Serial entrepreneur and Co-Founder of Onyx Spirits Company Adam von Gootkin recently teamed with Foundation Cigar Company Founder Nicholas Melillo and George Herbert, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon, to launch Highclere Castle Cigar Company
In October, Mickey Blake’s Cigar Lounge hosted a launch event for Highclere Castle Cigar. Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met up with the team there to discuss cigars and entrepreneurship.
NAN PRICE: Adam, you and I met in early 2016.You’ve been busy since then, mentoring startups, growing Onyx Moonshine, and now launching Highclere Castle Cigar Company. How did that come to be? I know there’s a story there.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: A couple of years ago, my Onyx business partner Peter Kowalczyk and I were looking at unique ways to expand beyond just a Connecticut-made product and add another business to our portfolio. We’re big fans of Scotch whiskey and English gin.
The thought struck me as I was watching an episode of Downton Abbey. What if we open a distillery at the Highclere Castle estate in the United Kingdom? The castle is well-recognized and the history of enjoying spirits and entertainment there is very deep.
One thing led to another and, before I knew it, I was on the phone with George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon owns Highclere Castle and the Highclere Estate, which is where Downton Abbey is filmed.
LORD CARNARVON: Adam got in touch with me out of the blue with ideas to create high-quality products that have a resonance with Highclere Castle and its history. We discussed ideas for cigars and spirits—because we are farmers at home and we grow a lot of barley.
NAN PRICE: So, how did you get from the distillery to cigars?
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: The initial reason for pursuing this project was to produce spirits in line with the Highclere Castle legacy of entertainment and agriculture production. We wanted to use the barley and botanicals grown on the estate to produce excellent spirits.
We’re developing the Highclere Castle Gin and Whiskey now for launch next year, but it’s quite a long project as there’s farming and significant investment involved.
LORD CARNARVON: We decided to go forward with creating a fine cigar, as our first step in the project. There’s long history of entertaining at Highclere Castle, right from the time after the building was built in the 1840s—my wife recently wrote a book about it (At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey).
Fine cigars were an important part of that scene. For someone who’s never been to Highclere, we wanted to create something to make them feel as though they might have been part of that once great way of life.
NAN PRICE: You say Adam got in touch “out of the blue”—how did you originally connect?
LORD CARNARVON: In the tradition of Great American entrepreneurs, Adam is not at all frightened of being upfront. He just sent an email saying: Will you call me? And I did.
NAN PRICE: You had never met?
LORD CARNARVON: No! In a way that’s how you have to make things happen. I’m sure that day I was doing a myriad of boring day-to-day business things.
NAN PRICE: And then along comes Adam, from “across the pond.”
LORD CARNARVON: Right. Bringing people together across the world is part of making progress and creating things.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: Well said. We ended up having a phone call and we just hit it off. I quickly realized he had great vision for what they are doing at Highclere and we were looking to expand the projects we were doing. It was very good timing.
Geordie and I became friends after my wife and I visited Highclere. I think friendship is how business should really start.
Meanwhile, I was talking with Nicholas Melillo, who had also become a good friend of mine. He’s very well-known and well-respected in the cigar industry. We became friends because, like me, he is a completely self-started entrepreneur.
NAN PRICE: How did you two connect?
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: Nick and I were introduced by the owner of Mickey Blake’s. After an hour it felt like we’d known each other for 20 years. We had his cigars and my moonshine, and by the time we were done we knew we wanted to do something together.
NICHOLAS MELILLO: When I met Adam we immediately connected. We have a lot in common, especially with business and launching startups. I launched Foundation Cigar Company two years ago and used to run another company for 12 years, so I have similar startup and business experience. In a way, there are a lot of similarities between the spirit world and handmade cigars.
We had talked about doing a cigar initially. We didn’t really know what we were going to do at time. Eventually, Adam called me and told me about Highclere Castle. There couldn’t be more of a perfect fit.
It’s funny, I told my brother about how Adam met Lord Carnarvon and once he heard the story he said that sounds exactly like something Adam would do.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: I remember calling Nick and telling him about the Highclere Castle project. I said: Imagine if we could team up to produce a super-premium cigar—the type that Lord Carnarvon’s great grandfather would have been smoking on the day he discovered King Tut’s tomb, or perhaps the type of cigar the characters in the era of Downton Abbey would have enjoyed.
NICHOLAS MELILLO: I was intrigued. At this point in my life, I’ve made conscious decisions about my business interactions. Life is too short to be involved with people who don’t have the best intentions. With this business venture, everything has been so natural, right into the creation of the product. It’s been a real pleasure. I’m still in awe of the project.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: The whole thing is very natural. When business happens naturally, you are going with the current. If you’ve got to push, fight, scream, and claw, you’re going against the current. I often find that makes it difficult for business—maybe the business shouldn’t be.
But, when you have a reason for a product to be, that’s the first thing, because there’s a market readiness for it. When you have a team that’s equally obsessed with the idea of quality and has the know-how to execute, that’s the magic formula for success and doing a good job. It helps to be fulfilled while you’re doing the work.
NAN PRICE: When did the company officially launch?
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: We formed the Highclere Castle Cigar Company in spring 2017.
Once everyone was on board, Lord Carnarvon, Nick, Pete, and I traveled to Nicaragua, where we spent more than a week in the factory and in the field to create the perfect cigar. Nick crafted about 20 different cigar blends before we settled on one. And he brought in some incredibly rare and expensive tobaccos to use in his blend.
LORD CARNARVON: We spent the most fascinating week when we began to put this story together last spring in Nicaragua. We learned from Nick about the whole process—everything from the seed in the ground to the tobacco leaves to the maturation to the fermentation to rolling the cigars by hand.
What was amazing about choosing the cigar Nick created was that we all chose the same blend.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: Yes! We did a blind test and we all selected same cigar.
NAN PRICE: Let’s talk about the significance of having the company’s headquarters here in Connecticut.
NICHOLAS MELILLO: Connecticut’s history in cigars and tobacco has been very rich. I always wanted to have our office here in Connecticut, in the heart of the Connecticut River Valley. That dream came true this past March.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: The fact that we are locating our headquarters here in Connecticut speaks to Connecticut’s long history with the tobacco industry—Connecticut was a world leader in cigar production. It’s also one of the reasons we chose Connecticut Shade as our cigar wrapper.
NICHOLAS MELILLO: Connecticut is one of the very few states in the United States that grows black tobaccos, which are cigar tobaccos. As Adam said, Connecticut was the epicenter. We’d really like to resurrect the cigar industry here in Connecticut and educate people about the history of smoking cigars.
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: This project is a neat gap over several continents—it’s the United Kingdom, it’s Connecticut and the United States, and it’s Nicaragua, where the cigars are made.
It’s really an amalgamation of a few different people with very different backgrounds and expertise, all of which have an entrepreneurial bend that have come together with one common passion. That’s what makes it particularly interesting.
NAN PRICE: It all comes down to passion—in this case for both cigars and entrepreneurship. What’s next for Highclere Cigar Company?
ADAM VON GOOTKIN: We launched the cigars in July at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers (IPCPR) in Las Vegas. The first week of October they shipped to stores all around the country. Early next year, we’ll launch in Britain and we’re exploring Asia now. We’ve gotten great reviews so far. We’ve already presold 40,000 cigars and are projected to sell more than 90,000 next year.
Right now, I’m focused on continuing to do a great job with Highclere Castle Cigar Company and continuing to grow Onyx Spirits.
Simultaneously, we’re preparing to launch what will be an incredibly high-end Highclere Gin, using botanicals and herbs from the estate and a recipe we’re working on with Lady Carnarvon. This should hit the market by summer of next year, and I’m looking forward to pairing it with the cigar.
Find out more about Adam von Gootkin in our interview Onyx Moonshine: Reviving the American Spirit In Connecticut or read our review his book Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive The American Spirit. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamvonGootkin.
At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, by The Countess of Carnarvon is available at Amazon.com.