some ways together, we get each other’s good and bad, which cutis up perfectly to say, we’re in our early-mid 30s now, let’s start a family. It’s been good. I wouldn’t call myself mature, to be honest, but it’s perhaps a more mature way of raising kids where we know that they’re in a stable, loving, safe household, and we know what we’re doing professionally. So there’s a sense of stability, and of course, the brand is going well, and we feel very good about our choices.
I certainly urge anyone to go to their favorite restaurant and ask for Highclere Castle Gin by name, that always helps us expand the brand. We are in 25 states and also, as of last week, we’re now available through our website with shipping right to the door of your home in 40 states, plus the UK and Europe. So people can go to HighclereCastleGin.com, and there’s a very easy shopping cart right there.