If the name James Chase sounds familiar, it's because he's from the Chase family of Chase spirits, which produces all manner of vodka, liqueurs and gin in the heart of Herefordshire in England. We get the lowdown from James about what it's like working in the family business and what it's like selling vodka to the Russians.
Tell us how it all started.
My father William Chase is a fourth generation potato farmer but potato farming is quite challenging and it's hard to make money from it - at one stage, we actually went bankrupt.
In 2002, I remember coming back from college and discovering my father had built a deep fat fryer in the corner of the workshop. A year later he started Tyrrells potato crisps (that's chips for you and us in Australia). That became incredibly successful and we were actually on a trip to New York to research deep fat frying when we stumbled on a guy in a distillery who was making moonshine from potato. This was around the time craft distilling was taking off in the US. We tried lots of spirits on this trip that we couldn't find in England and ended up bringing samples back with us. We started thinking about distilling our potatoes and that idea just grew in the next couple of years. Then one year we found ourselves with potatoes that were too small for making crisps so we decided to go ahead and build the distillery!
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Surprisingly, it was relatively easier starting distillery than starting a crisps business but it was still a steep learning curve. For example, we got the measurements for our still wrong and we had to cut a hole in the shed for the column of the still to extend through!
We taught ourselves a lot and learnt a fair bit from researching online. At the time there were only about 6-7 distilleries producing most of the gins and vodkas on the market and it's nothing like what it is now. There was a fair bit of experimentation and a year went by before we could launch our potato vodka, which is still our core product. But even from the start, it never occurred to us to have our spirits distilled by someone else - we wanted to be a real field to bottle business.
Four years ago, it rained a lot and we struggled to harvest all the potatoes but we managed. Potatoes are a lot more resilient to the vagaries of the weather compared to something like grapes for wine. It's just always grown really well in Herefordshire so we're lucky in that sense. The potato vodka is the base for our liqueurs and most of our gins - we could buy the neutral spirit for those for about 50 pence a litre (about AUD$1) whilst it costs about 6-8 times more to make it ourselves but we wouldn't have it any other way.
It's a real family business isn't it? And you're still very much a hands on type of operation?
Yes, my dad still drives the whole operation and is massively involved in the day to day side of things - I can get emails from him at 5 am!
My brother Harry looks after the farming side - he oversees the planting of the potatoes in June and the harvesting in August. We keep the potatoes in the shed at a consistent temperature of 2 degrees all year round. We've got a master distiller who oversees the distilling side and we still bottle everything by hand.
How did you get involved? And what's this about selling vodka to the Russians?
Before getting into the family business, I used to work in commercial property, buying and selling restaurants and bars in London. After about 4 years of doing that, I realised I didn't really love it. I got fully involved with the distillery in 2010 and have never looked back since.
Currently I'm the head of sales and marketing - I focus on working with our distributors globally and promoting Chase; we export to about 35 different countries so that's quite a few markets to look after. Our biggest market outside of the UK is America, then Spain. Australia is probably in our top 5 biggest export markets.
We recently signed a distribution deal to sell our vodka in Russia. It took us years to get into that market. We've gotten some press about it with people saying it's like us selling ice to Eskimos, coal to Newcastle but we're looking forward to introducing our vodka to the Russian market. It's not a huge volume as yet but it's exciting new territory given the status of vodka there.
From vodka and gins, you've branched out to the vodka liqueurs - what influences the choice of flavours you go with?
The fruit for the liqueurs (except for the oranges) are sourced from nearby farms in the county. So things like the rhubarb and elderflower are all from Herefordshire. We try and focus on what's local. Our elderflower vodka liqueur has been our biggest success; people really love it.
But what about the marmalade vodka? Herefordshire isn't an orange producing county?
With the marmalade vodka, we were really inspired by what is such an English breakfast staple. Obviously we don't grow oranges in Herefordshire (it hasn't got the right climate) so we used Seville oranges. We distill fresh cut oranges with our vodka and also macerate it to give it that golden colour. It started as a limited edition thing but it got such a cult following that we decided to keep it on permanently.
How do you recommend serving the Marmalade vodka?
I love the Marmalade vodka in a Marmalade Mule - with ginger beer, bitters and lime. Loads of fresh lime. It's my perfect serve.
Do you have any favourites in the range?
I have been loving the smoked vodka of late. I love our gins but I'll always go back to our potato vodkas.
What's your drink of choice and where do you drink it?
I love a really good simple martini, made with our vodka of course. There's a really cool bar in London called Dukes where they make some of the best martinis. (Ian Fleming who wrote the James Bond series used to frequent this place) Donovan Bar at the Browns Hotel is also really lovely, as is Bar Nightjar in London.
What's next for Chase?
We've been aging some whisky for about 6 years and we may release it as a limited batch, maybe October but the tasting is happening about now so we shall see - it's got to taste right. I'm really excited because I love whisky. But our core focus will be on our vodkas and gins. We will keep doing flavours and limited edition runs, trialling some flavours and seeing how they work. We've done vodkas aged in whisky casks so we're constantly innovating. Watch this space!