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A Herefordshire potato farmer of 20 years, Will Chase decided he’d had enough of the drudgery of selling a commodity to supermarkets and in 2002 hit upon the idea of turning his potatoes into ‘Tyrrells Hand Cooked Potato Chips’. Having successfully made his crisps a household name he then set about turning his crop into what has become an award-winning potato vodka. His apple orchard then proved the inspiration for a gin.
The commercial success of Chase Distillery and its growing portfolio of products is a reflection of how well its field-to-glass formula has won favour with discerning drinkers - the Herefordshire-based farm and distillery grows its own potatoes, which it then ferments, distils and bottles itself. But more than that, the launch of a premium vodka and gin off the back of the jaw-droppingly successful Tyrell's crisps business, itself born out of bankruptcy, is a classic tale of triumph over adversity.
Looking back at what was arguably one of the most stressful times of his life, William Chase sees an almost comic chink of light in the darkness. It's 1992 and William, then aged 30, was another victim of a diminishing agricultural sector that seemed to have put pay to his career as a farmer and seen him declared bankrupt.
Desperate to raise cash to get back on his feet, he was caught in the farcical situation of alternately making his home and farm buildings look attractive to potential investors, and then ugly the next in order to devalue the house as much as he could so he could afford to buy it back from the bank. "One moment I would be trying to make everything pretty when business angels were due round, then the next I'd be letting the grass grow really long and leaving the rubbish out," he laments. "It all sounds a bit pathetic now, but at the time it felt like life or death."
For William, bankruptcy marked the end of a childhood dream. He had grown up on the farm and always wanted to be a farmer. Unfortunately, the diminishing returns of beef farming, even before the rampage of mad cow disease in the 1990s and the foot and mouth outbreak in the Noughties, meant that the business progressively struggled. "We just weren't making any money out of it. I had a £200,000 loan, was paying 27 per cent interest to the bank and things were getting tighter and tighter." In the days and months that followed, William hid away in his farmhouse, feeling at best inadequate and at worst a "social lepper". He lost the 30 acres he had inherited from his mother and was faced with starting life from scratch again.
That he bounced back so quickly is a sign of his entrepreneurial spirit and tenacity - and some good fortune. "Every entrepreneur gets a bit of luck, and for me it was the development of the 'slow food' and organic market. The public suddenly wanted organic food and supermarkets were demanding 'pretty' potatoes." William was happy to oblige, and he relaunched himself as a potato trader, sourcing potatoes from around the country and selling them in batches to retailers. At first, the margins were small, but the business model was sound and over the course of the next decade, the business grew. By the late 1990s, less than a decade after his insolvency, he was making £100,000 a year, trading 20,000 tonnes of potatoes annually and employing a handful of people. He'd still get up early, but instead of being out on the tractors, now it was to source potatoes, using three mobile phones.
But then the sector changed and supermarkets wanted to deal direct with farmers and William was looking for 'plan B'. Initially the 'B' stood for 'baked' - he thought there might be a market for pre-baked potatoes, but William had something of a potato epiphany when McCain rejected a batch of his potatoes in 2001 that were subsequently accepted by gourmet crisp maker Kettle Chips. Happily, he'd built back his farm to 20 acres by now, and saw a new route to market for his own potatoes.
The development of the gourmet crisp market chimed perfectly with the slow food movement, middle class consumers were tired of the standard cheese and onion/prawn cocktail variants but raring to buy hand-fired 'chips' from a new generation of producers in fancy delicatessens. “I looked into the market, saw a 30 per cent net profit, and quickly realised that unlike the other 'gourmet' crisp companies, which didn't have provenance or traceability, if I started making something myself I'd have an instant USP."
If the idea behind the company that would become Tyrell's had been born, bringing it into reality was somewhat harder to accomplish. "These days, you'd just Google how to make crisps. But Kettle Chips refused to tell me, so I flew to America and visited another gourmet crisp company, Cape Cod. They only let me look through the windows. I thought I was going to have to come home empty-handed. But then I heard about a brand of crisps made in rural Pennsylvania by an Amish community. They were far more open, showed me the equipment I would need and where to source it, and they taught me how to make chips - how to cut them, fry them and cook them. What I thought would be a trip of a few days turned into two weeks and on the plane back I was ecstatic."
He worked quickly and, having had the idea in October 2001, by April William's Hereford farm boasted an up-and-running chip factory, named after Tyrrells Court, the farm he grew up on. He managed to get his chips listed at various farm shops and large independents, including Harvey Nichols, but his big break came with upscale supermarket Waitrose. Although he was initially rejected by its buyers, the PA to its chief executive said he could leave a sample with her and he left a box of his vegetable, rather than potato, chips. The phone duly rang and William had lucked out, winning a listing at one of the UK's most influential supermarket chains. After that, the phone didn't stop ringing as other retail chains sought to emulate their competitor.
William turned his attention to marketing, deliberately featuring saucy vintage images and Victorian nudes, he was hoping to spark controversy and a complaint in the conservative press that would give him a name for being eccentric and British. The uproar followed with stories about the nascent crisp maker appearing in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, helping Tyrell's turn over a cool £500,000 in its first year's trading. A further boost came in 2007 when he was crowned regional winner in the Bank of Scotland's Corporate Entrepreneur Challenge, netting him a £5m interest-free loan which contributed to the purchase of the 400-acre neighbouring Rosemaund Farm.
Shifting focus to his next obsession, the idea for producing a vodka had actually taken root four years prior when, during a holiday in the Caribbean, he got to talking to an American who had a bottle of Chopin vodka. Historically, William was a gin drinker and had been unimpressed with vodka, but this creamy, rich, potato-based vodka gave him a glimpse of what could be achieved. He realised what a brand story he would have if he used the very potatoes he grew to create his own vodka. (Crucially, he had retained ownership of the farms that supplied the potatoes to Tyrell's as well as his newly built distillery).
"I looked at it all and realised no-one in vodka went into the provenance of what they were selling - it was all about cocktails and Elton John. If shops could charge £35 for mass produced vodka, I thought we could charge a premium for a single-estate vodka. And when I heard that a potato farmer in Jersey had applied for a licence to distil that spurred me into action and I got in touch with Carl the German still maker."
Almost entirely self-taught in the art of distilling, William would visit distilleries as he marketed Tyrell's - in France, Hong Kong, America. He enlisted Jamie Baxter, his resident biochemist, technician and all-round boffin, to start looking into still designs and the technical challenges of turning their potatoes into vodka. Jamie's background was in food technology and, specifically, cereals: together, they were on a steep learning curve, about which sort of potatoes worked best, which enzymes they would need for fermentation and when to make the cuts.
Rosemaund Farm was previously a government-owned experimental hop farm and the building which now houses the distillery is a 1950s converted hop kiln barn lying derelict before William converted it into a modern distillery. William remembers when the distillery equipment arrived in 2007. He, Jamie and some farm hands unpacked and put the still together. “We spent about 12 months just creating mashbills, using different varieties and combinations of potatoes.”
In 2008 William sold 75 per cent of Tyrrells to Langholm Capital, a private equity firm, netting him a whopping £40million. He retained ownership of the farms that supplied the potatoes to the crisp business as well as his newly built distillery, which remained outside of the deal. The first batch of what was and still is England’s only potato vodka followed soon after in April 2008.“The biggest shock was when we put the first load through the still. I thought about the massive pile of potatoes we had started with, looked at the ten litres of spirit that came out, and realised that inefficiency was probably why no one used potatoes. For the next year I wondered what on earth I had done.”
Incidentally, while the vodka was in development, there was never any question that it would share the Tyrell's brand name. However, it quickly became clear that snack food branding was not appropriate for the sophisticated and glamorous world of international vodka, and his new vodka was quickly renamed, taking on his surname. Just as he'd done with Tyrell's, William now embarked on a marketing mission to get his vodka listed in retailers. By now, he was rich enough to have employed people to do that for him, but he says he "didn't want reps in shiny suits pushing something in people's faces" and preferred to convince discerning buyers of the merits of Chase vodka through his own passion.
The first willing recipients were small farm shops and some larger independents such as Fortnum & Mason and Selfridge's. William would turn up in a 1952 Land Rover that had originally been bought for the farm, with the intention that they could run it using the vodka in some way. (He had bought a convertible Rolls-Royce after his £40m windfall, and briefly considered using this as a branded marketing tool, but rejected the idea as too flashy early on).
Persuading retailers to listen could be challenging but the on-trade proved another beast. William quickly realised that getting a product on a back-bar was one thing, whereas getting bartender buy-in required a bit more of a sell-in, to hammer home how Chase was, and remains, the UK's only distiller that grows, ferments, distils and bottles its own product. Reaching these opinion formers resulted in a suitably quirky two-day Rock Da Farm music festival attracting some 2,500 individuals, the majority bartenders.
Despite being well-received, sales were relatively slow at first, as William doggedly stuck to personal face-to-face sell-ins, but the still house now puts out an impressive 10,000 bottles a week, with a 30:70 domestic/export market split, though William wants to reverse this bias.
William’s son Harry is equally passionate about the family’s farming operations – of which he is now in charge – and when visiting the distillery and driving around Rosemaund Farm it becomes clear that it is not only potatoes which the Chase family farm here. Sure, there are rolling fields of potatoes but there are also apple orchards, cereal crops and grazing Herefordshire cattle. Part of the reason for this is due to the effect growing potatoes has on the soil, meaning you can only cultivate potatoes in a field every one year in five. This is great news for James, Wills’ other son, who is key to marketing the vodka in the all-important high-end bars, as the diversity of produce from the farm has already led to the production of a range of liqueurs and their very successful cider-based gin. William is pleased he's made the shift. "We're not just chopping up potatoes and cooking them anymore," he says. "Distilling is more of a science, and we’ve gone from making people fat to making people happy."