This Canadian Distiller Is Making Vodka From Milk Byproducts

Jed Oelbaum

Not very musical and essentially useless on the dance floor, cows have never really been known as party animals. And dairy products, whether a glass of milk or a protein-rich bowl of yogurt, tend to carry an air of wholesomeness that doesn’t exactly jibe with a night out on the town. But now some scientists and businesses are hoping to give dairy’s milquetoast reputation a jolt—and help solve a growing waste problem—by turning milk’s unwanted leftovers into alcoholic beverages.

Byproducts like whey and milk permeate, created in the process of making foods like cheese, yogurt, and butter, have little commercial value and often go to waste, but they contain sugars like lactose that can be fermented into a variety of intoxicating drinks. “We’re turning problem products into something people can enjoy,” says Omid McDonald, founder and CEO of Dairy Distillery, an Ontario-based company that will soon start manufacturing a dairy-based, vodka-like beverage. Canadian law only allows booze made from grain or potatoes to actually be called vodka, he says, “so we’re calling it ‘Vodcow,’ and that’s going to be our first product.”

The yeasts typically used to make wine and beer won’t ferment lactose, so Dairy Distillery worked with a team at the University of Ottawa’s biology department to develop a process for turning milk sugar into alcohol using a different yeast species with an appetite for dairy. At Dairy Distillery’s recently completed production facility, each batch will ferment for three or four days, before being distilled on site. McDonald says the whole production process takes about two weeks, and the company plans to have Vodcow on store shelves in October.

Even just thinking about alcohol and dairy at the same time will probably leave some drinkers queasy, but McDonald, whose past entrepreneurial ventures include technology startups and a music licensing platform, believes consumers just need to see and taste it to become believers. “What we discovered is that lactose is a very clean-tasting sugar, and that translates into an extremely clean alcohol,” he says. The resulting drink is as clear as any other vodka and contains no lactose, and yet, he says, “some of the creaminess of the dairy still comes through.”

McDonald hopes to tap into growing demand for craft distillation and believes consumers will be attracted to the company’s commitment to finding value in unwanted milk byproducts. Vodcow is specifically made from permeate, a nutrient-rich substance remaining after the fattier parts of whole milk are processed into components for cheese, cream, and ultrafiltered milk. While farmers can sell a small amount of permeate and other byproducts for agricultural uses, as fertilizer components, or as an ingredient in food products and nutritional supplements, much of it ends up needing to be safely disposed of, usually at the expense of farmers and dairy processors.

While Dairy Distillery is focusing on permeate, whey is also a big problem, accounting for most of the dairy industry’s byproduct excess. Making Greek Yogurt, for example, creates 2 to 3 ounces of whey for every ounce of actual yogurt. Dairy product producers are left with massive amounts of the stuff, which can cause environmental problems if it ends up in waterways. Dairy leftovers, says McDonald, create “an economic problem for dairy farmers, a problem for the environment, and a PR problem. Nobody wants to see one-third of what’s coming out of a cow being dumped.”

Samuel David Alcaine, assistant professor of food science at Cornell University and an expert on dairy fermentation, explains that even with some applicable uses, the demand for milk byproducts pales in comparison to the supply; there’s only so much of the stuff you can healthily feed to cows, and environmental systems can only safely absorb so much before it starts building up. “The rest of it goes into anaerobic digesters, or it goes to wastewater treatment facilities,” says Alcaine. “And we’re left with the question: We have tons and tons of this lactose, what else can we do with it?”

Alcaine is among the researchers trying to answer that question by finding new markets and value-added uses for the sugars, proteins, vitamins, and minerals in dairy byproducts. The scientist worked for the Miller Brewing Company and for an ice cream business before finding his current niche at Cornell, where he works at the intersection of what he describes as his passions: alcoholic fermentation, dairy production, and food safety. This week, Alcaine is co-organizing a Whey and Dairy Co-Products Symposium, highlighting new technologies, products, and ideas that will put whey and permeate to work.

Among the presenters at the symposium, currently underway at Cornell, is a group of researchers looking at converting whey into a component of jet fuel, which Alcaine calls “a very high-value add.” Scientists and industry representatives at the event are also talking about new ways to turn dairy byproducts into ingredients for snack foods, and discussing innovative methods for storing, drying, and filtering.

The symposium also features the boozy research of Alcaine and his colleagues at Cornell, who are taking whey from a local yogurt company and using it to make an alcoholic beverage. The drink they’re producing will be somewhere between beer and wine, and unlike Vodcow, won’t be distilled. “We’re looking at just fermenting it out with different yeast strains, and then making products that are already palatable for people to drink,” he says.

Dairy Distillery seems to be the only spirits producer working with permeate, but there are a handful of other beverage producers working with whey; Alcaine mentions Hartshorn Distillery in Australia, which uses sheep whey from cheesemaking to craft an award-winning vodka. A U.K. company called Black Cow already produces and sells a whey-derived drink, which it describes as “the world’s smoothest vodka, made purely from milk.” According to a Wine Enthusiast review Black Cow vodka has an “appealing lushness” that “hints at coconut, marshmallow and vanilla, finishing with gentle sweetness and a mild peppery prickle.”

McDonald says he’s “working with local mixologists on cocktails that suit the taste profile” of Vodcow before its release, and the company has plans to develop a gin and a creme liquor for next year. The step after that will be something approximating whiskey, he says. “We’re going to put some of the stuff in barrels and see what gives. No one’s ever aged a lactose-based alcohol before.”

Dairy Distillery is just one small business, says McDonald, but he hopes that together, the growing number of companies and scientists experimenting with milk spirits “can make a dent in the problem” of dairy leftover overload.

“I don’t think any one route is going to be the magic hole to consume up all of the lactose,” says Alcaine. Solving the problem of these excess byproducts will require “a patchwork of different routes,” he says, and among them, “you’re going to need projects like vodka.”