Humble as it may be, the potato is a versatile vegetable. And it's fair to say that its foodie potential has been thoroughly exploited by one Herefordshire farmer.
William Chase, whose parents were farmers themselves, began his career in potato trading before hitting on the idea of posh crisps – and so Tyrrells was born in 2002. The brand was a huge success, reconnecting snack foods with home-grown produce, and in 2008 William sold it for £30m. But he wasn't done with spuds. Next up: potato vodka.
William set up a distillery on a potato farm near Hereford in 2008. It's a family business, with his sons closely involved; Harry, 28, looks after the farm, while James, 25, oversees "meet and greet". And harvesting their own potatoes to be turned into vodka – and then gin – means Chase Distillery can claim to be Britain's only single-estate distillery.
"I couldn't believe how people would spend £30 on a bottle and not even know that it comes from a big, industrially produced spirit," the 53-year-old entrepreneur says when we meet at the distillery, the sound of his product trickling through copper pots and pipes behind us.
"I thought if we could do the same story we did with Tyrrells, but with distilling – where we've actually got a farm and we're making it ourselves – people would buy into that. I'm really into provenance."
But while it is now natural for drinkers to obsess over the grape variety and terroir of a wine or stroke their hipster beards over different micro-breweries' craft beers, there's a surprising degree of ignorance around spirits. And I include myself in that: I feel a little muddled, for instance, when James, giving me a tour of their farm, explains that as well as fermenting potatoes to make spirits, they do the same with the cider apples harvested from their orchards. So, you can make vodka out of… anything? And gin is really just… flavoured vodka?
"Vodka is anything fermented from an agricultural base, distilled typically to 96 per cent ABV," James explains; it is then diluted with water to around 40 per cent ABV. Theoretically, you could make vodka from anything that contains starch or sugars. Such as bananas. Or beetroots.
"We made a beetroot one last year, but the cost of production… if you scaled it up, it would have had to retail for about £1,000 a bottle," says James. "So, over the years, crops have been whittled out and distillers primarily use what's cheapest and available."
Mostly, that's grains; we may think of potatoes when we think of vodka, but the majority of commercial brands use cereals. The team at Chase, however, believe that using potatoes improves the taste considerably; they use starchy varieties such as Lady Rosetta and Golden Wonder – the same as they used for crisps, in fact, as they have a high dry-matter content.
Chase vodka is smooth and sippable. But don't take my word for it: in 2010, it was awarded the title of World's Best Vodka at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Gin, meanwhile, is simply a spirit that's infused with certain botanicals – most notably, of course, juniper. "A lot of gins are made of neutral grain spirit – they buy in a cheap, ready-made alcohol," says James.
Chase, however, makes two types of gin from scratch: one using its potato-vodka base, then flavoured with junipers buds as well as berries; and one using its cider-apple vodka base, flavoured with Herefordshire-grown botanicals including Bramley apples, elderflower and hops. "It provides a unique style of gin," says James. "It tastes like the apple skins – you get these beautiful crisp notes."
William is scathing of many of the new artisan gin producers popping up across the UK. "There are a lot of twee stories in this market. Most of these so-called artisan or boutique distillers just buy in neutral grain spirit for 20p a litre; it costs us about £4 a litre [to make]," he explains with a degree of underdog pride in Chase's field-to-bottle approach.
The company sells its £40- a-bottle spirits in Waitrose and Booths, but William is wary of the supermarket giants – in the early days of Tyrrells, he sparked a media frenzy over his refusal to sell his crisps in Tesco. Spirits are often treated by big retailers as a loss leader, shunted into aggressive promotions – and Chase doesn't have the capacity to be selling at a discount. Instead, it sells through wine merchants, who appreciate the "pedigree… It costs what it does. We're not making any money out of it," William claims, " because it's expensive to make."
He would say that, of course. But after joining a tour of the distillery – the warehouses and barns are open to the public, with guests able to stay at the family's nearby B&B, Verzon House – it's clear that Chase is a labour of love, too. "It took a lot of learning, and a few years to refine it," says William of his career swerve.
So what is the process? The spuds are harvested, peeled and chopped, before added enzymes break it down into greyish mash; left in a fermentation vessel for about a week, the glucose converts to alcohol. The mash is then pumped into the top of a stripping column; as it falls down the column, it's hit by steam, which strips out the alcohol. Twelve tons of mash produces about 1,800 litres of base booze.
This is then mixed with water in a large copper tank. It's heated with a steam jacket round the outside, till alcohol rises as a vapour through Chase's distinctive copper rectification column. This is the heart of the distillery: at 70ft tall, looming up out of the roof, William says it is the "tallest copper column in the world; it's quite an exceptional piece of kit". It lends the distillery a rather Heath Robinsonish air, swathed in curls of steam and with the joins mottled green and purple from hard, sweaty use.
But more importantly, by travelling up this column – twice – the alcohol is distilled more than 100 times. All the way up the rectification tower are copper distillation plates, each shaped like a squashed bell. Chase's master distiller, Jamie Baggot, explains how it works: "The vapour comes up and hits the underside of the bell, then it condenses and drips off the edge. But vapours are also passing up through the sides, and it re-evaporates off those as well. Each time you do that, you leave a little more impurity behind. In effect, we're doing 119 quantifiable mini-distillations."
Hang on – if Chase distils it 119 times, how are its big-name rivals managing to use "triple distilled" as a selling point? "It's genius," smiles Baggot ruefully of this branding. "Try to find a double-distilled vodka… triple is your entry level, really."
Distilled to 96.7 per cent ABV, the spirit is then held in tanks for 10 days to let it "calm down" before it is tempered with spring water from the farm's own bore well. This dilutes it to a more palatable 40 per cent, and it is bottled on site. Or if it's gin, it will be distilled again, vapours passing through botanicals – carefully layered in a pillowcase – to impart just the right flavour.
William confesses he was never much of a spirit drinker before – "I'm only a Herefordshire country farmer boy: to me, vodka tasted like nail-varnish remover" – and it's his son, James, who helps introduce the cosmopolitan, Instagram-your-cocktail crowd to Chase. As well as running the company's Twitter feed, he has his own bar in Mayfair. But how is working with your twentysomething sons? "I hope it'll be a nice family business, and we can keep telling the story," says William – although it's clearly not always easy. "If your sons work for you, they can do what they like, whereas if they work for someone else they'll get the sack if they get it wrong. It's nice to have them in the business, but they've got to do their own thing. Harry runs his own farming business – if he makes mistakes, it's his own money. And James has the Running Horse, his pub in London – he's learning that way."
They've seen spuds work out well for their dad, but William insists there's no quick fix; every entrepreneur has to find their own angle. "I want my sons to take this on – and do it the hard way! I don't even particularly like potatoes: they've made me laugh and they've made me cry, but really they've been a means to end."
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