From seed to spirit: the Angus potato journey
- Keith Smith
- 27 February 2015
Tatties, one of Scotland's most important crops, now diversifying into production of local vodka
Cheap to produce, easy to grow – even in poor soil – and highly nutritious, the potato transformed the peasant diet when it was introduced in 1739. It soon comprised a large chunk of the average Scot's daily food intake, and proved crucial to the success of the Industrial Revolution in the decades that followed. It was coal that fired the furnaces which powered the factories, but it was the potato that fuelled the workers staffing them.
Angus has historically been one of the country's key growing areas, a trend that continues today, with farmers producing a range of potatoes, from mass cultivars such as Maris Piper and Rooster, to little-known (and wonderfully named) heritage varieties including Arran Victory and Yukon Gold. And as well as still feeding their fellow countrymen, the region's growers are helping nations across the globe provide for their own populations by supplying disease-free spuds for seed.
Scottish seed potatoes are world-renowned for their quality, with farmers exporting almost 80,000 tonnes annually, according to Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA). And thanks to the region's conditions and topography, Angus is particularly good for growing seed potatoes, explains Andew Skea of Skea Organics, who supply growers across the UK and Europe.
'Warmer climates encourage the aphid population, which spread the diseases, so the cooler temperatures here inhibit that,' says Skea. 'Even within Angus, there are differences. At Auchterhouse where we are based, the land is between 500 and 700 feet above sea level, which makes it a couple of degrees colder than some of the coastal farms, and provides that little extra bit of wind which helps deter the aphids further.'
Yet while potatoes continue to be a staple crop – Scottish Government figures indicate that 30,000 hectares were turned over to the tuber nationwide in 2013 – wholesale prices for ware potatoes, which make up more than half of the total planted in Angus, have slumped. It's a situation that's forced some of the smaller growers, like Graeme Jarron, to find different ways to maximise their return.
'Potatoes too small to sell are generally used instead for cattle feed,' says Jarron, 'but I wanted to find another use for them.' Together with Abhishek Banik, a research associate at Heriot-Watt University's International Centre for Brewing & Distilling, Jarron set about creating a potato-based product that looks set to be the first of its kind in Scotland – vodka. And it may well be the start of tattie take-up in the spirit world as other farmers and distillers see the obvious benefits – as is the case with the infant distillery at Arbikie Highland Estate, which plans to make potato vodka, too, before its gin and whisky output.
Jarron's Ogilvy Spirits vodka is distilled in purpose-built premises, complete with bonded warehouse, at his family farm at Hatton of Ogilvy, near Glamis; the vodka uses his own Maris Pipers lifted just metres from the still. 'It's the ultimate in low food miles. From soil to bottle, it's all done right here,' says Jarron.
'Only around five percent of vodka is actually made from potatoes – the vast majority comes from grain,' explains Banik. 'But then, we're purposely not doing anything we "should" do.' Fermentation, in tanks previously used to make Cadbury's chocolate, takes around three to five days and leaves them with what looks like mashed potato and, remarkably, smells like banana cheesecake.
It's then twice distilled, charcoal filtered and then left to mellow for two weeks before bottling. The result is smooth, sipping vodka that can be served simply over ice. 'We wanted a spirit that had a creamy, buttery mouthfeel,' says Banik. 'One that was true to the taste of the potatoes that Graeme's family have grown here for over a century.'