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Vestal Vodka founder ready for growth after Halewood takeover

A drinks entrepreneur whose vodka brand has been snapped up by British conglomerate Halewood International hopes greater investment and exposure will enable a bright future for his brand.

William Borrell founded Vestal Vodka in 2011, an early adopter of the idea that terroir could play a part in the quality and taste of vodka. 

"When we launched there was a real gin boom going on and no one really wanted to know about vodka, but in the last year and a half people have gone crazy for it. In the on-trade, people are saying 'don’t give me another gin'," he said.

Trying to make a "vodka with flavour rather than a flavoured vodka" was Borrell’s key aim. Choosing Poland for his testing ground – a place with family connections and a vodka heritage – he conducted potato-growing trials to analyse the effects of growing the vegetables in different places.

"When you are talking about viticulture, terroir makes an important point, but I think for grapes it is also the microclimate because they are above ground. Potatoes are in the earth, so it is just terroir," Borrell says.

"We planted a couple of potato varietals and went to someone who was already making vodka. We told them we wanted to make a pot-distilled potato vodka and they thought we were crazy – but it came out and it was unbelievable.

"We had one with potatoes grown in northern Poland which was spicy and smoky, kind of like an agave spirit. The one using potatoes from eastern Poland came out fruity, more like sake."

Once he had a product, Borrell packed a suitcase and set off to show it to bartenders around the world, from London and Paris to Singapore and Australia. Vestal caught the attention of vodka aficionados, and eventually Halewood – with the takeover proposition first broached via Linked In. He says, "I have just had my head down trying to do my own thing, trying to make interesting craft vodka with real character to it in the way people used to make it, as opposed to 'bling vodka'.

He calls the Halewood deal "a game-changer". "Halewood has taken me from one person to a team of 7,500 people. It is really nice to have a big brother in the industry; I have never had that before. As a smaller player I felt a real sense of aggression from bigger players and to have somebody who could look after us and help was great, as well as giving us size and scale."

Borrell felt he had found a kindred spirit in "beautifully bonkers" family-run Halewood.

"With some larger companies, you could have the best idea in the world, but it goes through so much market research and gets diluted down because it has to please everybody, which cannot happen. At Halewood I have found that you can have an idea, go to them and they will say it is either good or bad, and if it is good that idea will be on the shelves in two months," he says.

"They have an agility and a sense of risk-taking that I find really romantic in today’s world, where things have become homogenised and even boring at times."

The importance of terroir in vodka is now being recognised by big names such as Grey Goose and Belvedere, but Borrell sees this as a positive step rather than a competitive threat. "What we were doing has been validated; we are not on the fringes anymore," he says. "It’s not about us inventing the category, but it means we could have these great vodkas with character and identity."


30 November 2008 - Bethany Whymark


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