2021 has had a wild start. There hasn’t been much to celebrate yet, though taking the time to find something is fun (for example the 30th of January was the anniversary of The Peace of Munster between Spain and the Netherlands). What gives more cause for celebration though is when a whisky reaches maturity. January had some of that too, so for this World Whisky Wednesday let’s look at a promising young English distillery.
Recently Henstone distillery in England celebrated their whisky coming of age, and the first bottles shipped around the country to those eagerly awaiting another chapter in England’s whisky revival. I was unlucky to miss the initial sale despite my excitement about it, but after emailing Henstone and
begging asking if they had any left, they were kind enough to invite me on the second round of their virtual whisky launch.
If you think about it, in the last decade over two dozen distilleries have sprung up and you could count on one hand which have been less than spectacular. Those that remain have constantly delivered product above and beyond what we have expected of England, and while some say that they have learnt from their northern and western neighbours what is becoming clearer every day is that they have seen the direction whisky has moved over the past few decades and every distiller has reached the same conclusion ‘huh. What if I did things differently?’
From new techniques to new crops, to returning to the old ways and bringing in historical grains English whisky has captured that essence of discovery that the country so readily attributes to itself, but with the whisky it’s not just posturing, it has the follow through to routinely and consistently push towards new flavours, new ideas and new horizons for whisky.
Whacking that email link at 6.55PM I sat down to look, listen and furiously scribble notes and immediately noted a few names on the call, Amy Seton, Dan Humphries, Richard Foster, all people well respected through the English whisky industry. 45 minutes and half a bottle of whisky later and I’ve got a pretty good idea about Henstone, so let’s dive in and discuss the latest English whisky producer.
Henstone Distillery nests in Oswestry, that’s in Shropshire for those who don’t know there geography and that’s in England for those who know it less. Chris Toller, with fifteen years in telecoms, and wife Alexandra Toller had a few conversations with Shane and Alison Parr who run the nearby Stonehouse Brewery, and the idea for the distillery came from simple discussion between the two families.
To start a distillery is no simple matter, and much planning went into it. While the idea was to make a whisky focused distillery, everyone involved knew that it would take a lot of work and they elected to distil other spirits as well. Proper education is always key, and in 2016 Chris and Shane made their way up to Elgin to participate in an intense week long course from the IBD.
After several years of plotting and planning, finally their efforts were rewarded when they received a grant to help them on their way, and immediately went about installing their still ‘Hilda’, a 1000L German made Hybrid pot and column still in November 2017.
As you can see from Hilda, she’s a pot/column hybrid, eliminating the need for a wash and spirit still as the wash heads into the pot with the distillation running up the column. In the end a single run of the still gives an equivalent 5-6 distillations, a far cry from what you might find elsewhere but giving a crisper spirit.
Now as Shane and Alison Parr have run the Stonehouse brewery for some fifteen years, they know how to make a mash. For their own added kink Shane boils the whisky wash for ten minutes at the end, while also stressing the yeast during fermentation to increase its work load and multiplication. While he’s said that he hopes that gives extra fruit flavour, he was also quick to point out that in the early days he and the rest of the team would experiment with different yeasts, so there is potential for variation from cask to cask in the future.
All of this work with just the four of them. Yes, just the four, Chris, Alexandra, Alison and Shane make up the entire team from production to marketing, even the artwork was produced by Alexandra, so it’s quite remarkable. They’re self-funded with no multinational behind them, all profits and revenue they make heading back into the distillery, an ever moving machine that makes whisky to make more whisky.
After three years the first batch was ready on the 11th of January 2021, with their launch seeing a sell-out of their whisky in only 16 hours, fairly impressive for such a small distillery. The first and second batches were young ex-bourbon barrels, just three years of age each and Henstone have mentioned they are leaning towards a Speyside style, light and fruity. So what were the general thoughts of those involved? As a general note as well all those below are fantastic and I would highly recommend giving them a follow on Twitter, I’ve even hyperlinked their profiles for you. Just give them a click.
Daniel Humphries, Summerton Whisky Club – ‘I decide on a whisky quite simply, it’s a yes or no, would I like to drink more. From the first taste the answer was yes, there’s a smoothness and creaminess to it that I really do enjoy, and I want to get back into and taste some more. It’s young but it’s not obviously young… I can’t wait to see where this goes in two, five years times, hopefully they can get some more spirit and you can age it to a five year old will be really interesting to see because you’ve got something really good here… whatever you do next will be really interesting.’
Amy Seton, Birmingham Whisky Club – ‘…I will agree with dan certainly it’s a very fine whisky, I likened it to a light highland I think… Pear droppy whisky, so I got kind of notes of lemon curd, parma violets, a hint of cloves on the nose, and then a creamy taste with lightly stewed apples which I didn’t get last time. One of those whiskies that you do have to hunt around for some flavours, starts off quite delicately but there’s quite a lot going on if you spend time with it. Congratulations guys.’
Richard Foster, Exploring English Whisky – ‘…this is a really dangerous whisky, it’s easy to drink, its light, its fruity… my first nose I got red apple peel, shiny red fruit, cream soda, really kind of nostalgic, almost like a coke float with that great vanilla-y ice-cream on that sweetness… Dairy milk fruit and nut bar going on in the middle of the tongue. A little drop of water really opens up that chocolatey ness and nuttiness, a lot of nuttiness on the tongue. That’s really exciting… They’ve done themselves proud.’
Talking about what they have done was fantastic, but Henstone were happy to tell us all about their future as well. There will come a time for older whiskies, though innovation seems more important to them than age. When questioned about the casks they use, we were told that they are utilising sherry casks, with an expected release in July 2021. They also gave us a hint of something special that they’re working towards too,
Shane Parr, Stonehouse Brewery & Henstone Distillery – ‘We have another, it’s a bit top secret cask at the moment but we have another one where we know we are first in the UK to do this, so we’re just keeping it quiet for now, but that will be down the track a year or two away before we can release that.’
Plainly they’ve got their eyes set on the future too and we can only wait to see what they have in store.
So, what are my thoughts of the whisky, the launch, and the distillery? Let’s talk the whisky first. Note these tasting notes are from the 2nd Batch.
Mmmm, there’s some fresh mown grass in spring time right there, next to a big bale of hay and some firm pear slices. It’s bright, lively and spritely, green apple skins with a dusting of lemon peel and crushed gooseberries before a tall glass of old fashioned creamy soda. It then hits some honey dew melon and kiwi fruit, there’s a definite tang of vanilla sponge with some great cranberries and honey over some whipped cream. It’s a spring dram, nice and relaxing.
On the palate it hits with an intense spritely mouthfeel, sucking on some lemon sherbets and barley sugars. It then moves to celery and white wine, there’s a touch of some funky umami in the back like mushroom fried in lemon juice and ginger wine alongside apple slices. It’s unexpected but after settling it’s growing on me. After that finishes it heads into crisp puffed wheat, some malt biscuits with vanilla wafers and hints of liquorice.
Ohhh I like that finish, passionfruit, apricots and ginger. It’s puckering but the flavour pulls along with it, it nicely balances so when the roof of the mouth dries it allows the lighter flavours to hit and get that lovely summer fruit.
If this had been a whisky launch for a massive distillery it could have felt self-serving, but that’s not what Henstone are. Henstone are four folk at a distillery making something they’re clearly passionate about, and the launch of the four of them at the distillery was brilliant. They were honest, heartfelt, excited to hear what people thought and were eager to answer anything and everything people threw at them. But for the screen in front of us all it could’ve been a night at the pub with mates, everyone eagerly listening to what they had to say.
They’re fiercely independent, not wanting to sell to anyone and hoping to be here in the years to come and still making great spirit. Coupled with this they’re excitement about the lack of regulations that somehow defines English whisky is key to their vision, while they will join the Guild of English Whisky they want to push for a continuation of that lack of restrictions to allow themselves, and others to innovate and create as much as possible.
Alison Parr, Henstone Distillery – ‘The lack of regulations is what makes it so exciting.’
Chris Toller, Henstone Distillery – ‘I tend to agree. You’re probably aware that there is, that the English whisky producers are actually getting together and there is a some of guild forming. We’re going to be a part of that, but one of the important things is that we will be pushing to make sure that there aren’t strict regulations put in place, because, if someone body says it’s got to be produced in two pot stills then we’re stuffed!’
I enjoyed this whisky, and I really love the ideas and drive behind Henstone. I can’t speak for the first batch, but I think it shows plenty of promise, and I’ll be following the distillery in the future. I would recommend this whisky to anyone looking to get into the English whisky scene, it’s light, easy going, a very simple whisky but has a lot behind it. The promise of more to come in the future from Henstone is brilliant too, different yeast strains, casks, their interest in innovation and experimentation all points to a promising distillery.
It feels familiar yet different, it’s new but old, it’s English but has that definite Speyside influence that really makes this whisky just sit well in the glass, the hand, and in the mouth. So here’s to Henstone.
That feels just right.
If you would like to learn more about Henstone, click here to discover their story and see their products.
This review is not sponsored or endorsed by any distillery or whisky, Henstone or otherwise, and is entirely the words of the author Somewhiskybloke.
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