From landfill to vodka: Study encourages dairies to distill whey

Jane Ryan

15 June 2018

Whey has spent many years being poured into landfill or relegated to little Miss Muffet's diet, but the by-product of turning milk into cheese is making a comeback in the guise of vodka, sauces and as a cocktail ingredient.

Studies into whey’s environmental impact at Oregon State University (OSU) estimate that as much as 90% of the milk that goes into a cheese-making facility comes out as whey. And it’s only the large conglomerates that can afford to turn it into protein powders, thanks to the pricey equipment required.

One option however is to sell it on to distillers – or for dairies to distill it themselves, something the report heavily endorses.

‘Even though some energy is required to transform whey into vodka, there is still a huge environmental gain by not disposing of it through waste streams,’ says Lisbeth Goddik, a professor of food science and technology at OSU. ‘There is a significant reduction of greenhouse gases, and the creameries have the potential to also boost their revenue.’

The thin liquid comes as a sweet whey from cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss cheeses, while acid whey is a by-product of cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. The latter is particularly challenging to dispose of, but both types have a high level of biochemical oxygen demand, meaning the high nutrient level can lead to more algae production in streams, and a decrease in the water’s oxygen levels, among other environmental impacts. This isn’t something that can be poured down the drain.

‘Both types of whey ferment and distill beautifully,’ says Paul Hughes, who leads the distilling program at OSU. ‘Our chemical flavour analysis suggests some differences between the two wheys and eventually we hope to isolate more of the chemical compounds and match them with flavour characteristics.’

While the report may be the first university to advocate distilling vodka it certainly isn’t the first to think of it. Black Cow vodka is an English brand from West Dorset that uses whey to make what it calls 'the world’s smoothest vodka'.

‘Whey has historically been the problem child of the dairy industry. There is an excess produced in the cheese-making process. We take this under-valued byproduct and turn it into a superior premium vodka. We take great pride in our economical use of nature's bounty,’ says co-founder Jason Barber.

Barder sells his family farm’s milk to his cousins who make Barber's 1833 vintage cheddar. They use the curds to make the cheese, and he takes back the whey to make the vodka.

Broken Shed vodka from New Zealand is another brand being distilled from whey. The Huffington Post described this particular sugar-free, gluten-free, gently viscous and highly palatable spirit as ‘the vodka for vodka haters’. Another antipodean to join the whey revolution is Australia’s Vodka O – also made of whey from New Zealand.

Beyond vodka: dishes and drinks

Tatties and whey at Cub: it’s not just the spirit makers who have found value in the waste product
Tatties and whey at Cub: it’s not just the spirit makers who have found value in the waste product

Sustainably-minded cocktail consultancy Trash Tiki, founded by Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths, use whey to change a drink’s texture.

‘Any time you hear the words “local cheese maker” you should know that means someone in your hood is having to throw out loads (literally) of whey. We’ve never had anyone say no to us coming and snagging a few litres (in fact in some cities we’ve had people reach out in advance),’ says Ramage when describing their recipe for Honey Cream that combines egg yolk, whey and honey to replace both the sugar and egg whites in a traditional Whiskey Sour.

Over at Super Lyan on London’s Hoxton Street, the bar team makes a coconut syrup with whey, mixing it with sugar and coconut chips, then cooking it on the stove for about half an hour, before straining it through a muslin cloth.

‘Cheese companies used to spread whey on fields, feed it to animals, and dispose of it in landfills,’ Goddik says. ‘Neither is a great solution. Even if you decide to ferment the whey and then dump it down the drain, there is less damage to the environment. But why do that if you can create a value-added product?’

Results of the whey environmental impacts study from OSU have been published in the Journal of Dairy Science.


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