It may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for an English dairy farmer, but it was an ancient Mongolian tradition that compelled Jason Barber to make vodka from food waste — the leftover milk of his 240 cows.
While searching for a way to use up the whey left over after making cheese, he discovered that Mongolians make distilled drinks using the milk of herd animals such as horses, yaks, donkeys and reindeer, and he had a lightbulb moment. After five years of experimentation, he launched Black Cow Vodka with artist Paul Archard, his neighbour and friend, in 2012.
A by-product of industrial agriculture, whey is usually fed to pigs, and used by food processing companies in products such as powdered milk and protein powder. Although it does not have a high monetary value, and there is usually an excess of it, it must be disposed of carefully since, due to its high sugar content, it can pollute the groundwater and kill aquatic life.
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Turning food waste into vodka
“It costs almost as much to dispose of as it does to use it. But it’s something that demands to be cleared up. So we do what we can to tidy it up,” says Archard. “We love the alchemy of turning something that is the problem child of the industry into a luxury product.”
Cow’s whey contains plenty of natural sugars, which are essential for fermentation. They combine the whey with yeast to ferment into a frothy beer, then proceed to go through three rounds of distillation and filtration.
It takes 20 litres of milk to make one bottle of the award-winning Black Cow Vodka. “Everything in our vodka is made from milk, giving it a full-bodied, smooth texture,” says Barber, who is the sixth generation of his family — the world’s oldest cheddar maker — to run the dairy. “We use the waste from the cheese, and heat from the cheese factory for the first distillations. We believe we are one of the most sustainable vodkas on the planet.”
Driving sustainable production practices
While some may question the sustainability of the industry that creates the whey, Barber says Black Cow Vodka uses only a small portion of leftover whey. It is also a small-scale, artisanal brand with a limited impact on the problem of whey disposal in general.
However, it has set an inspiring and delicious example, and the idea that every spirit brand around the world can follow suit by using unwanted surplus ingredients to make drinks is tantalising.
Other brands are reusing what would have become food waste to champion the circular economy. San Diego-based Misadventure, for instance, makes vodka from upcycled bread and pastries, while Sweden-based Gotland Spirits produces vodka from food thrown away by a local grocery store chain, and Australia’s Hang 10 Distillery also makes vodka and gin from surplus bread.
Discarded Spirits, owned by William Grant & Sons, the family-owned Scottish spirits giant behind Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, among many others, makes sweet vermouth from cascara, the discarded fruit of the coffee berry. It also makes a grape-based vodka using the fruit, stems, seeds and skin recovered from the wine industry, and infuses Caribbean rum with banana peel.
Wine made from soya by-products
Closer to home, Singapore’s Sachi Wine makes wine (fermented, rather than distilled) from soya by-products. In addition to its original Sachi Soy Wine, it also produces flavoured wines, including peach and oolong, rose and lychee, and yuzu and bergamot.
Kagoshima-based Wakashio Distillery launched a new shochu, F Spirits, last year. They make use of local strawberries that would otherwise have become food waste due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of the world’s top bartenders are also creating sustainable spirits — sometimes with a caveat. At Penicillin, Hong Kong’s original closed-loop bar, luminary mixologist Agung Prabowo introduces unexpected flavours and textures to spirits by redistilling them.
As making spirits in Hong Kong requires a separate licence, he uses existing spirits and runs them through a secondary distillation process with a variety of waste ingredients.
For his cocktail Cradle to Cradle, he uses leftover bones from the Penicillin kitchen. Then, he washes them thoroughly before steeping them overnight in vinegar to soften them. Then he dries them in the oven, before steeping them in gin and running the mixture through the distillation machine.
Experimentation with leftover ingredients
He blends the discarded bone gin with vermouth, salted anise or Pernod, and shio-koji pearl onion. The resulting cocktail is similar to a martini or Gibson — “super dry with a bone flavour,” says Prabowo.
As these leftover ingredients are food waste, a secondary distillation is necessary rather than maceration. “The redistillation process makes a big difference, boosting the flavour and making it much cleaner,” he says.
Redistillation is just one way that Prabowo upcycles waste ingredients. He also experiments with pickling and fermenting ingredients in the bar’s laboratory, which he calls the Stinky Room.
A distribution system that uses reusable containers for wine and spirits
“I love using the fermentation process to upcycle waste. It’s more challenging,” he says. “My best invention is discarded coffee grounds and leftover chicken broth fermented for six days. The flavour was insane!”
For existing spirits at Penicillin, Prabowo uses ecoSPIRITS. ecoSPIRITS is an innovative closed-loop distribution system that involves using large, refillable containers of premium spirits, rather than individual bottles. Bars in Singapore also use this system.
Hong Kong and Singapore have the highest density of bars and restaurants in the world. However, according to estimates, Hong Kong only recycles 15 per cent of glass. In Singapore, 11 per cent go through recycling, the rest go to landfills.
The progression of sustainable practices
Prabowo says ecoSPIRITS has made “a huge impact on spirits distribution” in Hong Kong. He also adds that the pandemic and its associated shipping delays made bartenders change direction and use more local products. There are only two gin distilleries in Hong Kong, and most bars now work closely with them.
“In terms of sustainability practices, I believe we are making progress. I would like to see every bar doing something. It’s not necessary to change completely, but at least make one cocktail on your menu sustainable. Or, manage waste better at the end of each shift,” he says. “We have to start with ourselves if we want to help mitigate the environmental crisis we’re facing.”