NEWS

2010-05-25

Midlands Vodka the Best

The world’s finest vodka is now made in the Midlands, according to the most esteemed spirits experts in the world. Graeme Brown spoke to the man behind the drink.

Few would have given him a shot, but a former crisp-maker from the Midlands who turned his hand to producing vodka has seen his tipple named the best in the world.

Chase Vodka, established by Herefordshire potato farmer William Chase, was named the world’s finest at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Mr Chase, the former boss of Tyrrells Crisps, accepted there had been a hint of discontent at a firm from an area better known for its cider-making triumphing over Russia’s 600-year vodka-making history.

In the days since winning the competition, Chase has seen demand rise more than 10-fold, but Mr Chase said that it would not herald a pursuit of more and more sales – the operation is set up to make 3,000 bottles a week and that will remain the maximum.

He believes the secret to the firm’s successes has been controlling production by keeping everything in-house.

He also said that using potatoes from his fields rather than wheat – used by many rivals – has set the operation aside.

He said: “Everyone else in the industry buys their potatoes in but when I started I thought making everything ourselves would be very important.

“People are getting more discerning about what they eat and drink and want more transparency about where it comes from.

“The first thing is the spuds. We can actually tell people with each bottle which field it comes from.”

He added: “The reason other people stopped making vodka out of potatoes is because you need so many spuds.

“The first time we made vodka we had an artic-load of spuds and there was only a few litres. You can get a bit more of a yield out of wheat but with the potatoes it has a natural sweetness.”

Chase emerged victorious from last week’s spirit’s competition after impressing a 30-strong panel of independent judges in a tasting under blind conditions.

The decision has helped to vindicate Mr Chase’s investment of around £3 million in the vodka operation after selling Tyrrells Crisps to a private equity group in 2008.

The production process takes the spuds from the farm’s own fields. It takes around 35lbs of potatoes, which would cost about £25, to produce one 70cl bottle of vodka after being added to water, fermented, and then distilled and bottled – all of which takes place on site at the farm.

He said the secret lies in the production methods, which rely on a 70ft tall metal column which plays an integral part in the distillation process.

He said: “One of the unique things about our vodka is it is made from a traditional copper pot, which gives it its character.

“We boil it up in the copper pot and it has a column and it bubbles away in there and condenses and evaporates about 50 times.

“A lot of people just make the vodka then filter it whereas we do all of that in the distillation process, so there are already no impurities.”

“To make spirits is like a fine art. It isn’t just a process,” Mr Chase added. “Generally you can make food as long as you have the right ingredients, but spirits are not that simple.

“With crisps it wasn’t too difficult – you just start off with the pubs and more and more orders roll in – but not everyone can sell premium spirits.”

The distillation process at Chase Vodka means the final outcome has a consistency more like wine.

The company employs only 10 people, including head distiller Jamie Baxter who previously worked making crisps.

At present, the team at Chase are making 1,000 bottles a week of vodka and 1,000 bottles of gin, which is made by adding junipers and citrus to the vodka.

It also produces some liqueurs, including marmalade, blackcurrant and rhubarb flavours.

Mr Chase said up until the award win the UK was the company’s largest market, but the US seems set to overtake it. It also exports across Europe, and even to Russia.

He said: “Since we won the award it has gone ballistic. People are buying lots of it and they love the fact it is English.

“Normally we sell something like 100 bottles a week online, but in the last few days we have been selling 300 or 400 bottles a day.

“We can make about 3,000 bottles a week with the kit we have got and because it is premium we wouldn’t want to make more than that. We don’t want to be mass market.”