Fermented dairy drinks have a lengthy history. Ghengis Khan’s army was fueled by fermented mare’s milk in the 13th century. And nomadic shepherds were drinking kefir—milk fermented with grains—in the Caucasus Mountains between Georgia and Russia hundreds of years ago.
In North America, fermenting and distilling whey to make vodka is increasingly popular, and a handful of creameries have partnered with distilleries in recent years to make their own milky spirits. Experts expect more creameries in the US will soon launch their own products to diversify their offerings, as milk prices suffer.
Making vodka with whey involves a multi-step process. Each pound of cheese creates about 9 pounds of whey. Once that whey is separated from cheese curds, it has to be fermented using a special yeast, and then distilled.
The result is a drink that’s creamy and sweeter than traditional vodka made with potatoes or grains. And on top of its smooth taste, whey vodka has been heralded as an environmental way to use a byproduct of cheesemaking that can be expensive for small creameries to dispose of.
“We’re able to create one more product from that same gallon of milk. We feel like we’re getting everything we possibly can from that initial raw resource,” says Todd Koch, an Oregon dairy farmer whose creamery has launched its own vodka, called Cowcohol.
Koch’s family has owned a dairy farm for more than 20 years, and it launched TMK Creamery in 2017 to start making cheese. All of the creamery’s current products, including Cowcohol, come from the 20 cows his farm milks.
After successfully launching TMK’s cheese operation, Koch had heard about research being conducted at Oregon State University about fermenting and distilling whey. He contacted Paul Hughes, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s Department of Food Science, to figure out how TMK could make its own whey-based product.
The benefits of commercially selling whey vodka can be multiple for creameries, says Hughes. He estimates that if a creamery is selling its cheese at $40 per pound, whey vodka presents the potential opportunity to increase its retail sale of products by up to 50 percent, before manufacturing costs are factored in. It also significantly cuts down the cost of disposing of whey, says Hughes, for operations that are paying to have it sent to landfill.
Hughes says he has spoken to around 10 creameries in recent years that have been actively looking at how they could create and sell such a product. “In the next year or so, you’ll see more whey drinks coming out, and the way to go is through fermentation and distillation,” he says.
Given the number of creameries that have expressed interest, Hughes says he wouldn’t be surprised if spirits competitions have a subsection for whey-based vodkas in the not-so-distant future.