Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Farmer on journey from being bankrupt to owning a £14m vodka distillery

William Chase made his first fortune from posh crisps
William Chase made his first fortune from posh crisps

Sophie Christie

William Chase, the 50-something entrepreneur and founder of Tyrrell's crisps, has just celebrated the 10th birthday of his second business, Chase Distillery, which sells a very different type of potato-based product – vodka.

"It's very exciting to have reached the 10-year milestone of selling a very special product. It's a unique business and it took a long time to get where we are," he says.

Chase grew up on his family's Herefordshire farm, which he bought off his father at the age of 20 using a £200,000 bank loan. Despite farming the land and selling potatoes to supermarkets throughout his 20s, he struggled under the pressure of running a business and ended up bankrupt with only a £15,000 car to his name.

"I always wanted to be a farmer, but trading every day to supermarkets was hard. You work 80-hour weeks, but it's never enough to get rich on it. You do it for the enjoyment of farming, not the money. I struggled to make ends meet."

Being declared bankrupt at the age of 33 was "eye-opening" for Chase, who had always believed if he worked hard, he'd make money. "I was left with my car and quickly realised I would have to start again and turn every penny into a pound. It was a good lesson in how fragile money is. It's far easier to spend it than make it," he says.

In a bid to turn his life around, Chase decided to start making premium potato chips, and in 2002, Tyrrell's was born. While the potato crisps were a runaway success, stocked in 6,000 UK retailers and exported to 10 countries including France and Russia, it was the company's vegetable crisps that were most profitable. "Our vegetable crisps became famous, as we were pioneers in that category," he says.

Tyrrell's was at the forefront of the growing trend for organic foods from independent manufacturers, and Chase's insistence that his crisps were only sold in top-end retailers (he had a long-running dispute with Tesco after refusing to let it stock his crisps over fears it would undermine the premium nature of the brand) helped to catapult Tyrrell's into a multi-million pound business.

Chase made £30m when he sold the posh snacks business in April 2008 to private equity firm Langholm Capital, and reinvested almost all of the money into marketing his next venture, a vodka distillery. Chase claims it was the UK's first single-estate distillery – meaning that most, if not all, ingredients are sourced from a single area of land – when it opened in June 2008.

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Almost every stage of production takes place on site, from growing and fermenting to distilling and bottling. As well as standard vodka, which sells for £37 a 70cl bottle, the distillery stocks flavoured versions of the spirit including marmalade and rhubarb, which "target the female millennial audience". Sixteen tonnes of potatoes make only 1,000 litres of alcohol, which is a "testament to the quality of our vodka", Chase says. 

The distillery, which employs around 40 people, turned over an impressive £14m last year, but Chase isn't predicting significant growth in the near future. "I'm not looking for massive growth as I'm not interested in feeding cheap spirits to the masses. I want to educate people about our premium product and get the message across that taste is important.

"Spirits are usually just mixed into cocktails rather than drunk neat, so people don't actually taste the product. I want people to enjoy the flavour of our spirits."

The company distributes its products to more than 50 countries worldwide, with the Middle East and Asia two of the fastest growing territories, thanks to high-end restaurants and bars stocking the product, which then "helps filter demand down into the mid-market sector".

While Chase has other projects on the go (he owns a vineyard in France that produces rosé wine, and 12 months ago launched Willy’s apple cider vinegar, made from fruit from the farm's 300-year-old apple trees), he is hoping to eventually step back more from the business and let his two sons take the reins.

"I’m very proud that we’re still a family business model with my son Harry running the farm and son James travelling the world telling our story. Every batch is still personally signed off by one of us and that’s something that makes me smile," he says.

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