As is our duty to you, dear reader, we’re going to commence our review of Henstone Gin with a great dose of honesty: we didn’t really want to write about it. Looking at the brand as a whole we found almost nothing to be excited about. It really felt like Gin might just be a stop gap on the road to Whisky for this troop of friends turned distillers, and we just couldn’t quite muster the energy. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a review, so these days we’re looking for a stories the step far outside the usual.
Still, here we are, glass in hand and ready to wax lyrical (and, as you will see, to despair a little) about this brand. Shall we tell you what happened? It was two things, really.
The first was co-founder and distiller Chris Toller’s gentle persistence for a write up. The second was a blind tasting. Two blind tastings, actually. We’ve been to two events over the past year in which dozens of faceless, nameless gins are racked up in front of us. Each time we do a blind tasting like this, we always make a top three personal selection outside of the context of what’s being judged or what the event was about, and make sure to go and find out quite which gin is behind them. On two occasions we’ve fallen deeply in love with a dram in the line-up and, once the names are revealed, found that the glimmering liquid in question is Henstone Gin. It is unequivocally delicious.
Henstone Distillery, based in Oswestery, Shropshire, is the work of two couples – Chris and Alexandra Toller and Shane and Alison Parr. The latter duo were already running Stonehouse Brewery before they decided to embark on their distilling mission, but while booze was very much a part of their lives, there was a good few years’ worth of planning to do. It was worth waiting, though, as the team ended up receiving a grant from the Rural Development Programme for England that helped them to afford a mighty 1000-litre still.
The plan was always to make a whisky, but as there’s an awful lot of waiting time before new make spirit become something sellable, the Henstone team turned to that most reliable of sale drivers: Gin. “When we decided to set up the distillery, we were not going to produce Gin,” Chris explains. “We primarily wanted to produce Whisky, plus we thought we’d missed the Gin opportunity. However, on a due diligence trip to the Kothe factory in January 2017 we sampled the gin and just looked at each other and said ‘if we can produce a gin like this, we’re doing it.”
The entire gin recipe was built around Kothe’s gin. The team sought to replicate and build upon it, creating their very own version of a spirit that they found easy to love. The recipe is all at once simple and complex: juniper, coriander, angelica, cardamom, orris, sweet orange peel and lemon kibble are the out and proud ingredients. There are two more in the mix which the team would like to keep a secret, but we’re very firmly of the opinion that it is these two that creates Henstone Gin’s edge. We won’t give away their secrets as it was said in confidence, but we will say that one should be celebrated and made into a key feature. For starters, it’s clear to taste, and – given the future of the distillery and more masculine edge their packaging has – it seems to be speaking to (what we assume must be the intended) core customer demographic.
Henstone Gin takes two days to produce. On the first day, water, neutral grain spirit and a great majority of the botanicals are added into the still. The temperature is raised lightly and held for a set period of time. After this, with the botanicals stewing in the warmth, the machine is switched off and left to rest for the night.
On the second day, the rest of the botanicals (we’re guessing the more lively ones) are added to a vapour basket that hangs above the still. Around three and a half hours after switching on the machinery, the hearts cut is flowing, and it keeps on flowing for 10 hours.
Henstone Gin is made as a multi-shot product, meaning that it is further stretched with neutral spirit before being watered down to its bottling strength of 44.9% ABV. Approximately 1500 to 2000 bottles are made per batch. It is worth noting that as there is an excess of oils in the gin, it tends to louche when diluted with ice and mixers. This is a bone of contention in the industry – some think it means a lack of care has gone into the process, but we’re of the opinion that it’s merely an issue of vanity. Louching doesn’t affect the taste, it merely represents a disturbance of essential oils.
Henstone Gin to taste…
Sweet orange orange peel layered over cardamom come to on the nose, alongside a warming, almost malty undertone. Rich, resinous and immaculately integrated, this is classic gin with a deft layer of that secret something adding a cereal sweetness and bestowing a charm which becomes more rewarding with every sniff.
To taste, classic gin unfurls itself on the palate – tangy sweet orange and bright lemon follow sticky pine-like juniper into more woody, earthy tones that are accentuated by a fragrant cardamom. Once more the sweet undertone adds a complexity that sits under proceedings and adds incredible depth to the finish. It’s enveloping, confident and complex. Everything a gin should be.
In a G&T the cereal like sweetness steps up a notch, oscillating around the orange peel to add a candied twang that has had us hooked from the moment we first started drinking it. Critically, however, it never quite gets in the way of the juniper forward flavours beneath that are still driving towards every corner of your senses. It’s quite spectacular and a gin that can be leaned in many directions with a judicious use of garnish.
Henstone Navy Gin to taste…
The added ABV has added a considerable bite to the aroma, with the impression of spice much clearer here. To taste, the orange peel and lemon burn bright on the fore, before the gin returns into familiar Henstone territory, this time more perfumed than sweet. Frustratingly for our description – the second secret botanical positively coats the entirety of the mouth and weaves its way into the finish alongside the coriander seed and cardamom. We’ll stop there as to not give it away…
We mixed into a Pink Gin cocktail, which was delicious, but if adding to a G&T a sprig of rosemary takes the aromatic herbal tones to a new dimension.
Henstone Rosé Gin to taste…
More amber-toned than rosé in colour, the barrel aged gin uses the same base gin, which is laid to rest at a high ABV of 65% in New American Oak casks for a brief stint, before being disgorged and reduced to a bottling strength of 44.9% ABV.
There is a light vanilla sweetness added to the aroma, which brings in a new layer to the malty quality that’s so clear in the original. To taste, the cask’s hold on the overall gin is quite gentle, adding a mellow softness and light tannins, with the classic sequence of citrus, juniper and cardamom still driving through the taste profile. Add this to a Negroni for a rich and giving profile.
As you can tell, we really, really like their range and while we can’t state this enough, here’s for the miserly part. Henstone are almost a year in, having launched in February 2018, and we’ve seen very, very little progress. Sure, it’s doing well locally, but it’s a nano-distillery with a giant still capable of so much more. It’s also a liquid that deserves to be lavished with attention and praise. All local gins do well amongst their crowd, but that will cap progress at around 5000 bottles sold each year, so there’s a need to step up if they are to put that giant still to good work.
Let’s just rip off the plaster here; The social media is a bit flat, the photography on the website is grainy and lacklustre, sitting in a website that’s at best super clunky, while the bottle is one we can barely look at without nodding off. In their defence, the site is already on the road to improvement, so we hope this is a sign of things to come. The problem with the overall design is that there nothing wrong with it – it’s smart, neat and precise . – which makes it hard to fix. Its safety makes it boring, clinical and industrial. We’re sorry. That felt awful to type.
The name Henstone has a charmingly cute history to it – Chris and Alex raised their family in an ex-public house called The Hen and Chicken, while Shane and Alison are raising their family in Stone House – but the packaging tells us nothing about this. If anything, the symmetry on the front of the label actually confuses this. It tells us nothing about the family story, the dalliances one of the owners had with snail farming or any fun or unusual quirks about them, nothing about the distillery location or much about the botanicals being used. It is so plain and that just doesn’t cut it in this day and age.
Sometimes it is possible to get away with this if it’s wrapped in a digital whirlwind of seductive imagery and careful placement. Unfortunately, as we mentioned, in this case these merely further compound the issues.
Henstone Gin deserves so much more from and for its makers. As a spirit, it’s really, really good. Everyone in the industry who has had the good fortune to try it can attest to it being a well made classic gin with a little twist, but taste aside there is just no wow factor. There’s no brand identity, no discernible personality upon which it can build a reputation. With liquid that good we should be eagerly anticipating the upcoming whisky but there’s barely a glimmer of excitement in the wind.
Look at the likes of Isle of Harris, Cotswolds and Garden Swift. People are flipping their lids over what is next for these three different brands and their dark spirit ranges, yet their gins are no better than Henstone’s. It sounds harsh, we know, but good liquid simply doesn’t cut it nowadays and Henstone Distillery is the textbook example of a team who have made a product but hasn’t got anywhere near creating a brand. YET.
While we phrased it bluntly there, we’re not saying anything that will be alien to the team, and in fairness, it’s a work in progress and one they are already moving forward on. Chris Toller explains that “as a team we feel we still have quite a way to go in order to build our brand and with our whisky sales due to commence in two years we are starting to develop our thinking in that direction as we don’t want to be known as ‘just another’ gin producer – a term we have heard on many occasions, particularly at food and drink festivals”.
We’ve quizzed them about what they do, we’ve researched Henstone and we accept it’s the start of a slow process. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of what the team say or do, the issue is that we still can’t answer that fundamental question: at present, how are they more than just another gin producer?
The team need to work on resolving their presentation’s personality anaemia quickly. To be honest, the whole thing has left us a little in despair. How is it possible to have such a great gin in our glass and to not be overwhelmingly excited? For those reading on thinking we’re jaded hacks, we’re really not. We loathe writing negative thoughts, especially about clearly very nice people who’ve made something worthy of tasting. This is not a sign that a good gin can’t stand out or that the industry is only interested in Pink either, or that we at Gin Foundry are too close to the coal face and have lost the romance of it all – it’s quite the opposite. This quartet sound like they have it in them to do better, to present more than what they have, to stop either assuming the liquid will carry the weight or that building brand equity at this stage is pointless as it’s the whisky that they want to be pushing.
It’s not too late to catch the Gin wave, but with a level of all round brilliance scintillating in every corner of the globe and the amount of captivating, engaging narratives emerging from the top 100 distilleries in the UK, it is definitely too late to do it without pulling out all the stops. The irony here is that to be just another gin maker today is to step into a high level competition and they, currently, are not at the races.
They do have the right horse, however, so here’s hoping they decide to act on its potential and give it a proper run…
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