Tuesday 12 December 2017

'Downton Abbey popularity helped me sell more gin in the United States'

Crisp-maker turned distiller William Chase has benefited from the runaway success of the smash telly hit - but he didn't do it all alone, writes Rebecca Burn-Callander

William and Kate Chase of Chase Distillery are going up against the giants of the drinks industry
William and Kate Chase of Chase Distillery are going up against the giants of the drinks industry

Rebecca Burn-Callander

'It's been bloody tough," says William Chase, the serial entrepreneur behind upmarket crisp company Tyrrells. "When you've had an easy sell like Tyrrells and then you go into the drinks business, it's a sobering thing. Really tough."

Chase, who built up and sold the Tyrrells brand for almost £40m (€51.6m) in 2008, has spent the past seven years building up Chase Distillery, a gin and vodka business.

"You know, 99.9pc of shoppers will buy a packet of crisps at the supermarket," he says. "But when you're selling a bottle of vodka for £35, you're selling to 0.01pc of the shoppers who come through the door. This is a grown-up, serious market with lots of competition."

Chase Distillery makes its spirits from scratch, using potatoes grown on the farm. Everything is done by hand, from the filling to the packing of the bottles.

Chase calls it his "single estate campaign" and attacks rival brands who market themselves as authentic gin or vodka makers.

"We have no competition - we're the only one making it from scratch," he says. "All these others buy in neutral grain spirit and compound it. It's all b******s."

Chase Distillery is up against the giants of the drinks industry, companies such as Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi. This proved challenging in the early days.

"They have brands worth billions and they buy their way in," claims Chase.

"You'll find a cool little bar in Hong Kong and they'll support you and then one of the big brands will come in. As a little brand taking them on, you're stuffed."

He claims that many consumers are hoodwinked by the marketing of certain drinks brands, which seem like they are produced by small, independent outfits rather than global giants.

"The big guys all want to look small. There are lots of fake brands out there making up stories. You're not up against quality, you're up against brainwashing, the propaganda machine."

Chase Distillery fought back by creating Rock the Farm, an annual festival at its Herefordshire farm that is open to bartenders from all around the world.

This year, Chase is hoping that his new book, One Potato, Two, which comes out on Wednesday, will help drum up more awareness about the brand.

The story of Tyrrells is one of several lucky breaks: after being kicked out of a meeting by a Waitrose buyer, he gave some crisps to a PA in the car park, who recommended them to her - much more senior - boss, securing a nationwide listing.

But at Chase Distillery, there are mainly setbacks.

"When I started, I was the first distillery to make vodka and gin in the UK for 200 years," says Chase. "The law back in 2007 was that you needed a 2,000-litre still, which is a massive thing. If I'd waited just a year, I could have been like all these other distilleries and put in a small one."

It cost Chase £2m (€2.6m) to build his distillery, with "a boiler as big as a lorry".

"Then the government in its wisdom changed its mind, so that anyone could put a little still in their kitchen," he adds.

Between 2010 and 2014, 73 spirit distilleries opened in the UK off the back of the legislative change.

"Never be the pioneer," Chase says. "Look what happened to the American pioneers - they were shot by the Indians."

A few canny decisions have helped the business thrive.

Chase Distillery produced a marmalade vodka five years ago, and while it sells only 20,000 bottles a year, it has been invaluable for grabbing the attention of buyers internationally, says Chase.

When celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal designed a cocktail using the distillery's rhubarb vodka, the brand was propelled into the mainstream.

It will turn over €9m this year, selling into 40 export markets. The gin is the best seller, representing 60pc of revenues. UK Trade & Investment (the UK equivalent of Enterprise Ireland) has helped Chase forge new sales channels into Kuala Lumpur and South Korea.

"We want to double in size next year and take the percentage of export sales from 50pc of turnover to 80pc," he says.

The US is a key territory. "Americans love Downton Abbey, and what's more British than gin?"

The company sells 10,000 bottles a week, which makes it an industry minnow. "We have the capacity to grow four times, but we want to stay authentic," says Chase.

The 50-year-old potato farmer has come a long way from his late 20s.

"I had receivers trying to throw me out of the house," he says. "I knocked slates off the roof when the estate agents brought people round to show it off. I wanted to scare them away. Then the next day I had the bank round because I wanted to re-buy it, so I mowed the grass and put the slates back up."

He has even been asked to star on Dragons' Den. "I turned it down," he says. "They sit there with piles of money. No one does it on their own. I don't want to pretend I have."


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