The snail idea had been in my mind for a long time whereas the gin thing was more ‘impulsive’ although I’ve always been interested in physics and chemistry. On returning I did have a bash at the snail breeding but this was rather unsuccessful and because of work commitments, yes another assignment cropped up, the pressure cooker conversion went down the list of priorities.
Now fast forward to my ‘retirement’ in 2015. Soon after returning home at the end of May our eldest daughter got married – she and her husband had two events….the main wedding took place on the Greek Island of Kos but they also held a party at a local brewery owned by some friends of ours, Shane and Alison Parr of Stonehouse Brewery. We’d know Shane and Alison before they established Stonehouse in 2007 as they had an earlier brewery and pub in a village close to our home. At the wedding party at the Brewery I happened to say to Shane and Alison that if they ever needed any help in the brewery or behind the bar I’d be very interested as I’d always wanted to work behind a bar but my corporate life/career had prohibited it!
The party was in September 2015 and by October I was working part time for Stonehouse, initially behind the bar and cleaning casks and later helping with admin too. As soon as I started I was taking print outs of stills I’d found on e-bay… you know the type… £300, a couple of litres… into work to show Shane, explaining that we could take some of the beer he was making, distil it and produce whisky!
Needless to say he resisted my first few attempts but after about two weeks I was leaving work and he caught up with me, slapped me on the back and said “let’s do it”! That was the start of the project… the date was around the 22nd October 2015! Lots of research and planning followed. After many rounds of discussion, emails, WhatsApp group conversations about the company name we went for Henstone which reflects the names of the two family’s homes – Alex and I live in an ex-public house called The Hen and Chickens whilst Shane and Alison live in Stone House (after which the brewery is also named).
We had loads of things to consider including:
- Where the distillery would be located
- Licencing • Regulations
- Business Planning
- Grant Applications
- Equipment procurement
- What were we going to produce
- Branding and Marketing
To name but a few. Some were relatively straight forward including location as there was a mezzanine floor in Stonehouse Brewery which was being used for storage. This measured around 42m2 and we estimated that this would be ideal provided Henstone could rent it from Stonehouse and provided HMRC were happy with this arrangement – fortunately both worked out.
Others were not so easy… including finding a still supplier, getting our licences and sorting our funding. Following many months of work however, we bashed our way through with our still, Hilda, finally being installed in November 2017. One of the things we said to ourselves from the start was that if at all possible we wanted to make all of our products from the base or raw ingredients. It was for this reason, and because we honestly thought we had missed the gin opportunity, that we had initially left gin off our product list and had decided to concentrate on whisky.
However, on a due diligence trip to the Kothe (the still manufacturer) factory in Eislingen, near Stuttgart in Southern Germany we were given a taste of Ulrich Kothe’s gin (Ulrich in the founder of Kothe stills and has built stills and distilled all his life) – we just looked at each other and said “if we can produce a gin that tastes like this we’re doing it!” – so we sort of negotiated Mr Kothe’s recipe which is now the basis of Henstone’s three gins.
I say ‘the basis’ for a number of reasons…
- Mr Kothe had never made his gin in a 1000 litre still – he had always used smaller pieces of equipment – and the question is how would the recipe scale
- His recipe was in German and we had to translate as best we could
- There was no real process to the recipe….just the ingredients
- We did loads of research regarding the recipe and other recipes
- Following discussions with a number of people we decided to add a couple of our own ingredients – the first is some of the New Make Spirit from our Whisky production and the second is a small amount of hops.
It’s interesting to note that only three people have actually detected the hops without being prompted, two of whom work or had worked in Michelin Starred kitchens! Considering the size of our still (1000 litres) and the fact that our recipe was based on Mr Kothe’s but with our own twist(s) I’m sure you can imagine the sleepless nights I (we) had on the run up to the first distillation as the duty value of the Neutral Grain Spirit component alone was around £12,000!!!!
Anyway, we followed our production process and over two days back in February 2018 produced our very first gin… we were literally dancing around the distillery at around 09:30 on day two of the process when gin was pouring out of the still but were then rather tired when we were still there at 21:30 and gin was still coming out!!
A very long day but a very productive one too. We then had some fun and games liquoring back to bottling strength as the ‘beast from the east’ hit us and it was absolutely freezing in the distillery and every time we added pure water to get the gin down to bottling strength in went cloudy (louched) and at this stage we thought we’d blown it! However, it transpired we’d made a concentrate and we now liquor back with water and NGS… this still goes cloudy under certain conditions (e.g. cold) and we did try filtering it which actually stopped the cloudiness BUT ruined the flavour and nose so we now live with the fact that our gin is so packed full of oils that it will go cloudy or louche under certain conditions.
We now have three gin expressions, our original London Dry at 44.9%, what we call a Rosé Gin, again at 44.9% but this one is lightly oak aged in New American Oak barrels and a Navy Strength at 57.3% – descriptions, pictures and serve suggestions of all can be found on our website. Now going back to our whisky… this was the original drive. Our business partners Shane and Alison have, as mentioned, owned and run Stonehouse Brewery since 2007 and had a brewery before this also – so lots of brewing experience. We used this to make sure we could create a ‘wash’ (the beer that is distilled to produce new make spirit which is then put into barrels to produce whisky) that is really first class. We’ve experimented with different yeasts but stuck with a single malted barley from the start.
For each batch we produce around 2000 litres of wash and when distilled this produces around 100 -> 120 litres of New Make Spirit of some 87% – 91% ABV….we then liquor this back to around 65% before aging in barrels. To date we have used a majority of ex-bourbon casks (as most of the Scottish distilleries do) but we’ve supplemented this with a few ex-Oloroso and ex-Pedro Ximenez ….we’ve also got some secret casks which we have high hopes for.
Our whisky was launched in January 2021 and the first batch sold out in 14 hours!! We also now always use brewery yeast as we have found we love the flavour profile and it also means it is not reproducible. Our whisky new make is incredibly smooth as this is a result of: – The quality of the wash and the fact we leave it until it’s done. We don’t have a specific fermentation time we wait until the specific gravity is correct (i.e. almost 1000) – Our pot/column hybrid still.
We fill the pot with just short of 1000 litres of new make and then have the column (four plate) set for maximum reflux – the result is the equivalent of some 5 distillations! – We run the distillations slowly too – no rushing. Getting through a batch of 2000 litres of wash takes around 12 -> 14 hours of distilling (patience is a virtue) We are now also producing a vodka, apple brandy (which we call Nonpareil after one of the varieties of apples we use in the cider produced on site which we then distill to produce the brandy) and a bourbon equivalent which we call Old Dog Corn Liquor – this bourbon equivalent has a mash bill (the ingredients that go into the wash production) of 68% corn, 16% wheat and 16% barley… it is then been matured in New American oak.
The name has two parts – first the “Corn Liquor” is essentially what it is and the “Old Dog” is an disused mineshaft in the valley where we live! Finally, we have made our two batches of rum, the first we weren’t quite sure about so produced sanitiser from it in the early part of the pandemic and the second is currently maturing in new American oak.
Even though we have only been producing spirits since December 2017 and selling since March 2018, we rebranded in 2019. We felt our original branding which we’d developed before we have any products available didn’t really tell our story or suit us as a business. We engaged Pocket Rocket Creative in Sterling and are very pleased with the results.
Many of our products are award winners:
- Our whisky won a silver medal in the International Spirits Challenge 2021
- Our London Dry Gin won Double Gold and Best of Class at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2021 and was voted Best in Britain by the Gin Guide Awards 2020
- Our Navy Gin was winner of its category in the Gin Guide Awards 2021
- Our Rosé Gin was winner of its category in the Gin Guide Awards 2021
- Our Charcoal Filtered Vodka won a gold medal in the London Spirits Competition 2021
Finally, with only four people in a company as a start-up and only one of these working full time it is tough… there’s a lot to think about, a lot to plan and a lot to do but it is extremely satisfying. Having worked corporately for more than forty years, paying off the mortgage, getting a reasonable pension it could be argued I’m mad doing this but there are a couple of counter arguments – one is that I might go mad if I didn’t do it and the other is that I see this as an opportunity to leave a legacy, something that will carry on for years after me…
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