Con artisans

William Chase takes a stand against fake craft manufacturers.

Our interviewee

William Chase is founder of the successful crisp brand Tyrrells and, more recently, of Chase Distillery, a niche producer of premium potato vodka, gin and other spirits.

A true entrepreneur, Mr Chase says he was driven to the vodka making venture by a desire to “see if I could do it again,” after his success in growing Tyrrells to become a world-renowned brand. “I didn’t want to fall into thinking I had some divine right to run a growing business.“

Highs and lows

Will Chase’s best career moment: The best moment was when I discovered the magic of margin. I was potato farming and one day struck on the idea of selling potato seed to other farmers rather than selling potatoes to the supermarkets. All of a sudden I was getting £300 a tonne instead of £100 a tonne. Ever since then I’ve always been looking for added value.

Will Chase’s worst career moment: 1992. Everything went wrong. It rained and rained and ruined the potato harvest. I had a partner who burdened me with an unexpected and massive tax bill for several hundred thousand pounds that I didn’t have and then I had an accident that hurt my back and put me in hospital. In the end, being in hospital turned out to be a blessing. I couldn’t worry about anything other than getting back on my feet, and when I did, I sold my car and started again.

TM: In 2010, after just two years of production, Chase Vodka was voted best vodka in the world in a global competition in San Francisco. What makes it so special?

William Chase, owner manager of Chase Distillery

William Chase: Our vodka is single estate. This means we produce our 96% proof base spirit only from the Lady Rosetta and Lady Claire potatoes grown on our farms here in Herefordshire. These are good varieties because they have the high starch content you need for high quality vodka.

Most other vodka and gin producers use cheap grain spirit which they buy in to make their drinks. It’s mass produced petrol with no depth of flavour.

Our production process is unique as well. We have the tallest rectifying column in the word at 70ft. The height creates room for more bubble plates – we have 42. You get a distillation of alcohols at every plate and so, because we have more than anyone else, we create a much purer product at the end.

TM: But vodka’s not known as a drink people consume for appreciation of quality, is the extra effort you put in worth it?

WC: If you’d asked me a few years ago I’d have said no. It costs 25p for a bottle of grain spirit and it costs us around £5 to produce a bottle of our single estate spirit. If you’re going to set up a business you need to know there’ll be a margin – I’m always more motivated by the idea of leftover, not turnover.

So on the face of it, being so committed to being single estate doesn’t make sense. But then you look at consumer buying habits in the alcohol segment over the last few years. There’s a huge amount of trading up and exploration of new drinks. We’ve seen it in the real ale category, and now cider is booming too with lots and lots of new, premium brands on the market all the time.

When I set up Chase, I could see that more educated consumer growing in the spirits segment too  – particularly with regards to gin, but also vodka. You could see a fashion developing around drinking neat spirits, and that’s when quality starts coming into its own.

It’s only just starting to pay off. But we turned over £4m last year and sold around 50,000 cases all around the world. The export market is very big for us. We export 30 per cent at the moment but I can see that becoming 70 per cent in the next couple of years.

The Asian market is particularly promising. Our Britishness helps us to sell there and we find that Chinese customers in particular are tenacious about finding out everything about the manufacturing process. It really makes a difference to them to know that in goes through 42 distillations.

TM: How difficult is it to market that USP?

WC: Very. But we’re getting there. Our major challenge is that other brands in the

The rectifying column at Chase distillery is the tallest in the world. Its bespoke design is critical to the purity of flavour in the company's products.

premium or niche categories are often fakes – people who are adding a few final flavours to a cheap bought in spirit in a kitchen-table operation and posing as artisan manufacturers, They’re not really manufacturing anything. They know very little about the process, it’s all outsourced and there’s nothing niche about the base product at all but they invent a brand story that sounds cosy.

If you ask me, that’s artful, not artisan.

We find this a particular challenge in the gin market, especially because people do not generally know that gin is made from vodka, so they are not looking out for information about the quality of the base spirit.

TM: Has this venture been harder than Tyrrells?

The 400 litre carthead gin still at Chase Distillery

WC: Yes. Making crisps is not rocket science. It’s easier to get the process right and to find the right equipment. Learning how to produce vodka was harder. You have to understand the chemistry.

Also – its sometime difficult for me personally to understand why I gave up all the perks I’d earned to go back to nothing with this business. I had a PA, a finance director – a whole team of people running my business for me. You get used to those luxuries and on bad days I think ‘what am I doing here?’ I suppose I’m driven to it. I couldn’t have just sold Tyrrells and done nothing.

Instead, I’ve been able to spend about £2 million on getting all the equipment we need for the vodka and gin production without having to go to a bank. There’s a last lot of around £500,000 going into bottling and labelling automation this autumn and then the business will be on its own two feet.

I love creating something different. Creating something and selling it. That’s what I call interesting.