In this interview I chat with Chris from the Henstone Distillery.
Tell us a little about how easy or hard it was to set up your distillery?
It is not easy setting up a distillery! I’d had a yearning to get involved in the spirit business for quite a few years and the opportunity came along when I ‘retired’ from corporate life (more than 40 years in IT and Telecoms) and took a part time job at a brewery owned by friends. I immediately started suggesting we could buy a tiny still (from e-bay) and turn a little of the brewery’s beer into ‘whisky’. Quite rightly, from many angles, my friends resisted this but following a bit more badgering they suggested we go into business and set up a distillery – Henstone was born as a result! The name of the company reflecting the family homes of both sides of the partnership.
Loads and loads of planning followed and this is where much of the hard work is as it is all theoretical at this stage. We had to apply for licences, apply for grants, plan building changes, search for (and do due diligence) on a variety of suppliers from the obvious still manufacturers down to floor surface replacement and flue installation, bottle suppliers, brand agencies, etc.
You will bottle your first whisky in January 2021 – how often are you tasting it and how is it coming on?
That is correct. We have taste tested a few times along the journey and are extremely pleased with the direction the flavour is heading. One thing we have found is that using our pot/column hybrid still enables us to produce a very smooth, pleasant new make…..so even before the spirit hits the wood it is tasting great!
What casks did you choose to age your whisky in and what made you decided on those?
Most of our new make is maturing in ex-bourbon casks at present. There were a few reasons for this including experience from a lot of Scottish distilleries, consistency of supply, cost, availability, etc. Also, as we’re not a huge distillery we needed to be able to purchase relatively small quantities at a time. We have, however, also got some new make maturing in first fill ex-pedro ximenez and ex-oloroso and these will become available around July 2021. We also have one other ‘cask secret’ up our sleeves which we’ll announce in due course!
Will you continue to age some casks and if so what characters are you looking for in them to be selected?
Yes, we do plan on doing this although we recognise it may be difficult if demand is high! The decision will be more about why do we want to mature for longer as opposed to selecting specific casks to put to one side – we follow very strict processes to manage consistency of product so expect the vast majority to follow very similar profiles.
You are quite rare being south of the Scottish border and making your own Wash for the whisky. Can you please explain why you decided to do this and what Wash is?
Wash is essentially the beer that is produced from malted barley, water and yeast which we then distil to produce the new-make. We are able to produce this as we are co-located with a brewery! Our still has a 1000 litre pot so we tend to produce around 2000 litres of wash at a time, this then takes around a week to ferment (convert the sugars to alcohol) before we distil over the course of one day in two 1000 litre batches. We always wanted to produce our spirits from the base raw ingredients and this is a great example of us succeeding in doing that!
Where do you see the English whisky scene in 10 years time?
When we started our planning there were, from memory, 13 distilleries on the English Whisky map and we believed we’d be the fourteenth. A recently distributed and revised version of the map shows 22 English whisky distilleries at the beginning of 2020. I think we’ll see a few more appear over the coming years and hope that together we can form a group promoting interest in the scene – from things like whisky distillery tours around England to tasting groups and shows. We have hosted visits from reasonably local societies and there really is a great deal of interest in this growing industry.
You make a corn liquor – please tell us what this is?
From the start of our planning we had the idea of producing a ‘British Bourbon’ and this is our example of that – we call it Old Dog Corn Liquor! The name is derived from ‘Corn Liquor’ is what it is and the ‘Old Dog’ part is named after a disused mine shaft in the valley in which we live. We did a lot of research into the various American Bourbons, how they are made, what the mash bill is etc and then came up with our recipe…..we use 50% corn, 25% wheat and 25% barley as the mash ingredients to produce our wash and then following distillation mature the spirit in new American oak barrels, just as bourbon would be. One of the advantages of this is that because we can’t call it a Bourbon, because we haven’t made it in the USA and because it is not a whisky it is entirely up to us how long we mature it for. The first batch, now sold out, was matured from 8 months – we kept the cask in the distillery to promote rapid maturation thorough regular temperature and humidity changes.
You make a London Dry gin and also Navy gin. Please explain the difference and the differences in how they are made?
The very simple answer is they are pretty much the same but one is significantly stronger than the other. Because our still is so large in gin terms we produce a lot of gin in a distillation run which is then liquored back (diluted) for bottling. We have found that at different levels of dilution not only is the gin stronger (or weaker) but the flavour profile changes quite considerably too – the Navy, at 57.3% has much lighter ‘citrussy’ notes than the London Dry at 44.9%.
We also produce what we call our Rosé Gin which, again uses the same base product but is then briefly matured in new American oak barrels to produce a little bit of vanilla on the tongue and a light golden hue.
Do you often experiment with other botanicals? If so, what has been the worst you have tried?
We haven’t experimented with other botanicals yet – the main reason for this is our only still is Hilda and at 1000 litres it is rather difficult to ‘have a bash’ with a few different botanicals as the end result could be an expensive mistake! We are currently looking into options that will allow us to experiment a little though. Like all our other spirits we did loads of research first and then went into production and we think the recent Gin Guide Awards we won reflect appreciation of this approach.
You make a NONPAREIL, which is an apple brandy. Is this made in the same way as Calvados?
Again, an apple brandy was always in the plan. Our sister company, the brewery, produces cider each year and we thought it would make sense to distil a batch of this and mature the output in new American Oak casks. We distil a couple of thousand litres in a day and then maturation currently takes 8 – 12 months. It is similar to Calvados although we cannot call it that as we haven’t made it in France (similar to the bourbon point above). Calvados can be made from pure apple cider or with a mix of pears too and can be double or single distilled – so not a million miles away from what we are doing.
When making NONPAREIL, does it make a difference if you use a dry or sweet cider to do you mix them for complexity?
We only use the cider produced by the onsite brewery which is naturally made and, as a result dry. We have not experimented with sweet cider as this is generally made by adding sweetener (sugar or some other compound) after the product has fermented.
Your still (Hilda) is a 1000l one. How did you come to choose this particular still over all others?
We went thorough a long process of looking at various potential suppliers, different still configurations and sizes. Following due diligence we partnered with the UK agent (Ryebeck Ltd) for the German still manufacturer Kothe. Hilda was then essentially custom made for us – if and when you visit the distillery you’ll realise why…..there is very little room between the top of the still and the roof!! From the design perspective we wanted a still that was flexible, allowing us to produce a range of products – this has proven to be the case!
Apart from the coronavirus, what challenges to English gin distillers face going forward?
The gin market is very saturated so getting into outlets and staying there is very hard with the big producers cutting prices and giving ‘kick backs’. We are very happy that we have a loyal base now that we have grown organically and our challenge now is to move this to the next level – watch this space!
What are the funniest moments you have had in the distillery?
We’ve had loads of laughs but I think that one that gets the most laughs is my ability to flood the place……I’ve done this on numerous occasions but hopefully a bit of plumbing work yesterday has stopped this!
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a distillery?
Fingers crossed……..we are hoping we haven’t – oh, wait a minute right at the beginning we thought we were licenced to produce the whole portfolio of spirits only to find out that we needed a rectification licence for our gin production so this held us back a couple of weeks.