The Real Downton Abbey Owners Are Hosting a Virtual Lockdown Cocktail Hour — with Jazz and Gin!
"We will tell stories of the cocktails that were served here in the '20s and '30s, add some jazz music and see what we can do to bring people together," Lady Carnarvon tells PEOPLE
Typically at this time of year, the magnificent Highclere Castle — the country estate made famous by Downton Abbey — would be full of guests. Around 1,200 people a day would roam its long corridors and tour the drawing rooms — as fans sample the atmosphere of its famous fictional inhabitants from the hit series.
But today, the stately home in Hampshire, England, is empty and echoing, devoid of visitors like every other attraction in the U.K. during the coronavirus lockdown.
So, the lady of the house had an idea: Hold a virtual cocktail party so people can join the Countess of Carnarvon and her husband, the 8th earl, in sipping gin!
Lady Carnarvon is hosting the first one, via Facebook Live, on Friday April 17 (from 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. U.K. time). The couple will give a taste of life in the centuries-old home, tell tales of past inhabitants and show off some ways for drinking their own brand of gin. They also expect to answer questions about the famous actors, such as Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, who stepped through the grand rooms in their Downton roles.
“We will tell stories of the cocktails that were served here in the ’20s and ’30s and pull out some of the old recipes and add some jazz music in the background and see what we can do to bring people together,” Lady Carnarvon tells PEOPLE. “It is something to look forward to and be part of our routine.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, Prince George, Duke of Kent was a regular guest at the house.
“We are bringing back a little of the glamour,” she says. “[Novelist] Evelyn Waugh would say in his letters to Nancy Mitford something was ‘very Highclere’ if it was very well done. That’s a nice way of setting the scene.”
She expects to drink a gin mojito (recipe below) and they are currently deciding on whether to set up in the library or the drawing room.
She describes the Highclere Castle Gin as a traditional London Gin. Inspired by a botanicals grown at the castle, “we have pared back the juniper and therefore haven’t had to balance it so much with lemon. We have looked to orange to bring out the flavor. It is quite a clean drink, with a little lavender,” she says.
“My husband had the idea of putting some oats from the farm here. You would never know that but it gives it a creamy finish and it is a very good gin for martinis.”
As they created the spirit over several years, they channeled some of the family’s history. The estate was owned by the Bishops of Winchester for 800 years, from 749, before the Carnarvons took over.
“We were looking for spiritual guidance with a powerful bottle,” Lady Carnarvon says. “Having God on your side must be helpful and it is a square bottle like the tower! It is quirky and fun, at the heart, a really good gin.”
With her business — like so many others around the world who are having to put things on hold and furlough staff — she has been spending most of her time reorganizing bookings to later in the year.
“We are all trying to breathe in before we can put one foot in front of another and start up again,” she says. “I’m acutely aware that everyone in small businesses are in the same boat and all we can do is our best we can in order to make our way out of it.”
While the castle is steeped in a grand past, the family has close links to the living history of the royal family. Her husband is a godson of Queen Elizabeth — his father, the 7th earl and known by his nickname as “Porchie,” was her great friend and former horse racing manager. The Queen, 93, has been an inspiration through the crisis, calmly addressing the world amid the pandemic crisis.
“She is a such an extraordinary woman. Beyond being Queen of the U.K., the way she spoke helped us all wherever we live. Her compassion and empathy came across as well as her ability to suggest that from her experience this is what we should be doing. We are an extraordinarily lucky country to have the Queen as our head.”
Lady Carnarvon’s Gin Mojito
1.5 ounces Highclere Castle Gin
3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
4 teaspoons sugar syrup
10 mint leaves
Twisted Lemon Peel to garnish
Put the Gin, lemon juice, lime juice, sugar syrup and 8-10 mint leaves into a glass add some crushed ice. Add soda water, and finish with mint leaves and a lemon peel twist.