William Chase photographed by Gareth Cattermole

William Chase: the man who made his fortune from potatoes

The potato farmer from Herefordshire tells us the story so far...

In 1992, a young potato farmer fell victim to debt and a failed harvest, the result of torrential rains. Declared bankrupt in his early thirties, William Chase was forced to start again from scratch and became a potato trader, selling mostly to supermarkets.

Chase was able to buy back his farm with another loan, but life remained difficult, with supermarkets frequently rejecting batches of his spuds, until, in 2002, he had the idea to turn them into crisps. The pedigree crisp brand Tyrrells was born, and six years later he was able to sell the business at a significant profit.

Having discovered potato vodka while travelling in the US, he next decided to try his hand at making his own. The first batch was produced in June 2008, and Chase Distillery was born. Other vodkas and gins, some made from apples, soon followed, and now Chase is looking to obtain a slice of the ‘wellness’ pie.

We chatted with the 50-something entrepreneur about life on the farm, the advice he wished nobody gave, and how he took the humble potato and spun gold.

My working day begins at 4am...

It’s the farmer in me, who grew up learning that what you don’t get done before breakfast time you won’t get done in the day. I’ll be on the land for the first two hours of the morning as the sun rises, and it’s a beautiful time to spend amongst the golden orchards in Herefordshire, or my vineyard in Provence.

After that, I’ll spend an hour swimming, and it’s a routine that has helped me immeasurably. Most of the young guys working for me think I’m something of a sadist for expecting it, but I really believe in the culture of an 18-hour working day.

Herefordshire is a phenomenal place; I grow more and more fond of it...

As far as London is concerned, we don’t exist — it’s like a time warp because it isn’t really on the way to anywhere. For me, our geography has always been an advantage, because we have been able to grow something, process it and package it all in the same place. That was the magic of Tyrrells and that’s what we’ve had since.

I had my Eureka moment for Chase vodka in Sandy Lane, Barbados...

I was talking to a successful vodka businessman and thought I could do the same thing we’d done for Tyrrells with vodka, by making spirits with pedigree. What had always worked with crisps was making them from scratch, and taking the product through the whole process on the farm.

It took a decade to reach the same success with Chase, because people taste food for what it is, but lose the taste of a white spirit in a cocktail and don’t care where it has come from.

Experiencing bankruptcy in the 1990s was a tremendously grounding experience...

Anyone I take on to work with me who has faced something similar is a fantastic person to have on the team, because it can make you into something wonderful. If someone has been spoilt in their life, or they’ve come from a corporate institution, they’re useless in a small business.

"I know that £5 is a lot of money when you haven’t got it..."

I don’t mean to sound like a business sadist, but I know that £5 is a lot of money when you haven’t got it, and that has taught me to be humble. I don’t just mean in business, but in marketing and communications too. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance when it comes to being a good marketer. You want to be around people who come through the door, not people who climb over the top of it.

I see the trend in drink becoming more about drinking less and drinking better...

Within the last decade, millennials have massively changed the face of the alcohol industry. They aren’t drinking to get drunk any more; their drink is part of the occasion, and there’s more education. I think that there is a future for Chase, because it’s a quality product made from scratch.

People often say “never give up”, but I don’t necessarily agree with that...

If something isn’t working for you, try something else. You don’t want to live your life dreading Monday mornings, so it’s important to find something you love doing. I never had a mentor, and I love having the opportunity to talk to young guys now. My business advice can be summarised by the mantra that if something looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

I don’t want to be flying across the world, talking about the brand and staying up all night drinking Martinis...

I leave that to my son now, and he’s very good at it. But I can’t ever see myself retiring, and my focus for the next ten years is going to be on making natural wellness drinks from the apples on the farm.

On the farm, there are these beautiful old cider-apple trees that we can use to make cider vinegar, and we have discovered a way to take them and make a type of natural energy drink. I’m ready to give something back, and offering a product that will improve lives is a wonderful thing. It will probably change my life too!

My favourite of the Chase spirit cocktails would be a Desert Dry Martini...

made with our Elegant gin, served in a chilled glass with nothing added at all aside from a slice of sharp, bitter apple that you can taste as it tans. I am so passionate about producing spirits neat, and that is how I like them to be enjoyed. We make the best gin in the world, and it deserves to be tasted rather than lost in a cocktail.

Read the full story in the Sept/Oct issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Subscribe here…

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