Transforming Dairy Byproducts Into Sustainable Spirits And Ales
With the U.S. dairy industry increasingly focused on sustainability measures, three companies across the United States are producing spirits and ale made with whey byproduct and cheese, respectively.
Knowlton House Distillery in Knowlton, Wisconsin, opened its doors in September 2023. The distillery is located across from Mullins Cheese and features distillery tours, classes, craft cocktails and food.
Knowlton House Distillery’s flagship product line, TenHead, features vodka and gin crafted from pure milk sugar (whey), a byproduct of making cheese.
“TenHead spirits were created around the idea of being true to our Wisconsin roots. With our alcohol, we wanted to craft something premium yet accessible,” says Heather Mullins, co-founder and head distiller of Knowlton House Distillery.
The process for making whey-based spirits differs from that of traditional spirits because lactose itself cannot be used to ferment, says Mullins. TenHead uses whey sourced from Mullins Cheese. Mullins’ husband, Luke Mullins, is a 4th generation cheesemaker at Mullins Cheese.
“The distillery is a marriage of [our] respective professions and passions,” Mullins says.
The Production Process And Product Lineup
The whey comes already concentrated in a 2,000 gallon batch of distillers beer, which is then processed into approximately 1,000 bottles of gin or vodka. Knowlton House averages 2,000 gallons of whey byproduct processed a day.
TenHead offers a classic vodka and two styles of gin. Woodland Dry is a London dry-style gin with a more traditional flavor and notes of juniper. Meadowcut is a more contemporary gin, featuring hints of citrus, floral and cucumber alongside juniper.
Knowlton House Distillery also intends to release more styles of vodka in the future.
“Guests are often surprised that we distill vodka from milk sugar because it’s uncommon. There’s only a handful of distilleries that do it worldwide. But using milk sugars makes for an exceptionally smooth spirit,” Mullins says.
Wheyward Spirit: Portland’s Innovator
Wheyward Spirit in Portland, Oregon, also makes spirits with a fermentative base of sweet whey.
Sustainable Spirits From Wheyward Spirit
Wheyward Spirit offers Wheyward Spirit and Wheyward Wheyskey, both of which are 100% upcycled with no additional additives, flavors or sugars.
Sourcing And Sustainability
It works with the California Milk Advisory Board to source its whey from sustainable California cheesemakers. All the whey used is upcycled, so the company is working with cheese-makers that weren’t previously using their whey as a food ingredient.
“By doing this and building a circular economy approach to production, we are giving whey its highest and best use, reducing the strain of food waste on the environment, maximizing the inputs of food production and lowering the impact of spirit production to create a sippable spirit,” says Emily Darchuk, CEO and founder of Wheyward Spirit.
Wheyward Spirit’s process differs from traditional spirits because of sourcing and logistics. Whey is highly perishable, so the process has to account for the logistics between the cheesemaker, the transportation of the whey and handling at the distillery to ensure quality from farm to flask.
“We have worked closely with our cheesemaking partners from the start to put quality parameters in place and ensure the capture of high-quality food-grade whey from their facilities,” adds Darchuk.
Wheyward Spirit is the company’s original clear spirit, featuring oaky hints of vanilla and warm spice with a subtle fruit sweetness and a smooth finish.
Wheyward Wheyskey is the barrel-aged version of Wheyward Spirit. A more nuanced approach is used to age it, delivering a golden brown spirit with notes of vanilla cream, warm spice, chocolate-espresso bean and toffee.
Both Wheyward Spirit and Wheyskey are additive-, grain-, gluten- and lactose-free. Wheyward Spirit has won a Good Food Award, Double Gold and Gold medals from the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, and a Gold medal from the San Francisco Spirits Competition.
Cheese To Ale: Rogue Creamery’s Collaboration
Aside from whey from cheesemaking, cheese itself also can be used to make ale.
Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Oregon, collaborated with Crux Fermentation Project, a craft brewery in Bend, Oregon, to create a limited-edition lambic-style ale using the yeast and flora from Rogue Creamery’s world champion Rogue River Blue.
Crux Coolship ale was made in partnership with Crux.
The Making Of Crux Coolship Ale
In 2021, Crux approached Rogue Creamery to make a craft beer using its world champion Rogue River Blue. They filled the Coolship, a trailer-like portable tank allowing the Crux team to brew beer on the road, with uninoculated beer wort and then drove it to Rogue Creamery in January of 2022. Rogue River Blue cheese then was added to the vat and left to sit overnight inside Rogue’s facility as the yeast and flora in the cheese and the aging environment combined with the beer wort. The Coolship contents were then aged in oak barrels for almost two years.
“Beer and cheese are a natural pair, and this Rogue Creamery Crux Coolship made with their iconic Blue cheese is no exception,” says Larry Sidor, founding brewmaster of Crux. “The Crux Coolship project is all about experimentation with wild yeasts and unique ingredients — don’t let the Blue cheese scare you away from this slightly sweet and oaky lambic ale that is the perfect pair with your holiday roast.”
The ale was released Nov. 25, 2023, just in time for the holidays. The beer exhibits notes of caramel, dried fig and tawny port with a tart, gently sour finish.
The ale is exclusive to Crux Fermentation Project and Rogue Creamery and will be available at the Crux tasting rooms in Bend and Portland and at the Rogue Creamery Cheese Shop in Central Point, while supplies last.
A Sustainable Approach In Spirits Production
Aside from using whey byproduct for its spirits, both Knowlton House Distillery and Wheyward Spirit are furthering their sustainability efforts for the future.
Knowlton House’s Sustainability And Distribution
Knowlton House sends out the distillage after distilling TenHead to be used as a feed additive in agriculture.
“The dairy process and a dairy family made this a good choice for sustainability and creating value-added products. Dairy is the pride of not only our state, but our family. We’re committed to showing milk sugar spirits at their best,” says Mullins.
Knowlton House Distillery’s TenHead can be purchased at the distillery in Knowlton, Wisconsin. The company also is in the process of determining other distributors throughout the state. Consumers can expect to see TenHead spirits in liquor stores, bars and restaurants later this year.
Wheyward Spirit’s Carbon Neutral Footprint
Wheyward Spirit already is Certified Carbon Neutral, and through making spirits with whey, the carbon and water footprint is much lower compared to traditional spirits.
“We then take sustainability one step further for Wheyward Wheyskey by aging Wheyward Spirit in re-coppered barrels,” Darchuk notes.
Additionally, Wheyward Spirit has published a free recipe book (www.wheywardspirit.com/cocktails) of waste-reducing cocktails to help further sustainability at the consumer level.
Wheyward Spirit sells Wheyward Spirit and Wheyward Wheyskey in a promotional Taste a Difference Make a Difference set, as well as servicing individuals, corporate events and gifting through its website, WheywardSpirit.com. It can be purchased online or at Total Wine, Whole Foods and Hy-Vee, with plans to expand in the future.
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Source: Cheese Market News