That was worth a shot! Brit in high spirits with his homemade Polish vodka going GLOBAL
For an Englishman to come to Poland and take the Poles on at their own game, a game they have been playing for at least half a millennium, is bold to say the least.
But this is precisely what Londoner William Borrell has done with Vestal Vodka, a brand of super-premium potato vodkas.
The high-quality, unfiltered, natural vodkas have certainly resonated with discerning drinkers around the world, proof of which is that bottles can be found in 28 of the top 50 bars and in the world, and founder Borrell has just sold a 42-percent stake to one of the UK’s largest drinks companies.
His genius idea was to take Polish vodka, a product that he believed was dominated more by fancy packaging and weirdly shaped bottles than by the quality of their contents, and infuse it with the French concept of terroir.
The Eureka moment came ten years ago when Borrell was spending the summer at the hotel lodge that his father runs in Poland’s Kaszuby region with his Polish wife.
Borrell told TFN: “Just like grapes grown in different vineyards that give different styles of wine, potatoes also live in their terroir and are totally defined by the concept of wind, rain, earth and sun.
“So, I thought that it would be interesting to see what the result would be from making a vodka from different potato varieties grown in different fields.”
Borrell already had the potatoes from the fields adjoining Kania Lodge. The next step was to find someone who would do the distilling.
“It started as a real experiment. We were having lunch with the owner of Chopin Vodka and we said we would grow some potatoes and then he would make a vodka from them,” he recalled.
“We used first early potatoes, but we needed loads because they don’t have much starch, although there is lots of flavour,” he admitted.
When he turned up at the distillery with 20 tonnes of potatoes, the reaction from the distillery workers was predictable.
“The staff looked at us with bemused faces. I think the phrase was ‘głupi Angole’,” Borrell said.
The experiment proved to be a success, however. “When the vodka was bottled and we finally tasted it, it was not like any vodka we had ever, ever tasted before.
“It was purposefully unfiltered to retain all the flavour from the early potatoes and the taste was more akin to a sake rice wine crossed with a pear eau de vie,” he reminisced.
“It was spicy ,fruity and smooth, basically it was incredible.”
The reaction from those who tasted the early bottles was unanimously positive. “At every juncture, as we moved forward and doors opened for us, people just said wow, what is this liquid.
“We simply replied that it is historically accurate vodka that would have been made before industrial techniques were introduced to help large producers produce at a lower price but with all the flavour stripped out,” he said.
Borrell knew he had a great product, but back in the 2000s he had no real idea how to turn it into a business. He did know, however, that his home city London, with its world famous bar and club scene, was as good a place as any to start.
“I decided to take a few bottles back to London and test the concept out. I didn’t know anyone in the drinks industry, so I walked in to the main bar of the Savoy, one of the most famous bars in the world.
“I found the head bartender and told him my story and asked him to try the vodka. His response was ‘Wow, so this is how real vodka tastes’.
“He asked to buy a case, but I only had four bottles. I didn’t even know how much to charge. He said he would pay 30 pounds a bottle, which I couldn’t believe because it was almost double the price of Grey Goose and other premium brands.”
Flush with this success, Borrell returned to Poland, packed up a van with bottles, then drove back to London to start selling his vodka in London’s markets. Predictably, sales were good, but he was flying by the seat of pants.
“I was so naïve, I didn’t even think about the taxes and excise that we should be paying until someone pointed it out. I went to the tax office and confessed and they couldn’t believe how honest I was,” he remembered.
Borrell’s passion for Poland, and particularly to the Kaszuby region, is certainly not commercially inspired. His father moved here 28 years ago with his Polish wife, and William spent long summers immersing himself in the beautiful landscape. When he was old enough, he would try the homemade spirits made on farms on the surrounding countryside. His connection to the land, a key component in the terroir story, is genuine.
Now, many years later, he is selling Kaszubian vodka in 10 countries, which is set to increase now that he has one of the UK’s leading drinks companies as a partner.
Borrell’s vision to bring craftsmanship and honesty to Polish vodka has come full circle as Polish vodka producer Belvedere has announced that it will start producing a terroir vodka.
That’s a success that is worth raising a glass to.