The fast-paced world of artisanal vodka is a cutthroat one. Even ignoring gimmicky interlopers like Dan Aykroyd and his diamond-filtered booze skulls, the world of handcrafted vodka is a tightly knit group with strong personalities and even stronger opinions. Science and superstition overlap with centuries-old processes, and it can be hard for distillers to differentiate fact from fiction. And when you throw one particular British vodka-maker into the mix, things get even crazier.
We're talking about William Chase, an interesting dude by anyone's standards. Chase is a serial entrepreneur who started out as a potato farmer and then sold his upscale potato chip business for £100 million in 2013. The 50-year old British businessman makes potato-based vodka and gin, and recently, he has been lashing out against his competition in the vodka business. He basically claims they are all full of shit.
According to The Telegraph, Chase says that his rivals produce "crap" and are "cutting corners" in the way they distill their spirits. Specifically, Chase has been dissing two of his competitors: Black Cow, and Sipsmith. Chase says that they don't make their vodka from scratch the way his Chase Distillery does, despite claiming that they do. Instead, Chase says his competitors start with something called "neutral spirit," which is a ready-made, high-proof alcohol. He claims they use this cheaper base for their products instead of distilling from raw ingredients. Like glorious potatoes.
His competitors beg to differ.
Sam Galsworth, the co-founder of Sipsmith Vodka, claims his company has been making gin using the "traditional method" that stretches back "hundreds of years." Galsworth says, "We use English wheat spirit, we put it in our pot still, we put in 10 botanicals, and distill it in the way it's always been made."
"To criticize that process is to suggest that Van Gogh was not an artist because he didn't stitch the canvas on which he paints. We have never said anything other than we buy our neutral spirit, the canvas on which we paint," Galsworth claims.
Chase, however, was not cowed by these words. He called Sipsmith "the bullshit brand."
We told you things were getting nasty. "They say they make their own vodka, but it's all crap. It's a spirit from Haymans [the alcohol distillation company]," Chase says.
Black Cow Vodka is another of Chase's targets. That company claims to make vodka from fresh Dorset milk—yes, straight from the cow. Chase says, nay: "You think it's grown on a dairy farm in Dorset, but that's also neutral spirit. If you did make vodka out of milk, it would cost £100 a bottle if you paid 18 pence a liter for the milk."
Helen Watkins from Black Cow replied: "I can very safely say that Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka is just that—a vodka made only and entirely from milk. We use a neutral whey spirit and everything in our bottle originates from a cow."
So is a vodka that uses neutral spirit cutting corners? Chase says absolutely. "We're in that era of cutting corners. You shouldn't say you do something if you don't do it."
Helen Watkins from Black Cow says her company's claims about its product are legit. She may be having the last laugh: "Perhaps Mr. Chase has been in too close contact with his own product?" says Watkins.
Let the games begin.
Competition is stiff and stakes are high in the vodka biz, especially when you consider that U.S. vodka sales in 2013 were around $17.3 billion and U.K. sales were around £2.2 billion. This may just be the opening battle of vodka wars for years to come.