Yet another name to add to the steadily growing English Whisky Map, the Henstone Distillery was co-founded by this evening’s [SWAG tasting] guest: co-owner/master distiller/director,… Chris Toller [see pic below].
After 14 years in telecommunications, Chris decided it was time for a change. In 2015, he duly packed in his job with the belief that “something would turn up”. “It always does”, he says. A few weeks later, Chris found himself pulling pints at the Stonehouse Brewery, owned & run by long-time friends Alison & Shane Parr and situated just a mile from where Chris and his wife, Alex, live.
Visions of distilling Stonehouse’s beer to make whisky soon led to Chris converting his mum’s old pressure cooker to make gin before considered purchasing a £300 still, then a £600 still,… Copious reading and an IBD course later, heaps of form-filing and serendipity that involved a chat in a restaurant and a recommendation of a distillation equipment company in Germany,… resulted in the purchase of ‘Hilda’ – a 1000-litre pot/column still – and the establishment of the Henstone Distillery in December 2017 in Oswestry, Shropshire,
Furthermore, an RDPE grant and crowd-funding helped raise initial capital investment. Indeed, Henstone’s inaugural release whisky sold out before production even began.
Chris & Alexandra, Alison & Shane make up the entire team. These four directors [no investors] do everything between them – from production to PR, labelling, sweeping the floors, even the artwork and website design.
With a keen interest in the drinks industry, Chris wanted to make all the spirits from the outset with three clear principles in mind: “to have fun, produce quality and make some money along the way”. To bring in revenue from the outset, gin production started immediately followed by their Nonpareil apple brandy [website]. Henstone’s Old Dog ‘bourbon’ followed suit, typically requiring just two years of maturation as opposed to the three year minimum for whisky.
The distillery currently offers seven products:
- 3 gins – Dry, Navy and Rose [though Henstone don’t make the neutral spirit for their gin, paying just £1.70 a litre, FYI]
- Old Dog ‘bourbon’ Liquor
- Vodka – their gin, re-distilled
- Nonpareil apple brandy – distilled from cider made on-site
- and whisky
Whilst their gin easily out-strips sales of all their other spirits, the vast majority of Henstone’s production is destined for whisky.
For tonight’s SWAG tasting & virtual tour, Chris Toller is sat inside the distillery with the Hilda pot & column still behind him [see pic above]. The distillery itself is situated within the Stonehouse Brewery and is a functional/no frills affair.
- There’s a small [1/2 tonne] mash tun. The hopper is lifted above by a forklift when needed.
- After experimenting with yeast varieties in the early stages, Henstone soon moved to a standard brewers yeast. There are no set fermentation times – time of day and < seasonal differences contributing factors.
- Boiling the fermented wash for 10 minutes eradicates the possibility of wild yeast issues that could have catastrophic consequences for the brewery. Henstone have avoided peated production for the same reason, a process involving cleaning regimes that would adversely effect the brewery’s output.
- Two distillations a day through their 1000-litre Hilda hybrid pot/column still realises around 57-68 litres of spirit [actual examples of new make batches #161 and #162 that we shall get to try in a bit].
- Henstone’s capacity? So far, just 1600 litres have been distilled.
- 43 casks currently sit maturing in their ‘warehouse’, like Dornoch, an old shipping container. ‘The spirit is being aged in a mixture of ex-bourbon, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks’. ‘We can also produce 55 litre ‘Firkins’ and 30 litre ‘Blood Tub’s,…’ [website].
And the name Henstone? The ‘Stone’ part comes from the previously discussed Stonehouse Brewery that produces 28800 pints a week. The ‘Hen’ part comes from the old Hen & Chickens tavern that Chris & Alex have made their home. ‘Hatched from the Hearts’ is the Henstone slogan.
With shades of Billy Abbott’s [TWE Show] ‘Blogger’s Breakfast’ [see pic above], forward-thinking Henstone welcomes views from social media commentators [see ‘Reviews’ on their website]. “,… but are you brave enough to submit samples to malt-review.com?”, I ask. An emphatic “yes”, is the answer.
To the juice!
Henstone New Make  Ob. Batch #162 64.9%
Distilled on 27/04/21, batch #162 is an amalgamation of runs #161 & #162, both runs [one wash] watered down from 87.7% and 86.6% respectively.
- N: Conventional/jobbing barley spirit with a hazelnut-y, husky leathery sweetness.
- T: Fruity-ish and dry.
- F: Something of a mouthwatering heat that is ironed out in the whisky at 3 years old [to follow]. Concludes with a pleasant vanilla coppery sweetness.
- C: That’ll do nicely. Let’s see what it’s like in wood.
With no added colour and no chill-filtration,.. “variation is welcomed”, says Chris, who tells us 43.8% abv is currently the sweet spot for Henstone’s first two whisky releases. He [Chris] reckons this will inevitably rise to nearer 46% over time.
Matured in ex-bourbon casks, batch #2 is cask #2, meaning Henstone’s first two releases have been single casks. Given the distillery’s scale, this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable.
- N: Utterly respectable if not particularly singular. This young whisky is understandably new make-y, but with three years in wood, it’s now malty/husky and relatively raisin~caramel sweet.
- T: Decent young spirit with a pleasant malty peppery fruitiness. With very short travel, it’s chocolatey/carob-y on the turn.
- F: Echoes only, more peppery heat with little tannins and no resinousness.
- C: It’s perhaps futile to begin gleaning distillery character at this early stage of Henstone’s evolution. For now, Henstone is releasing good jobbing young whisky,… for £55, which seems to be the going rate for a small independent distillery’s early output.
Scores 78 points
Henstone Old Dog Corn Liquor  Ob. Batch #2 41.5%
Chris openly admits that they’ve stated the mash bill incorrectly from the very beginning as: 50% corn / 25% wheat / 25% barley. “This isn’t right”, he says. The correct ratios are in fact: 68.4% corn / 15.8% wheat / 15.8% barley.
Named after the ‘Old Dog’ mining shaft in the area, their liquor spirit goes into new American oak [for eight months] at a lower abv [compared to their barley spirit for whisky maturation] of around 59%-ish. This results in more vanilla, less tannins, we are told.
- N: In comparison to the whisky, this is more honey/syrup-sweet, floral,… dried fennel [or is it cumin?] seeds,.. and with far more orchard fruitiness than Henstone’s malt whisky.
- T: Way too [abv] soft, especially for a bourbon style. I find it far less sweet than the nose, little heat or dryness, more a chalkiness, slight rubbery carob,… malty citrus,..
- F: Sweeter now [confectionary-sweet] whilst the sourness remains determined. Waxy,.. somewhat more greasy,.. salty citrus,….
- C: Way under-powered but promising.
Scores 79 points
Whilst the spirit is in its early incarnating stages, the story of Henstone is one of passion andzest for life. The distillery with Chris Toller at the helm will evolve and evolve. In keeping to their three principles – ‘to have fun, produce quality and make some money along the way‘ – we should expect considerable changes at the distillery over time, and perhaps even a new setup and location in due course. “This is no retirement plan”, Chris tells us. “Henstone is an ongoing affair”.
Next time I’m in the area, I’ll be sure to pop in for a pint and a chaser. With thanks to Ben, SWAG, and Chris at Henstone.