Did you ever do that science experiment at school where you tried to harness the power of the potato to turn on a light bulb? I’m hoping that’s a universal experience and not some weird, tragic insight into my early years. Regardless, I’m clearly not the entrepreneurial type, because I didn’t look at the humble spud and see a booze empire. The Chase family, however, is built different.
With William Chase leading the charge, the Herefordshire family founded both Tyrell’s crisps and then Chase Distillery. It entered the world of drinks as a hot new vodka creator, with the farmers-turned-drinks moguls putting their potato knowledge to good use to create a bold, flavourful spirit that stood out among the neutral crowd when it was first launched in 2010. It’s easy to forget that when it was established in 2008, Chase Distillery pre-dated the gin boom, was doing field-to-bottle before it was fashionable, and was operating with the principles that led people to accurately use the now overused to the point of redundancy term ‘craft distillery’.
Now, Chase Distillery is one the most enigmatic English homes of booze-making you’ll see. While most tend to exist somewhere between industrial factory or shiny tourist trap, Chase is full of curiosities: a Union Jack sofa here, a deep-sea diving suit there. This is the distillery Henry remembers from his visit back in 2018. But a lot else has changed since then.
The Chase family who farmed this land sold up to Diageo in 2020, following the pattern they established with Tyrrells crisps: finding a gap in the market, creating a leading brand, then cashing the fudge in to focus on other projects. They are no longer involved in the brand at all, leaving the drinks giant to take on its legacy as a pioneer of the white spirit boom of the last decade.
White spirit wonders
One of the biggest things that has changed over the years is the sheer size of the operation. Previously, the signature potatoes Chase used were grown on the local farm across 1,000 acres, but the brand has long outgrown its capacity so it no longer farms its own potatoes. After that, most of the vodka production process remains the tried-and-trusted methods the family established. You peel potatoes, mill them, heat them with steam, let them cool and then add some enzymes to do their work. The glorious aroma of a chip shop fills the distillery at this point. What follows is fermentation between 28 and 36 hours which creates a savoury, salty potato soup that sits at around 9% ABV.
A column still, appropriately called Patricia the Stripper (great song if you’re not familiar), strips out the potato solids and water to create a spirit of about 89% ABV, while all the potato waste gets taken off-site to Anaerobic digestion sites for conversion into energy. This latter stage is new, previously waste just went to the cows. They presumably still have enough food. Then comes a full-blooded round of distillation, first through a pot still known as Fat Betty then to Maximus, a huge 13.95m gleaming copper and stainless steel monster of a still designed by Carl of Germany that produces a spirit of 96% ABV. To turn this into vodka, it is filtered through carbon and diluted with water that’s been through reverse osmosis.
For the creation of the GB Gin, the process has changed from a one-shot method to multi-shot. The latter utilises a greater quantity of botanicals than single-shot, in order to produce a spirit with a more concentrated flavour, and allows you to scale up production. Because Chase uses quite a heavily spiced gin botanical base, the vapour infusion used in this method also minimises the acrid/burnt spice flavours that can come from traditional pot-distilled gin recipes.
Adding some flavour
Chase hasn’t shied away from the world of flavoured expressions either, and has some pretty unique ways of creating them. For Chase Aged Marmalade Vodka and Seville Marmalade Gin, a piece of equipment called the marmaliser is used. It’s essentially an insulated dairy tank with a steam jacket that allows the distiller to add heat to the tank and its contents, while agitation macerates ingredients in the liquid. They add 175kg of marmalade and 25kg of orange peels to the marmaliser with 1,000L of potato spirit and 1,000L of water, and macerate at 60°C for 24 hours. This liquid is then re-distilled in the gin still (Ginny) before being re-infused with bitter and sweet orange peel for 18-24 hours before it’s finally sweetened. I can’t even imagine how much joy this piece of kit would bring Paddington Bear.
Other bottlings like Chase Pink Grapefruit & Pomelo originally started out as an exclusive bottling for Selfridges, but was so popular it became part of the core range, turning into the brand’s best-selling product and the one it has built its range of gins around. The brand puts its success down to being an early example of a bold citrus gin, which are now ten a penny.
Its popularity has led to the creation of ranges like British Classics, which is all about following that same theory and putting two classic flavours together using the core GB Gin distillate. Chase Rhubarb & Bramley Apple and Raspberry & Basil Gin, are the kind of products this approach has led, and good thing too. They’re not only very tasty, but a great example of how to create authentic flavours.
Being an early mover that shifts lots of bottles meant that it was only a matter of time before a big boy like Diageo snapped them up. Which they did in 2020. “I think Diageo recognised the quality and potential of our brands, we’ve been around since the very start of the so-called ‘craft’ movement and that means we have played our small part in building the category to what it is today,” Edward Garbett, distillery manager at Chase Distillery says. “Diageo saw the opportunity for Chase to reach its full potential and reach more consumers with exceptional quality products and our diversity of brands of vodka and gin.”
The family may be gone but Garbett says that a lot of the team on-site have been here four to five years, some even longer, so there are still lots of people involved who are “incredibly proud of Chase and are excited about the next chapter taking it from a family business, to a part of Diageo’s incredible portfolio.”
That means the last couple of years has been all about getting up to speed with Chase as a business. “We aren’t your typical white spirits distillery and there is a lot of nuance to what we do here, from our raw ingredients to the fact we do everything here on-site, so it’s been about integrating that process between Diageo and Chase and getting that understanding before we look to huge volume increases,” Garbett explains.
The distillery had been undergoing a huge amount of work before Diageo’s acquisition and that has continued since, with maximising capacity, process safety, and sustainability all high on the list of priorities. Of course, improving and scaling its products is an ongoing process, one that has been assisted by a new lab on-site providing greater creative freedom.
Diageo has quite strict sustainability standards, with its Diageo’s Society 2030 ambitions being a measure every brand has to live up to as it aims to become a flag bearer for green processes in the spirits industry. Chase hasn’t been a particularly difficult new project given it’s always had a relatively low footprint because of its business model and processes. Still, going forward its methods, supply chain, waste, suppliers, and even ethical trading are being examined in great detail to really understand the key points for improvement and how a difference can be made.
Unfortunately, whisky is no longer part of the future plans for Chase, although I’d rather a distillery didn’t just make whisky for the sake of it anyway. The is a white spirits distillery, with the main focus being to get more Chase gin and vodka into more people’s hands in the UK. “Our source of innovation is to continuously improve our products here on-site to make sure they are the absolute best they can be, whether that be botanical and ingredient selections, processes and the way we distil, through to the packaging and how Chase looks and feels,” Garbett says. “So that is our focus for the meantime, bringing more Chase to more people”.
It’s been quite the journey since 2008, and things aren’t slowing down for Chase. Garbett believes it is a pioneer of field-to-bottle distilling, and that the fact it has been doing it for as long as it has is “a testament to our commitment to our process and our belief in the quality of the products we can create”. The trick now is to maintain that momentum. And maybe figure out how to get more electricity from potatoes than I managed at school.
That’s also some homework for you, dear reader, and while you experiment you’ll need some refreshment, so I’ve popped a refreshing cocktail recipe below. Enjoy!
Pink Grapefruit Spritz
12.5ml rose vermouth
Take a large wine glass and add the gin and vermouth. Stir to combine and fill the glass with lots of ice. Top with chilled tonic and garnish with a pink grapefruit slice and a rosemary sprig.