Alcohol farm

These alcohol makers turn food waste into spirits

It might sound like an unlikely source of inspiration for an English dairy farmer, but it’s an ancient Mongolian tradition that required Jason Barber to make vodka from food scraps – the leftover milk from his 240 cows.

While looking for a way to use the whey left over from cheese making, he discovered that the Mongols made distilled drinks from the milk of herding animals such as horses, yaks, donkeys and reindeer, and he had a light bulb moment. After five years of experimentation, he launched Black Cow Vodka with artist Paul Archard, his neighbor and friend, in 2012.

A by-product of industrial agriculture, whey is commonly fed to pigs and used by food processing companies in products such as powdered milk and protein powder. Although it does not have a high monetary value and there is usually an excess of it, it should be disposed of with care as, due to its high sugar content, it can pollute groundwater and kill life. aquatic.

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Turning food waste into vodka

Based on a farm in West Dorset, UK, Black Cow Vodka uses what is left over from grass-grazed cow’s milk after making cheese as its source ingredient.

“It costs almost as much to get rid of it as to use it. But this is something that needs to be clarified. So we do what we can to put it away,” says Archard. “We love the chemistry of turning something that is the industry’s problem child into a luxury product.”

Cow’s whey contains a lot of natural sugars, which are essential for fermentation. They combine whey with yeast to ferment into a frothy beer, then go through three cycles of distillation and filtration.

It takes 20 liters of milk to make one bottle of award-winning Black Cow vodka. “Everything in our vodka is made from milk, which gives it a full-bodied, creamy texture,” says Barber, who is the sixth generation of his family – the oldest cheddar maker in the world – to run the dairy. “We use cheese waste and the heat from the cheese dairy for the first distillations. We believe we are one of the most sustainable vodkas on the planet.

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Promote sustainable production practices

Based on a farm in West Dorset, UK, Black Cow Vodka uses what is left over from grass-grazed cow's milk after making cheese as its source ingredient.  Dairy cows graze in nearby fields while vodka is distilled and bottled by hand.
Black Cow Vodka in the UK.

While some may question the sustainability of the industry that creates whey, Barber says Black Cow Vodka only uses a small portion of leftover whey. It’s also a small-scale craft brand with limited impact on the issue of whey disposal in general.

However, he set an inspiring and delicious example, and the idea that every spirits brand in the world could follow suit by using unwanted surplus ingredients to make drinks is enticing.

Other brands reuse what would have become food waste to promote the circular economy. For example, San Diego-based Misadventure makes vodka from recycled bread and pastries, while Sweden-based Gotland Spirits makes vodka from food discarded by a local grocery chain, and Australia’s Hang 10 distillery also makes vodka and gin from leftover bread.

Based on a farm in West Dorset, UK, Black Cow Vodka uses what is left over from grass-grazed cow's milk after making cheese as its source ingredient.  Dairy cows graze in nearby fields while vodka is distilled and bottled by hand.
Dairy cows graze in nearby fields while Black Cow vodka from the UK is distilled and bottled by hand.

Discarded Spirits, owned by William Grant & Sons, the family-owned Scottish spirits giant behind Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, among many others, makes sweet vermouth from cascara, the discarded coffee berry fruit. He also makes a grape-based vodka using the fruits, stems, seeds and skin salvaged from the wine industry, and infuses Caribbean rum with banana peel.

Wine made from soy by-products

Singapore's Sachi Wine makes fermented wine from soybean by-products.
Singapore’s Sachi Wine makes fermented wine from soybean by-products.

Closer to home, Singapore’s Sachi Wine makes wine (fermented rather than distilled) from soy by-products. In addition to its original Sachi soy wine, it also produces flavored wines including peach and oolong, rose and lychee, and yuzu and bergamot.

Kagoshima-based Wakashio Distillery launched a new shochu, F Spirits, last year. They use local strawberries that would otherwise have become food waste due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some of the best bartenders in the world also create sustainable spirits, sometimes with a caveat. At Penicillin, Hong Kong’s first closed circuit bar, star mixologist Agung Prabowo introduces unexpected flavors and textures to spirits by redistilling them.

As making spirits in Hong Kong requires a separate license, it uses existing spirits and puts them through a secondary distillation process with a variety of wastes.

For his Cradle to Cradle cocktail, he uses leftover bones from Penicillin cooking. Then he washes them carefully before soaking them overnight in vinegar to soften them. Then he dried them in the oven, before dipping them in gin and running the mixture through the distillation machine.

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Experimenting with Leftover Ingredients

In penicillin, leftover bones from the kitchen are cleaned, dried and soaked in gin before a secondary distillation.  The result is the Cradle to Cradle cocktail.
In penicillin, leftover bones from the kitchen are cleaned, dried and soaked in gin before a secondary distillation. The result is the Cradle to Cradle cocktail.

Related: Here are 4 stores in Singapore leading the green and eco-responsible wave

He mixes the discarded bone gin with vermouth, salt anise or pernod and pearl onion shio-koji. The resulting cocktail is similar to a martini or a Gibson — “super dry with a bone-in flavor,” says Prabowo.

As these remaining ingredients are food waste, secondary distillation is required rather than maceration. “The redistillation process makes a big difference, boosting the flavor and making it much cleaner,” he says.

Redistillation is just one of the ways Prabowo uses to recycle waste. He also experiments with pickling and fermenting ingredients in the bar’s lab, which he calls the Stinky Room.

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A distribution system that uses reusable containers for wines and spirits

EcoSPIRITS, a dispensing system that uses reusable containers for wine and spirits, is used at establishments such as 28 HongKong Street in Singapore and IL Borro in London.
EcoSPIRITS, a dispensing system that uses reusable containers for wine and spirits, is used at establishments such as 28 HongKong Street in Singapore and IL Borro in London.

“I love using the fermentation process to recycle waste. It’s more difficult,” he says. “My best invention is discarded coffee grounds and leftover fermented chicken broth for six days. The flavor was crazy!

For existing spirits at Penicillin, Prabowo uses ecoSPIRITS. ecoSPIRITS is an innovative closed-loop dispensing system that uses large refillable containers of premium spirits, rather than individual bottles. Singapore bars also use this system.

Hong Kong and Singapore have the highest density of bars and restaurants in the world. However, according to estimates, Hong Kong only recycles 15% of glass. In Singapore, 11% goes through recycling, the rest goes to landfill.

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The progression of sustainable practices

EcoSPIRITS, a dispensing system that uses reusable containers for wine and spirits, is used at establishments such as 28 HongKong Street in Singapore and IL Borro in London.
EcoSPIRITS, a distribution system that uses reusable containers for wines and spirits.

Prabowo says ecoSPIRITS had “a huge impact on the distribution of spirits” in Hong Kong. He also adds that the pandemic and associated shipping delays have forced bartenders to change direction and use more local produce. There are only two gin distilleries in Hong Kong, and most bars now work closely with them.

“In terms of sustainability practices, I think we are making progress. I would like to see every bar do something. It doesn’t have to be changed completely, but make at least one cocktail from your menu sustainable. Or better manage waste at the end of each shift,” he says. “We must start with ourselves if we are to help alleviate the environmental crisis we face.”

(Related: Sachi Wine is Singapore’s first wine made from soy by-products)

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