Small World, Big Opportunities: A Look at Highclere Castle Cigars

An English lord teamed up with a cigarmaker based in Nicaragua for a special cigar. What happened next is a business lesson in how identifying new opportunities can help you grow your brand.

Lord and Lady Carnarvon, Highclere Castle Cigars

Highclere Castle CigarsIf you’ve watched the popular television series “Downton Abbey,” you’ve seen Highclere Castle, a working estate in England that served as the home of the show’s fictional Crawley family. Highclere Castle’s history of cigars and tobacco dates back to 1862, the period during which cigars became popular in the Commonwealth. And now the estate made famous by PBS is building on that history by stepping into the premium cigar business with the help of Foundation Cigar Company.

It was a tradition at Highclere Castle for residents to retire to the library for a cigar and whiskey after dinner. Adam von Gootkin, co-founder and CEO of Highclere Castle Cigars, was working with Lord Carnarvon, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and the current owner of Highclere Castle, on the development of a liquor business when the idea for a cigar line was presented. Though von Gootkin’s background is in the spirits industry, both he and Carnarvon viewed expanding the idea to include a cigar brand as being a natural move.
“When we had the idea to create a Highclere Castle cigar that would truly celebrate the history of cigars at Highclere, I brought it immediately to Nick [Melillo], a friend who is well-regarded in the cigar industry,” says von Gootkin. “We had discussed doing a cigar together for a couple of years, but the right thing hadn’t come to us.”

From the start, Highclere Castle Cigars was a collaborative effort among Lord Carnarvon, von Gootkin and Melillo, who owns and manages his own cigar brand, Foundation Cigar Company. Each person was committed to creating an exceptional cigar and brought something unique to the table. In order to create a premium cigar product, many factors had to be taken into consideration. The creation and eventual launch of Highclere Castle Cigars is a great business lesson in collaboration and extending the life of a brand through marketing and different product offerings.

Lord Carnarvon, Highclere Castle Cigars
Lord Carnarvon

The Process of Collaboration
Launching a cigar that would carry the Highclere Castle name was a lengthy endeavor. Lord Carnarvon and his family have always been careful to only associate the Highclere Castle name with quality products that would reflect the castle’s extraordinary past. Highclere Castle has a history of providing exceptional hospitality, including fine dining that incorporates local ingredients and superior spirits and wines. For any product to carry the Highclere name it must coincide with the castle’s sense of place, history and design.

A Highclere cigar would need to fit into the castle’s rich history and also tell the story of Highclere Castle’s history with cigars. To accomplish that, von Gootkin and Lord Carnarvon knew they needed the help of an expert. For this they called on Melillo, who von Gootkin was introduced to by the owners of Mickey Blake’s, a cigar store and lounge in Connecticut. While smoking a Foundation cigar together, von Gootkin and Melillo discussed topics like entrepreneurship, the meaning of life and things they enjoyed doing in their leisure time, and the pair found they had much in common. Melillo’s experience working in the cigar industry and with blend creation made him the ideal partner for von Gootkin to collaborate with in bringing Highclere Castle’s cigar to life.

Lord Carnarvon and von Gootkin traveled to Nicaragua to spend time in Esteli with Melillo and his team. There they immersed themselves in the fields, curing barns and factory, and spent days learning everything they could about the manufacturing side of the cigar business. The three men worked closely together to determine the concept of the brand. Using the estate’s old import receipts, Melillo was able to come up with a blend that reflected the flavor and style of a 100-year-old cigar, something the fourth Earl of Carnarvon might have enjoyed smoking with other prominent figures in the castle’s smoking room back in the 1800s.

Melillo also had something else of value to offer in the creation of Highclere’s cigars: access to very rare and expensive tobaccos that gave the collaborators a broad range of options to truly bring their cigar ambitions to life. To get the desired flavor profile, they spliced Criollo and Corojo together to create a hybrid seed that they named “Nicadan.” During the final tasting session in Nicaragua, they had over 20 unmarked blend varieties to choose from—and, interestingly, they all anonymously selected the same blend. The true challenge, however, came in trying to choose the right branding and box design that would visually represent Highclere Castle in retail stores around the world.

Highclere Castle Cigars

“We wanted to keep the presentation simple yet regal and selected the blue used on the coat of arms for the Earl of Carnarvon. Getting the perfect gold paint for the stamp of Highclere on the front of the box was difficult, and we had to make quite a few visits to the box factory in Nicaragua to get it right,” von Gootkin explains. “The boxes are chiseled and shaved by hand from sustainably grown cedar on the east coast of Nicaragua, and the rounded edges require skill. The band itself was to be elegant, but again, understated. The shape, design and color scheme nods a touch to an ancient Egyptian style, a quiet homage to the fifth Earl of Carnarvon’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb.”

Highclere Castle released its cigar brand in late 2017, and the product has already earned good reviews. Cigar Advisor called it “a creamy, delicious break from the ordinary” while Stogie Press simply said it was “exquisite.” Von Gootkin attributes its success to Melillo’s masterful blending skills and the unique association with Highclere Castle itself. Currently, Highclere Castle Cigars can be found at tobacconists, cigar lounges, restaurants and hotels across the U.S. Distribution plans are already in place for the U.K., beginning with an official launch party at Highclere Castle for some of the country’s leading cigar retailers.

They’ve also partnered with Tor Imports to bring Highclere Castle’s cigar products into the U.K. A search for distribution partners in Europe and Asia is underway, though von Gootkin says they are being prudent about pacing Highclere Castle Cigars’ growth in order to protect the brand.

The Value of Collaboration
Highclere Castle Cigars is the product of a great partnership. This partnership began with an idea and required a skilled team with the knowledge and experience to make the business work. In the case of Highclere Castle Cigars, the small and tightknit team had a lot of pride in the product from the very early stages, and its members trusted one another to ultimately create something exceptional.

Staying true to the Highclere Castle brand and focusing on quality was critical in developing a premium cigar product that would help expand the brand. “A great partnership happens when people meet who get on but, really importantly, also share the same ideas of innovative design, great attention to detail and, in the case of Highclere, genuinely appreciate the history,” explains Lord Carnarvon. “This combined with a determination to only sell products of the highest quality to a discerning audience that appreciates the incredibly hard work that goes into making a product like the Highclere Castle Cigar!”

This story first appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.

– Story by Antoine Reid, an editor and digital content director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid. Photos courtesy of Highclere Castle Cigars.