Surplus potatoes are always a problem for any farmer. No matter how good the crop, there is always a percentage that is rejected. Scottish farmers Graeme and Caroline Bruce-Jarron have found an answer, which has created a highly successful business concept. Produce Business UK takes a look at their solution.
The Jarron family has farmed the land at Hatton of Ogilvy farm since 1910. It lies at the base of Glen Ogilvy, close to Glamis Castle and approximately 60 percent of the land is used for cropping potatoes. Three varieties are grown: Maris Piper, King Edward and Coultra.
Calling in Heriot-Watt
“We have always sold our potato crop to the supermarkets and there’s a percentage that’s always rejected because it’s the wrong shape or size,” says Caroline Bruce-Jarron.
Frustration with those rejections combined with a desire to diversify, led Graeme and Caroline to create the first potato vodka in Scotland.
Using potatoes as the basis for an alcoholic drink is nothing new, in fact it marks a return to a very traditional form of vodka. Although most vodkas are now made from fermented grains such as rye and wheat; producers in Russia and Poland traditionally used potatoes as the base product. Initial research into the idea of vodka resulted in a call to the brewing and distilling laboratory at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
Heriot-Watt was commissioned to do some research using Scottish potatoes to brew vodka.
“Graeme drove sacks of potatoes down to Edinburgh for a number of weeks whilst the students did trials on the different varieties of potato that we grow. From this, we discovered that we could produce vodka, and we liked the taste of the vodka made with Maris Piper potatoes best. They have a nutty flavour to them, which works really well, Bruce-Jarron tells PBUK.
It was through this link that the company found their distiller, Abhishek Banik, a PhD student at the university’s International Centre of Brewing and Distilling. As Bruce-Jarron points out “The course at Heriot-Watt is world renowned for brewing and distilling, so it made sense for us to find a vital part of our team there.” A bespoke method of producing vodka was created using only Maris Piper potatoes.
By early 2014, the construction of a distillery began on the farm, with Graeme digging the foundations himself. By summer the still house was complete and a custom built still from John Dore & Co was in place. All electricity for the distillery is provided by solar energy, located on the roof.
The first spirits were distilled, bottled and bonded in September 2014 with the Ogilvy Vodka brand, and Ogilvy Spirits business officially launched in January 2015. The response was immediate. Sales were good, and the company participated in the highly regarded International Wines & Spirits Competition 2015 in San Francisco. Competing against vodkas sourced worldwide, Ogilvy Vodka received a Gold Outstanding medal, as well as the coveted Vodka Trophy 2015 for best vodka, and a bronze medal for packaging.
By mid 2016, the consumer response had been so great that Ogilivy Vodka began negotiating export deals to Australia and Japan. The first orders have now been shipped to Japan, and discussions are underway with a distributor in America. Ogilvie Spirits has already obtained nationwide distribution within the UK.
“The reaction has been amazing. Our customers have almost become ambassadors of the product – they really want the brand to succeed, which is fantastic to see,” adds Bruce-Jarron.
Ogilvy Spirits believe that its success is partly due to the unique process they have developed which involves keeping the skins on the potatoes during the production process. Newly washed potatoes are minced, and then pressure-cooked to gelatinise the starch. The skins caramelise to give sweetness to the vodka. The painstaking distilling and filtering process creates a smooth, mellow vodka with maximum taste, described as possessing a ‘smooth warmth of potato spirit, a sweet, creamy character with fruity esters, a hint of toffee and green pasture notes’. It is regarded as an ideal sipping vodka, best served with a slice of pear.
All the vodka is made in small quantities so as to ensure high quality and the family have no desire to undertake mass production methods.
“We pride ourselves on 100 percent traceability – everything from our ingredients, our water supply, our distilling process and bottling is either grown, sourced and carried out on site,” adds Bruce-Jarron.
Surplus capacity at their distillation facilities is being used for contract distilling as well as the creation of another new product – a range of vodka based pre-mix cocktails targeting foodies who focused on the origins of food and provenance. Perfect Pour was launched in August 2016 to provide artisan cocktails that consumers can create at home with minimal effort. There are three flavours in the range featuring raspberry and lime; apple, elderflower and lemon; lime and mint which can be blended with tonic, lemonade, ginger beer or Prosecco to create a home made cocktail.
Consumer response to the new ranges has been very positive and wider than expected.
“People are responding well to the simple concept, and like the fact that it’s made with quality vodka and we have carried over the provenance that we have from our vodka into the cocktails as well. They like that they can ‘bespoke’ the drink to their taste by adding their own mixer. We are also getting a lot of good feedback that the cocktails are made with natural fruit juices and flavours, with no added sugars, so they are much less sweet than other premix cocktail ranges on the market,” adds Bruce-Jarron.
“This is a new take on the ready-to-drink market. There are a lot of ready-to-drink cocktails that you simply pour straight into a glass or drink from the bottle. We have found a lot of these are very high in sugar and made with artificial flavours. We have tried to create a premium cocktail mix that is made with natural ingredients. It allows the consumer freedom to create a drink suited to their own palate, where they can choose how much they dilute the cocktail mix, and can add their favourite mixer to suit their taste and level of sweetness. There is a big trend for cocktails and people’s drinking habits have changed where they tend to drink less, but drink better. We’ve tried to provide a simple alternative with great flavour that you can quickly create at any party, BBQ or event.”
In line with company policy, as much as possible is sourced locally.
“The raspberry juice is a locally sourced, pressed raspberry juice produced in Angus. They source all their raspberries from the Angus area. Great berry farms surround us, so it made sense for us to use locally sourced ingredients where possible. We also source our elderflower juice from the same supplier who only uses produce from the Angus region.
“Our apple juice is sourced from a farm in England, as we found this to have the best flavour for our cocktails. Limes obviously do not grow naturally in Scotland, so we cannot source these locally, but our mint which is used in the same cocktail is grown in England – we have to use a specific variety to get the right flavour, which is not available in many places.”
Repurposing second-rate potatoes has given the farm a new direction and purpose, which is set to have a long-term affect on the business.
“We see the vodka category as a whole growing. Vodka has had a bit of a bad reputation due to poor quality, inexpensive vodkas. We’re trying to lead the way in Scotland with top quality vodka that is a different drinking experience to the way that people normally have consumed vodka. Vodka is normally drunk with a mixer as the vodka on it’s own isn’t particularly pleasant to drink. We have designed ours to be drunk neat, and savoured in the way you would savour a good whisky,” adds Bruce-Jarron.
“What makes potato vodka different from other vodkas is its creamy texture, which makes it very smooth to drink on its own. Our vodka had character, which comes from the variety of potato that we use (Maris Piper). We are trying to educate spirits drinkers that vodka can be pleasant to drink on its own, and change people’s perception of vodka.
“With the boom in craft gins, we see consumers are more aware of where their drinks come from and how they are made. It makes sense to us that craft vodka can have a resurgence in the way that gin has recently.”
Further development of the business will continue. Seasonal variations are planned such as a spiced apple cocktail due for production in 2017, and an expresso martini cocktail being developed with a local coffee producer.
“We still supply the supermarkets with the majority of our potatoes, we only use the secondary potatoes rejected by the supermarkets for our vodka production. Our longer-term aim is to utilise all the potatoes we grow for our vodka production.”