When I started out with this blog, the idea was – like all good things – something that started out as a fun conversation between friends. That is the same story and origins to the Henstone distillery in Oswestry, Shropshire. Shane and Alison Parr run the Stonehouse Brewery and, following a fruitful conversation with friends Chris and Alexandra Toller, the concept for Henstone distillery was born: making good spirits in Shropshire.
That journey started in earnest in 2017 and I love the level of thought that has gone into the name alone: “Henstone” represents both families’ homes, with the “Hen” coming from the Toller household formerly being a pub called the “The Hen and Chickens”, and the “Stone” coming from “Stone House” which is where the Parr family live! [ed: that is also the name of their brewery and Sunlander is a very good pint of theirs that I have enjoyed on many an occasion!] The branding, marketing and packaging is all produced by themselves and through their hard work – and that of Hilda, their still – the team have produced quite the variety of well-received spirits to date including: several gins, by way of London Dry, Navy Strength and a Rosé Gin; they have recently won a gold medal for their charcoal filtered vodka in the London Spirits Competition for 2021; they have also produced an apple brandy / Nonpareil, and last year, they released their “Old Dog Corn Liquor” – essentially a 2-year aged bourbon-style drink, shy of the tenure required to call it a whisky. Like I say, quite the portfolio already.
What we’re concerned with here though is their whisky (obviously). In January this year, Henstone sold out their first batch of single malt in a matter of hours. Fast forward a few weeks and Batch 2 is quickly out on the heels of Batch 1’s success, and that is what we have to review here today, a new English whisky, just in time for posting on St. George’s Day.
I don’t want to recycle a lot of content here and take away from a fellow blogger, as somewhiskybloke has done a really good job of writing up about the production process available here. Details from the team themselves, including plans for the future and cask purchase schemes are available here. What I am particularly interested in however is their still, Hilda. Having become very familiar with scotch whisky production and the two pot stills and swan necks etc. their use of a bespoke hybrid still which acts as both pot and column still is a break from the norm and it can effectively distil the spirit many times over. With that spirit in tow, their whisky-to-be is being matured in more familiar territory: ex-bourbon barrels, and Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks. For Batch 2 we are looking at a purely ex-bourbon barrel maturation. The spirit was crafted and laid down in January 2018 and was bottled 29th January 2021. All mashing, distilling, aging and bottling has happened at their site, with the whisky then being captured at 43.8% ABV, in its pure form: without colouring or chill-filtration.
Well that just pops right out of the glass. It is really very spirit-y at first and reminds me of something more like a high strength white wine or the first smells that you get from a new-make spirit after the nose-burn has subsided. Let it breathe for a moment though and a series of delicate complementary flavours start to reveal themselves. The first flavour that I can smell is a sweet and tropical pineapple flavour. Really quite sweet and saccharine – like the juice in tinned fruits. The spirit’s original barley/grain and grist-like flavours are all there. A little more time and it has a strong pear flavour, joined by apple and white grapes. A really comforting, grassy hay note sits behind it all.
I was expecting a sharp set of flavours as per the spirit-y nose but it’s actually really soft and sweet. Those pear flavours are there again at the front of the fruit flavours, whilst the white grape and freshly cut apple flavours provide some zing on the tongue. Some barley sugar sweets also spring to mind, as do lemon boiled sweets and that softness reminds me of vanilla ice cream or clotted cream. A bit of water in the glass brings out a banana and custard taste too. It has an extremely light body and remarkably silky texture but keeps its heady young spirit flavour throughout.
A heat from the alcohol intensifies and there’s a hot cinnamon and fiery ginger spice to it, which then fizzles away almost as quickly as it came. There’s a star anise sort of character left behind and then that cream again.
This whisky is an exercise in subtlety. It’s worth taking time over to make those discoveries. I gave it some time but it still seemed to disappear from my glass fairly quickly and I can see that other bloggers have had the same experience. I’d say that I went out looking for the flavours, rather than them coming to me. I think the spirit-y flavours were the only sensations that were forthcoming, but I enjoyed looking for more and what I found. It is maybe the first time that I’m finding that the type of still used is highly influencing the output. I get a little uneasy around using the term “smooth” as a descriptor as I’m never entirely sure what it means, but to me this is smooth in terms of its texture and as a quaffable drink. Overall, it reminds me of the Filey Bay English whisky releases in the sense that the same single malt DNA is there but it’s being taken in a different direction. English whisky regs certainly allow for more experimentation than the more closely-guarded Scotch whisky regulations. At the end of the day, I think that it seems like a malt in its early stages of development. A lot of promise in there. That said, I don’t think the casual whisky drinker would particularly enjoy it if they were looking for a whisky whisky, if that makes sense. Certainly if full-bodied scotch is your main form of reference. It seems more experimental and as such something that the more adventurous drinker can get behind. As something different and as something new, it entices and remains remarkably drinkable. It reminds me more of what a single grain whisky tastes like, actually. I’ve certainly heard that with ex-bourbon barrels, patience is a virtue. It’s early years can contain, but its later years can really nourish. The Cotswolds distillery, for example, used red wine casks to great effect to get some immediate dark colour and rich red fruity flavours in their initial releases. To the whisky enthusiast this is a good example of something else and how a spirit’s marriage with its oak can develop. It shows the grassroots of where it came from and the start of the cask showing what it has to offer. I’ll be keen to see how this one progresses with time along with the distillery’s own maturation.
Sample disclosure: The miniature sample is not currently available for sale and was provided to me by the Henstone team. I’m really grateful to Chris and the team for sending out the package and for the offer to meet with them and discover more when we are able to do so. I look forward to taking them up on that offer in the near future. For now though, all notes are intended as an honest, fair and independent review of the whisky itself and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly. Please drink wisely.