The Next Trendy Spirits Botanical is… Milk?

A man sits with a bottle of vodka in front of a herd of cows.
In Ireland and the UK, farmers are putting to good use a resource that's been plentiful in those parts for centuries: dairy. Jason Barber, a dairy farmer, set out to create Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka using fermented whey distillate from his herd of 250 grass-fed cows. Photo courtesy of Black Cow.

The rich soft pastures of Ireland and the UK yield some of the best dairy in the world. The cattle are grass fed as the rule, rather than the exception, and the farmhouse cheese and dairy industry are flourishing. Whey, a byproduct of cheese production, is highly fermentable using a special strain of yeast. Once distilled, the lush and weighty distillate provides an incredible base for clear spirits. While grains such as wheat and barley are traditional spirit bases, many smaller producers have begun to use what is plentiful in their area, fermenting apples, potatoes and grapes before distilling to the heady proof required for use as a spirit base. Now, a group of British and Irish producers are turning to the pasture rather than the field to create some striking spirits.

Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka, England

Vodka is typically produced from grain or potatoes. Being a dairy farmer, Jason Barber fancied that he could find a base for his spirit a little closer to home. Inspired by a desire to diversify the output of his farm, and his own enjoyment of vodka, he set about creating a unique product made from 100% milk. Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka is made from the fermented whey distillate of Jason’s West Devon herd of 250 grass-fed dairy cows. The curds from the milk are separated and used to make his family’s award winning Black Cow Vintage Cheddar, leaving the whey to be fermented into a milky wash and distilled into vodka. The resulting spirit is blended then triple filtered before being hand bottled. The result is a full mouth feel, loads of vanilla and a hint of spice. Black Cow vodka is the star of the Dirty Cow Martini, served in the restaurants and bars of celebrated British chef Mark Hix, and has also popped up on Bar Nightjar's brand-new menu.

Blackwater No 5, Ireland

Gin producers impart flavor to their product by macerating, distilling, vapor-infusing or compounding botanicals such as juniper, coriander, and angelica root into the neutral spirit. Founder Peter Mulryan has been distilling at Blackwater Distillery for a little over a year using a recipe inspired by the Anglo-Irish history of his local area of Waterford. Consulting the dusty archives, Peter discovered that local business White’s of Waterford were once the largest importers of spices in the then-British Empire, and set to creating a recipe using only the botanicals that were once imported into Ireland by Victorian spice traders White’s.

Peter did not always use whey as the basis for his signature gin. For Blackwater No 5 he had used each of the locally available neutral grain spirits, barley and wheat, but has recently moved over to 100% Irish whey neutral spirit base. “I prefer the whey," he says. "They all taste similar, but the whey supports the aromatics in a way that the grain bases does not. In particular the fruit and spices really come through in a lovely way.” During a side by side tasting, the result is most evident in the mouth-feel, with the rich spices playing across the palate, but the whole effect is of a much more integrated spirit with significant depth.

Cows sniffing a bottle of gin. Bertha's Revenge was named after a prodigious dairy cow who died at the age of 48 having given birth to 39 calves. Photo courtesy of Bertha's Revenge.

Bertha’s Revenge, Ireland

Bertha’s Revenge is styled as a ‘milk gin.’ Its namesake, Bertha, was a prodigious local dairy cow said to have died at the age of 48 after having given birth to 39 calves. The gin is produced by lifelong friends Antony Jackson and Justin Greene, echoing the field to fork philosophy of the latter’s historic Irish country house Ballyvolane. Justin describes the gin as "grass to glass."

“I had been watching the gin space for some time, and really felt that we could do something unique and Irish. The market place was becoming very crowded around grain based spirit imported from France, and I thought there was an opportunity to do something different.” Bolstered by advice from Charles Maxwell of the Thames Distillery, the two lads decided to take advantage of the abundance of Irish dairy. The whey distillate base for Bertha’s Revenge is produced in County Cork, 40 minutes from Ballyvolane House, using the whey byproduct of the cheese industry. Justin enthuses about the whey base: “It supports the botanicals beautifully. We were initially leaning towards a fruit-led gin, but the creaminess and richness of the whey balances the spice botanicals nicely, so we ended up with a spice-forward gin.” The result is a rich warming gin, quite smooth, but with lots of spicy character.

Cream Gin, England

This gin is a collaboration between London’s award winning cocktail bar, Whistling Shop, and much vaunted online retailer, Master of Malt. Rather than using whey distillate, Cream Gin uses cream as a botanical, cold-distilling the cream under vacuum. This is the second incarnation of this gin, a scaled up version of one originally produced in house at the bar. The inspiration for the gin came from Ryan Chetiyawardana, who was working at the Whistling Shop at the time. He became intrigued by the inclusion of signs for “Cream Gin” in images of Victorian gin palaces. After doing some research and becoming increasingly unsatisfied by the varied explanations, he concluded that this must have been lesser quality gin cut with cream and sugar. Not terribly taken with that idea, he was inspired instead to create a gin using cream as a botanical. The cream is cold distilled under vacuum. “Using the cream this way means the cream isn’t cooked at all, giving none of the burnt or off cream notes, but all of the lactic thickness and mouth feel is retained.” The result is a gin that has a slightly thick texture, but retains a citrusy sweetness. It can experienced in Whistling Shop’s Black Cat Martini, garnished with a radish.
From our partners