North Yorkshire potato farmer aims to lead vodka revolution

Vodka is the latest example of farmers driven to drink as they seek to make more from their resources in the ground.

David Rawlings with the distilling equipment for his potato vodka at Priory Farm.
David Rawlings with the distilling equipment for his potato vodka at Priory Farm.

Gin, beer and wine are already part of Yorkshire agriculture’s burgeoning business romance with alcohol and its latest entrant David Rawlings of Priory Farm, Syningthwaite, near Thorp Arch, has already distilled success before a bottle has gone on sale.

Priory Vodka made from a small acreage of David’s potato crop that is otherwise destined for McCain’s and McDonald’s fries won two prestigious Gold awards at the Global Spirits Masters in autumn 2017 with one judge describing it as “pure, fruity and floral”.

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When this year’s rural show season gets under way David and his team will be on hand to offer tastings and sell their bespoke, award-winning vodka direct to customers complete with the rustic marketing of a hessian bottle bag.

The finished product - potato vodka.

“We were delighted to receive such accolades from the experts and spirit connoisseurs,” says David whose 500-acre farm is predominantly arable oriented growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape, beans and potatoes.

“It has taken three years from when we took an interest in how a Hereford farmer had diversified.

“He’d wanted to put his potatoes to better use and has done very well with his Chase Vodka. Around the same time we had a Polish man called Eric join us on the farm.

“Ask anyone from Poland and they will tell you they know more about vodka than the Russians. It was a happy coincidence that Eric joined us when he did and when a good friend of mine called Neville came over from Australia our vodka-making team was formed.”

David Rawlings with some of his pedigree Hereford bullocks.

The gin revolution has seen a plethora of new brands with several from rural Yorkshire, but David appears to be the first cab off the rank through starting his vodka distillery at what was once home to a Cistercian nunnery.

“We’re hoping to make vodka the new gin. It’s the original moonshine that is talked about in American films and we feel the work we have all put into our potato vodka makes it stand out from the rest. We’re also looking at experimenting with other flavours such as forced rhubarb.

“It only takes ten days to produce a bottle of vodka having started with boiling and mashing potatoes to turn them to starch and from there into sugar fermentation with the resultant turning into alcohol. The fermentation takes the greatest time and is achieved in a week.

The finished product - potato vodka.

“At this moment only an acre of our 60 acres of potatoes is being used for vodka and that allows us to produce 200 bottles per week. We’re not in full production yet, but we will be shortly as our Priory Vodka goes on general sale to selected farm shop outlets.

“We want to keep everything manageable and sell as a bespoke premium product.”

Six years ago David began development of what is now a thriving and much sought after wedding venue at Priory Farm run by his eldest daughter Serena. It includes seven luxurious cottages and a wedding and events complex set in what was originally a barn.

The venue is also available during weekdays where the Rawlings’ have found another niche in corporate entertainment through blue chip company team building days, but David still sees his primary role as a farmer and the farm being central.

David Rawlings with some of his pedigree Hereford bullocks.

“The wedding business is very important and we hope our move into vodka is a commercial success. We also have other income from renting industrial units in converted buildings and I have plans for a possible glamping site but we will always keep the farm as the core business.

“Running the various enterprises allows us to share labour and we currently have a team of five full-time people including myself, Serena, my senior farm man Simon and Eric. Everyone here plays their part in our future.”

David is the third generation to farm at Syningthwaite that includes the farmsteads of Priory Farm, Home Farm and part of Wighill Park across 500 owned acres. The business is a partnership with his sister Shirley Wood.

“My mum’s dad, Horace Burniston, was the first relative to farm here originally as a tenant. Horace bought the land, my father Harold Rawlings bought more and we’ve added to it since.

“We’ve recently bought what was Wighill Park cricket ground. Yorkshire and England’s Lord Hawke lived at Wighill Hall.”

Finding the right path didn’t just happen automatically. Developments take time, the world financial crisis didn’t help and best laid plans can and did change.

“Initially we were going to have a swimming pool, gym and other leisure facilities but our move into the luxury wedding venue sector has proved ideal for us and our brides, everyone loves coming here.”

David’s wife Vanessa has her own career as an occupational therapist, their younger daughter Alicia works in marketing and son James is a master town planner currently spending a year in Australia and New Zealand.