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Chase Distillery: A Vodka Empire Built from Potatoes

 
PUBLISHED IN interview, vodka, chase
Having grown potatoes for 5 generations, the Chase family know the ins and out, whether in the form of potatoes, crisps or Vodka.

James Chase - Photo: Chase DistilleryFrom planting the potatoes to distilling them into super-premium spirits it all takes place on their family farm in Herefordshire, meaning that all Chase spirits are single-estate products.

After they went bankrupt in the 90s, William Chase didn't give up, but was ultimately able to not just find a way out, but build an extremely successful business, first with Tyrrell crisps, followed by Chase Distillery a few years later.

We had a nice chat with James Chase, one of the two sons now helping to grow the family business.

Flaviar Five Bar T

1. How would you describe Chase Vodka to the Dalai Lama, who doesn’t drink?
I think I would describe it as a taste of Herefordshire, so by drinking Chase, you’re contributing to the land and you’re giving purpose back to the farming community of the region. With this, come some amazing flavour characteristics and a taste of the countryside. You taste something that is from a very special part of the world and has a lovely, long-lasting taste profile.

2. What’s your second favourite Vodka?
There’s quite a few out there. Belvedere has always been quite a good stand-in in terms of what they do with their category promotion. Cîroc is doing really well recently, because they are promoting the grape, which is the base of their Vodka. And you’ve got some others in the US, like Cold River, which is also made from potatoes and is one that I quite like personally.

3. What superpower would you want to have?
The ability to be in multiple places at once, so that I could be in 35 countries in the space of a day.

Being a small company is tough; we’re competing against big multinational companies that have a lot of people to cover a lot of things at the same time.

4. What’s your favourite music and what drink goes with it?
I was just in Germany and there’s a lot of techno there that I would pair with our Elegant Gin, because there’s a lot of flavour. I’m also a massive fan of AC-DC and I would pair that with our smoked Vodka in a dirty Martini, because I think those guys would really like our Vodka.

5. What would you want to eat and drink for your last supper?
I’d love to say steak and chips, but it’s quite obvious. I would have a medium rare Hereford beef steak with chips and all the sides – the tomatoes, the mushrooms… I’d wash it down with a really good bottle of wine and coffee to finish. That’s always my perfect meal.

Your family – starting with your father – made a big leap from growing potatoes to producing high-quality Tyrell’s Crisps and Chase spirits. What is the story of the Chase family business?
Our distillery is in Herefordshire, which is located between London and Birmingham. We’ve always believed it’s the best place in the world for growing potatoes, because the soil is so good.

We went bankrupt and we had to find a way to start making money again and get back up on our feet.

It all started with my father, a 4th generation farmer from Herefordshire who’s been farming his entire life. So farming really courses through his veins. But the business is hard, supermarkets want product that’s very cheap and quick, and unfortunately we went under as a family business in 1996. We went bankrupt and we had to find a way to start making money again and get back up on our feet.

Potato Harvest - Photo: Chase Distillery

My father decided to diversify and in 2002 I remember coming back from college and going back to the shop, where my father had built a deep fryer for the potatoes. The Tyrrell’s crisps brand was launched in 2002 and it was all about the farmer producing crisps from potatoes that grow in the fields around us. That’s why we named it after the farm where I grew up – Tyrell’s Court. The business was a huge success.

A few years later we went on a research mission to New York to look at deep fryers and we came across a guy that was making moonshine. We were captivated by the idea and came back with all of the spirits that we’d seen. We were really obsessed with all of these different tastes and flavours.

Tyrrell’s Vodka was born in 2008 and we rebranded it to Chase, which is our family name, in 2009. Because if you are going to do something really well, you put your name on.

So we went back to the farm and we kept making crisps, until one day in 2007, when we realized that we had a huge surplus of small potatoes that were too small to make crisps.

William Chase in the distillery - Photo: Chase DistillerySo we said, “Hey, we loved those spirits that we saw in America, why don’t we build a distillery?“

In 2008, we built one of the UK’s first start-up distilleries in about 300 years. At that point, there were only about 7 distilleries producing most of the Gins and the Vodkas on the market.

Where did you learn all of the skills for distilling?
First off, the Internet is an amazing thing, so we did a lot of research. We just looked around and snuck onto tours and went on tastings. We worked with our still makers, who helped us understand the techniques and we just learned as we went along and found the passion and the drive…

Chase distillery products - Photo: Chase Distillery

There’s no book of rules, we’re not following a set regime, but all of our Gins have won awards and are at the top of their categories. It’s a testament to the equipment that we’ve got, but also to the knowledge and the passion that we’ve invested.

With so many Vodkas out there, how do you make Chase Vodka stand out?
I love loads of other spirits out there, but there are very few Vodkas that are still producing their own raw ingredients. We have what every top chef would dream of having – we grow our own raw ingredients, and we control every part of the process, from the field to the bottle. We give value to the customers, because they understand where the product comes from.

We have what every top chef would dream of having – we grow our own raw ingredients, and we control every part of the process, from field to bottle.

What makes a good Vodka in your opinion?
The taste. A compromise of flavour and taste. I think Vodka was always destined to be pure and smooth, with no flavour. But we want to prove to people that Vodka can taste of something, that it can be flavoursome.

We want to prove to people that Vodka can taste of something, that it can be flavoursome. You don’t see many potato Vodkas out there, because it is so expensive. But you get a lot of taste from potato Vodka.

I always promote a specific category, so I think that any good bar should stock a potato Vodka, a wheat Vodka, a rye Vodka, a grape Vodka… because they all have different characteristics and flavour profiles.

Personally, I think a great Vodka is Vodka with flavour, one that is complex, and yet very smooth and palatable at the same time. And you get that with potatoes. You don’t see many potato Vodkas out there, because it is so expensive. But you get a lot of taste from potato Vodka.
 
Since you’re growing your own potatoes, does this mean that the work you do for the company changes with the comings and goings of the seasons?
You can only grow potatoes in a field for one out of every five years. The other four years, you have to rotate the crop, whereas with wheat you can pretty much plant year after year. So again, there is the difficulty factor to start with.

Up to around 12kg of potatoes can go into just one bottle of Vodka.

We plant the potatoes around May or June and we harvest them in October. Then we store the potatoes in very big cold store that stops them from sprouting.

Photo: Chase DistilleryThat means that we can distil every day of the year, because these potatoes haven’t “gone off”. This allows us to have the potatoes all year round and we distil six days a week.

We grow around 200 acres (81ha) of potatoes. Up to around 12kg (26lbs) of potatoes can go into just one bottle of Vodka, which is a lot – approximately 200 small potatoes. For a wheat-based Vodka, it only takes around 2kg of wheat. The rest is water coming from the source that runs underneath the farm. It/s the same source of water that the Queen’s favourite water comes from.

With Vodka, as well as with crisps, one can find products that have many crazy flavours. What’s your stance on this?
I’m sure in America, flavoured Vodkas have been hit quite hard, but I think there is still a time and a place for them. I just think they need to be different, interesting and they have to taste very unique as well.

Being raised with a farm ethos and growing up on the farm, everything that we do is 100% natural, whether grown on the farm or sourced from somewhere where we know the farmer personally. Nothing is artificial, and we wouldn’t put up with that.

Flaviaristas are currently getting their hands on your Smoked Vodka – how on Earth do you do that?
It’s a very secret process and I can’t give too much away. The spirit is the same, but the water we use is smoked. We fill the smokehouse with trays of water and put burning chippings at the bottom of it. The water takes on the flavour, and we then blend the water back in with the spirit.

Photo: Chase Distillery

Bartenders love it, because it has amazing smoky quality to it, and it’s quite tasty. It’s perfect in a Bloody Mary, and it makes a really good Dirty Martini. It’s delicious even on the rocks, with ground black pepper on top.

What are the most common misconceptions about Vodka? 
Probably that Vodka has no taste and no flavour. The only way to dispel that notion is by getting people to try it neat and promote key cocktails that they can work with. Martinis, or even Espressos with smoked Vodka are amazing, as are Bloody Marys. Vodka is still the go-to spirit for a lot of cocktails, so it’s about promoting that cocktail, but making it more premium.

Being a Vodka expert, can you tell us once and for all whether it’s true that Vodka doesn’t give you hangovers that are quite as bad as other spirits do?
We can’t promise anything, but Vodka in particular is distilled to a minimum 96% ABV, while many other alcohols, like Whisky or Rum, are distilled to only about 70% ABV.

Chase Vodka Bottling - Photo: Chase DistilleryThey’ll still have a lot of the methanols and prophenols, which are slightly dirtier alcohols and might have more toxins in them, which could make you more hung-over.

Of course, you’re never going to feel right if you’ve been drinking Vodka all night. Sugar is also a massive factor in hangovers, so I always have just soda in my drinks.

You’ve even managed to sell Chase Vodka to the Russians – this sounds like quite an achievement and makes one wonder – what else is there left for you to achieve?
There are still a lot of the places that we need to be in and a lot of work to do.

A big focus for us in the next year will be the American market. There are a lot of Vodkas on the market, but we just need to keep developing our distributor relationships, talking to more people and increasing the awareness of our single estate Vodka.
 

READ MORE ABOUT: interview, vodka, chase

 

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