Having spent his life working with the humble potato, William Chase first rose to prominence as the founder of Tyrrells before conceiving Chase Vodka in 2004. We caught up with the man himself to find out more about his distillery’s world-beating vodka.
Whilst travelling the USA in 2004 searching for packaging equipment for Tyrrells, William stumbled upon a small distillery making potato vodka – the rest, as they say, is history. Having become disenchanted with the crisp market, William decided it would be more fun making vodka. Much like with Tyrrells, William’s strategy was refreshingly simple: to make a quality product with provenance and pedigree – a strategy that has taken the industry by storm.
Quality not quantity
“When I first started Chase, the whole aim was to make something better and to try and get the industry to buy into it, not from brainwashing or sponsoring bartenders, but from a quality perspective,” he begins by telling us. “I didn’t want to just throw money at the product. Indeed, I felt like we had a real story to tell and that the vodka should speak for itself without massive advertising campaigns and billboards plastered everywhere.
“Tyrrells was a massive success but it had reached a point where it was going to masses and so I fancied a change in direction, which coincided with my trip to America in 2004,” he recalls. “Before I tried the vodka from this small distillery I had no idea that it could taste so good and it really opened my eyes to what could be done with the humble potato. Obviously it is quite a big jump from the crisp market to vodka and, although we began by making the vodka alongside Tyrrells, I soon realised the two wouldn’t work alongside one another.
“Because of the premium market we were aiming at, we weren’t able to tie in premium spirits with salty snacks, so it was a big leap of faith to leave Tyrrells. However, I knew from experience that if you have a good product, breaking into the retail sector is relatively easy. Retailers are now quite open to stocking quality products, particularly in the premium market, so if they like it, the chances are they will begin to stock it, which was perfect for Chase Vodka.
“With the on-trade, however, we found that this was totally dominated by the large brands, so we had to work on a campaign that educated the buyers about the quality and pedigree of our vodka,” William explains.
“Nearly all of the big players sell mass produced vodka, so we wanted to break the mould by using all of our own ingredients, grown on our own farm and by making the vodka in our own distillery.
“This was a painful experience because although the vodka tasted fantastic it cost a hell of a lot of money to put the infrastructure in place to make a suitable premium spirit from scratch in any sort of volume,” he testifies. “Just to put things in perspective, we could probably buy a spirit in for about 50 pence a litre, like many of the larger distilleries do, and finish it off with a bit of vanilla. To actually go out and make it ourselves costs five pounds per litre, making it a very expensive process in comparison.
“Consequently, the only way to really market Chase was to rely on its quality and by inviting buyers and consumers to taste it. We hand-picked all of the bars that weren’t controlled by the big players and went to all of them to find out who was genuinely interested. We realised that we could never compete with the likes of Bacardi or Diageo, so it was up to us to spread the word by inviting bartenders and owners to our distillery and see the pedigree and provenance with their own eyes”.
In Chase Vodka’s first year, the company ran 200 buses from London full of bartenders from the capital, which as William continues by explaining, was the start of the Chase revolution. “This grew to 500 buses the next year and last year we had a 1,000 tour the distillery. Our distillery is a trade facility for professionals to come and see the process, so they can ultimately believe in what they’re selling. We started an event in 2011 called ‘Rock the Farm’ that is solely for the on-trade and it had 1,000 guests and this year we’re expecting around 3,000.
“In a sense it is kind of like a festival where visitors can come and make their own vodka out of parsnips, so it’s injecting a real ‘hands-on’ experience to our potential buyers. Once they’ve tasted the vodka and seen the pedigree, the product tends to sell itself,” he affirms. “At the beginning in 2008, this was the hardest part of the business – getting potential customers to try Chase, but now the strategy has been vindicated, which is a great relief!”
All grown and made
As with almost all premium food and beverage products, those that can tell the difference are the connoisseurs who tend to be positioned at the top-end of the market – a fact that William realised from the very beginning. “When I saw the big brands marketing ‘super premium spirits’ I noticed that they were still made en masse, in stainless steel distilleries. Whereas our vodka is made in a copper still and unfiltered; this is the true mark of quality.
“Because I was coming into it without any knowledge of the vodka market and thus without knowing how to market Chase in a suitable way, it took quite some time to scale the business in appropriately,” he asserts. “The production process was more straightforward because I had experience with the ingredients. Today, we do the majority of our sales through wholesalers such as Bibendum but it is integral that we have our team of ‘foot soldiers’ on the ground spreading the word about Chase Vodka and what we’re all about.
“Rather than just pay brand ambassadors, we train our team to know the vodka and the pedigree inside out, because I think to sell something of this nature you have to have a real passion for it,” William affirms. “The branding, too, was a result of passion and quite a bit of hard work. We often do special edition bottles for customers, which really look great on the shelves and in high-end bars. It took a long, long time to get the brand reflected in the bottle – if the bottle is too exclusive it has the potential to alienate customers, whereas we didn’t want to undersell it either.
“As we’re always focused on the liquid inside the bottle it was critical that the brand was communicated through the bottle and I think we’ve achieved that now”.
As well as Chase Vodka, the company has also become famous for its Marmalade Vodka with its distinctive orange bottle that reflects the Seville oranges used in the distilling process. “Although I wouldn’t say that we’re an artisanal brand, we certainly do have the flexibility to produce bespoke vodkas for particular clients, which is a massive asset. Because our vodka is expensive to produce, we have to ensure there is enough turnover in the market to cover our costs,” William tells us. “But the fact that our vodka has won so many awards is a great testament to the strength of our products”.
“The really exciting thing about Chase Vodka is the strength of the export market, so rather than having to saturate the UK, we have been able to focus on the overseas sectors, such as Hong Kong where we do a phenomenal amount of business,” he notes. “We sell directly overseas and with the growing strength of social media, we are increasingly renowned the world-over, which is a real affirmation of the brand”.
Despite the much publicised recession, there has been a crystallisation of quality in the market whereby consumers have become more receptive than ever to genuine pedigree – something that William continues by clarifying. “I think that people are perhaps more prepared than ever to pay for quality as long as they’re not being pushed into it. Indeed, if people discover it themselves there is a sense of delight that comes with such a genuinely great-tasting drink.
“It’s very hard to be all things to all people and our price point (£36 per bottle) means that we are, by definition, a premium brand,” he asserts. “Our heritage and the whole ethos behind Chase means that we are more than just a marketing gimmick, which is confirmed by the quality of the vodka.”
An exciting year
“This is a massively exciting year for us as our main USP is the quality of the core ingredients and the meticulous distilling process,” William tells us. “Across the world, the Union Jack is becoming one of the coolest ‘brandings’ around, which you wouldn’t have believed 20 years ago, so we have slowly incorporated it into our bottles. We were recently awarded the Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which was a huge affirmation of our hard work, particularly because we, as British vodka, beat the likes of Russian, Polish and French vodkas.
“Because of the Olympics and the Jubilee, 2012 is going to be our best year yet,” he concludes. “We are already one of the best-selling products in World Duty Free at UK airports as we’re a British brand with true pedigree.
“With regards to the future, we are not looking to expand too much in the UK because that will lead to oversaturation and, thus, undermine the strength of the brand. As they say, exclusivity is not just about price but availability.
“As there is no danger of us outsourcing production, we know and, most importantly, our customers know, that the quality of Chase will be constant, so although we could increase our production, we are far happier with making quality vodka in small batches for discerning customers”.