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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 and 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 off the back of the incredibly successful Tyrrell’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. Back in 1992, then aged 30, William was another victim of a diminishing agricultural sector. It looked like the end of his career as a farmer and saw 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 day 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% 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 the 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, 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, with middle class consumers tired of the standard cheese and onion/prawn cocktail variants but hungry for hand-fired ‘chips’ from a new generation of producers in fancy delicatessens. “I looked into the market, saw a 30% net profit, and quickly realised that unlike the other ‘gourmet’ crisp companies, which didn’t have provenance or traceability, if I started making something I’d have an instant USP.”
If the idea behind the company that would become Tyrrell’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 2002 William’s Hereford farm boasted an up-and-running chip factory, named after his farm. 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, crisps. The phone duly rang and William won 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, 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 Tyrrell’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 £5 million interest-free loan which contributed to the purchase of a 400-acre neighbouring farm. By 2008, he sold 75% of the company to a venture capital group for a whopping £40 million, based on sales of £15 million. He was back.
Now William shifted his focus to the next obsession, vodka. This started four years earlier during a holiday in the Caribbean after chatting to an American who had a bottle of Chopin potato 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 Tyrrell’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 [German still equipment maker] Carl.”
Almost entirely self-taught in the art of distilling, William would visit distilleries as he marketed Tyrrell’s – in France, Hong Kong, America. He enlisted his resident biochemist, technician and all-round boffin, to start looking into still designs and the technical challenges of turning their potatoes into vodka. William was on a steep learning curve: what sort of potatoes worked best and which enzymes they would need for fermentation, not to mention the intricacies of distillation and rectification.
William remembers when the distillery equipment arrived on the farm in 2007. He and some farm hands unpacked and put the still together, in a 1950s converted hop kiln barn that was previously derelict. “We spent about 12 months just creating mashbills, using different varieties and combinations of potatoes. The biggest shock was when we put the first load through the still in April 2008. 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 not share the Tyrrell’s brand name. However, it quickly became clear that crisp’s branding was not appropriate for the sophisticated and glamorous world of international vodka – not to mention objections by the venture capitalists who’d purchased the Tyrrell’s name. Hence, his new vodka was quickly renamed, taking on his surname. Just as he’d done with Tyrrell’s, William now embarked on a marketing mission to get his vodka listed by retailers. Although he now had he funds to employ people to do that for him, 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 90 that had originally been bought for the farm, with the intention that they could run it on the farm using the vodka in some way. (As part of Chase’s 10 year anniversary celebrations, you can win that vintage Land Rover).
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, bottles and distributes its own products.
Despite being well-received, sales growth was relatively slow at first, as William doggedly stuck to personal face-to-face sell-ins, but sales reached critical mass and “went ballistic” and now a decade since the start, the still house is running 24/7 to keep up with demand and capacity is being expanded with the installation of a new boiler having also provided the opportunity to move to sustainable biomass fuel.
He admits he’s had tentative approaches for the company from some of the big spirits companies but says, “The long-term goal is to build a sustainable vodka brand. I can’t say no, never, but I’ve got four sons and it’s a family thing.” Indeed, two of William’s sons are already actively involved. Harry runs the family’s farming operations while James is tasked with marketing the vodka and gins, particularly in the all-important high-end bar scene.
James, Will and Harry Chase
Having successfully transitioned from the world of crisps to that of spirits – and adding to the Chase range courtesy of the diversity of produce grown on the farm, with a range of liqueurs and a 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.”