When considering dairy drinks, milk usually comes to mind. But if you are looking for a more rigid option, the search will not be a wasted effort.
From an 80-degree distilled liquor to 4% hard seltzer water, you can find these adult dairy drinks made with whey, a liquid byproduct of strained cheese and yogurt.
Whey has more common uses – protein powder, livestock feed additive, fertilizer component. There is also whey that ends up in a wastewater treatment plant.
But why waste something of value?
Enter the food scientists and their trash won’t come near.
whey spirita liquor distilled from sweet whey – or the whey left over after cheese making – launched in September 2020.
The specialty spirits brand was founded by Emily Darchuk, who holds a master’s degree in food science, specifically dairy science.
Darchuk said she never expected to become an entrepreneur. While working as a product developer and studying milk transportation for her thesis, she realized that whey was often wasted. The solution, she realized, is to distill it.
“Trash is not trash,” Darchuk said. “It’s just a loophole in the system.”
For every pound of cheese made, 9 pounds of whey are created. Darchuk has used about 500,000 pounds of whey since launching Wheyward, and she hopes this is just the beginning.
Sweet whey is not the only type of whey that exists. Sour whey, a byproduct of strained yogurts, is often wasted because it’s not used in protein powders.
Cornell Food Scientist Samuel Alcaine Now Uses Acidic Whey to Make Hard Seltzer Water Norwhey Nordic Seltzer.
Alcaine launched Norwhey this month and is excited about the quick response.
While Darchuk uses distillation to bring out the natural flavors of sweet whey, Alcaine brews sour whey and then adds flavor, such as berries, ginger and citrus.
Wheyward Spirit’s natural flavors include vanilla, oak and spice, which Darchuk says are achieved through the fermentation and distillation processes.
“Our big thing with our spirit is that you taste the difference and make a difference,” Darchuk said.
And although these products are made from dairy products, they don’t look or taste like any traditional dairy product.
“It doesn’t taste like milk at all. I think the transformation from fermentation is amazing,” Alcaine said. “I think people would be surprised that these were dairy-based products, even though they’re practically 100% whey.”
And these whey drinks are lactose-free due to fermentation, distillation, and brewing.
Although the general process for creating an alcohol is always the same when using whey, there are some differences in the distillation and brewing methods.
“Using whey as a substrate fits very well into a distillation or brewing process,” Alcaine said.
Unlike grain, whey has a shorter shelf life, so the time between the processing plant and the distillery or brewery is critical.
Darchuk, who lives in Oregon, works with small-scale cheese makers in Oregon and California. It obtains the whey directly from the processors and immediately brings it to its distillery.
Her understanding of milk transportation helped her develop her transportation plan.
“I feel lucky to have some food and logistics experience,” Darchuk said. “When I did my thesis, I swab tankers, so I kind of got a taste of the dynamics (the timing).”
Alcaine works with Greek yogurt makers in New York. He currently picks up whey in large tubs, but hopes to switch to tankers as his product develops. The whey is immediately brought back to its brewery.
By using whey, which is a liquid, Darchuk and Alcaine eliminate the need for mashing, a necessary step in grain-based alcohol.
Using whey to produce alcoholic beverages is not just about disposing of waste. This can become another source of income for dairy producers.
If more consumers want to drink whey drinks, it would create demand for whey, which would increase demand for cheese and yogurt, which would then increase demand for fluid milk, Alcaine said.
Whey-based alcohols could be especially beneficial for small cheese and yogurt processors that typically don’t have the equipment to process whey. Selling their whey to a brewery or distillery can solve this problem and add revenue.
“It’s nice to have these little cottage industries that are able to take what we think of as waste and now make a new product out of it,” said Penn State Extension dairy specialist Carly Becker, adding that dairy farmers are “always looking for new, innovative ways to create less waste from their farm and be more environmentally friendly.
Darchuk said his idea for Wheyward Spirit was born out of simply wanting to solve a problem.
“My vision is, and I hope, that all the food and everything produced is fully utilized,” she said. “We like to say ‘every bottle helps solve a problem.'”
Darchuk and Alcaine aren’t the only innovators using whey in alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and they hope to see the whey beverage industry continue to grow.
“It’s still a very early stage in whey drinks, but I think there’s a lot of excitement,” Alcaine said.