While vodka may well win the prize for the most bland, if not mildly mall-creepy, definition on the booze books (the official federal language states it must be distilled to be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color”), this spirit, and the notion of neutral-base liquor in general, certainly has the most interesting material-sourcing grab of any spirit. You can make it from just about anything—wheat, rye, potatoes, grapes, quinoa, oats, beets. And while each of those certainly has its own bit of quirkiness, there’s one in particular that flies most defiantly in the face of the TTB’s one-of-us definition: whey.
Whey isn’t just the stuff of nursery rhymes; it’s the watery byproduct from the process of separating the coagulated solids (curds) from milk to make cheese. “A local cheese-making company called Carbery had developed the process for fermenting whey wastewater and then distilling the resulting whey beer,” says Antony Jackson, the co-owner (with Justin Green) of Ballyvolane House Spirits Company in Cork, Ireland, the makers of a sprightly whey-based spirit called Bertha’s Revenge Irish milk gin. “We were delighted to find a local source for our alcohol … as well as fitting the bill in terms of local [provenance].” Carbery is more than a cheese company, though. It has been cleverly turning Ireland’s ample whey into ethanol since the 1970s.
According to the USDA, the United States alone produces 90.5 billion pounds of whey a year, a small amount of which is used for making byproducts like protein powders for CrossFit devotees. The rest, a whopping 65 percent, is considered wastewater and tossed—unless, of course, some smart person comes along and turns it into delicious hooch.
There are still only a handful or two using it for distillation on the market, but those few leave a mighty impression.
Dorset, England, producer and dairy farmer Jason Barber was looking for a way to diversify the output of his herd. Launched in 2012, his whey-based vodka ($40) is easily the most entrancingly aromatic of the lot, apparently due to a proprietary method of blending that Barber dreamed up. It has a little bit of an almond milk quality to the aromatics, too, and a creamy mouthfeel. It makes a kick-ass Caucasian, a.k.a. White Russian, that would make the Dude weak in the knees.
“It’s just the whey, New Zealand spring water and yeast. That’s all that’s in there,” says bartender and VDKA 6100 brand ambassador Aisha Sharpe. “It has an incredible mouthfeel that I’ve never had before. It’s creamy but has body that I don’t find most vodkas have.” VKDA 6100 ($38) is the most elegant of the group as well—the voluptuousness of texture is balanced by a very minerally, clean overall impression of the spirit, with gentle notes of anise on the nose. The best way to drink it is probably Sharpe’s favorite: as a chilly two-to-one Martini with Dolin vermouth.
Dreamed up by two ex-pat Americans and a Kiwi native, Broken Shed ($27) takes advantage of the clean water of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and solid dairy production history. Its aromas hint at sweet fennel and tangy yogurt, and while its consistency is super clean and bright, it also has a pleasant tongue-coating texture. The Musket Room in New York City uses it to great effect in its Karekare Collins (a combo of the vodka with blueberry, lemon, cucumber and elderflower). But it can also work spectacularly in a vodka sauce for pasta.
From the great state of Vermont, where delicious dairy products are king, owners Joe Buswell and Harry Gorman of Vermont Spirits are devotees of using local product in all of their spirits. When you sniff their Vermont White vodka ($29), you understand why its homeland is known as the Green Mountain State—there’s a sweet grassiness to the spirit and an almost marshmallow-like quality on the palate that contributes to a damn fine Black Russian.
A gin entry into the whey category (although there’s another release in April 2017 from Tasmania’s Hartshorn Sheep Whey Distillery) comes from that lovely sheep- and dairy-cow-dotted country, Ireland. “As well as fitting the bill in terms of local [provenance], we find that it carries spice incredibly well,” says Jackson. “And therefore we were able to be generous with some of the headier spices that Justin and I really liked.” Indeed, the richness of this gin ($40) accentuates the sweet notes in the botanicals. Aromas like coriander, anise and lime jump out at you and need little more than a splash of club soda or dash of decent tonic.