Making the connection between vodka and milk may seem unthinkable but, Black Cow Vodka does just that.
So, what does the UK’s only vodka made from milk taste like? And where did the idea to come from? Ruth Wills finds out...
Set deep in the Dorset countryside is the Black Cow distillery, a converted ice cream factory with a huge copper still called Ermentrude, and a bar with everything you could imagine making a cocktail with.
Their unique milk vodka, now a favourite among bars, restaurants and pubs, stemmed from something many all over the world struggle with: A hangover.
“I was always good at drinking wine, but I wasn’t very good at getting up in the morning, so I drank vodka instead” says Jason Barber, co-founder of Black Cow Vodka.
“Then around 15 years ago I started employing some Polish lads to milk the cows, and I said to Jozef in the milking parlour one day that we ought to make some vodka. He said: ‘What do you want to make it from? Because you can make it from just about anything with sugar.’ I asked about milk and he said it was possible.”
And from that simple conversation an idea was born.
“I have a herd of dairy cows and I get paid for their fat and protein but, not for their lactose,” says Jason.
“I thought, what a great way of utilising that.”
Jason farms a mile and a half up the road from the distillery and already supplied his milk to his family’s business, Barber’s Cheese, the oldest surviving family of cheddar makers in the world who have been dairy farmers for over 300 years. The cows are crossbreeds of Holstein, Norwegian Red and Flekvieh and are grass-fed.
“They produce less milk but it’s sweeter and has higher protein,” he says.
“They also seem to live longer and breed good calves.
“The bull calves are worth a bit more than just Holstein – £150-£200 rather than £5, and the barren ones are worth a little more too. I had just over £1,000 last time I sold one.”
As the ice cream building – which belonged to a family friend – was already set up for food production, Jason did not have a lot to do to get it up to standard, minimising the initial investment.
“When I did my first distillation using milk as my raw material it was such a eureka moment because it just tasted so much cleaner and smoother,” he says.
“But I am still a dairy farmer and you can’t do everything on your own, so I asked a friend of mine, Paul Archard, if he wanted to come in on it. We then started it up together.”
So how do you turn milk into vodka? The process starts by making cheese.
“The milk is pasteurised, the starter is added and then vegetarian rennet,” says Jason.
“The curds are cut and pressed into the cheese. Then the whey is spun centrifugally – a process which separates the whey into different protein layers. Any excess butter is taken out and the whey protein is removed to make baby powder or whey protein drinks, then you’re left with the lactose which is what you want to make vodka.”
The lactose is brewed into a beer, then distilled.
He says: “It’s distilled three times and the last time it is distilled through copper. Because we’re dealing with such a fantastic raw material, the quality comes through in the vodka and it’s a very clean, smooth and soft vodka as all of the minerals have come out with the cheese and the butter.”
The final distillation brings the vodka to 90 per cent alcohol, then it is filtered a further three times. It arrives in the post-filtration tank where the alcohol content is reduced further to 40 per cent by a secret blending process, which opens up the spirit. This is why whisky tastes better over ice or with a dash of water, because that slight bit of dilution yields more taste.
The vodka then gets pumped into the bottle tanks and is hand bottled in batches of 2,000. Each bottle gets individually numbered so it can be traced back to which batch it was made from.
“Even though our vodka is made entirely from milk, it contains less than six parts per million of lactose so it’s fine for lactose intolerant people too,” says Jason.
As well as supplying Barber’s and producing vodka, he also makes Black Cow cheddar in truckles; a 15-month-old sweet cheddar. And the vodka goes very well as an accompaniment to the cheese.
He says: “As the old saying goes, if it grows together it goes together.”
Jason also believes it is the most sustainable vodka on the planet.
“We’re dealing with a raw material that’s a by-product and sustainable charcoal and coconut shells are used in the distilling process,” he says.
But it has not all been plain sailing.
He says: “When we first started it was a challenge to get the licenses because most distilleries were in Scotland. And once we got the license and sold our first bottle in May 2012 the challenge has been to keep up because it’s such a unique vodka – the only one in the world.”
They’ve had fun naming their cocktails with titles such as Espresso Mootini, Dirty Cow, Pink Cow, Skinny Cow and Mos’cow Mule. The vodka goes well with oysters, tapas, dried meat and with a cheese board. He says: “It makes the best Espresso Martinis – we keep ours simple: one shot of Black Cow Vodka, one shot of espresso and half a shot of maple syrup.”
And the enjoyment does not stop there. At Childhay Manor, as well as the distillery Jason has a bar and kitchen complete with cocktail experts. Every year they host the final of a cocktail competition, where bar tenders from around the world come to compete.
The busiest time of year is October to December when 60 per cent of their alcohol is sold, which means from September until Christmas they have to take on extra staff. 50cl bottles are sold for £25.75 and the online sales are a steady stream but peak when they’ve been on TV – recently they’ve starred on Escape to the Country, Saturday Kitchen, Countryfile, Sunday Brunch, River Cottage and the local news.
Now sold in over 15 countries and in major supermarkets, Black Cow Vodka is growing more recognisable. Last year they even teamed up with FeverTree at Wimbledon, Lords and Twickenham.
So how does Jason’s life differ now?
“I still am a dairy farmer – I start my day with the cows, spend the day in the distillery then in the evening I finish up with the cows checking them, picking out bullers,” he says.
“I wanted to make the cleanest, smoothest vodka in the world, which I’ve done and I’m not an expert in diversification in any way but, if you’re planning on a diversification, I suggest you do it with something you enjoy.”