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  • Fred Siggins

The Remains of the Whey

From sheep’s whey vodka to brandy made from imperfect fruit, upcycled food waste is underpinning the current boom in local craft spirits. By Fred Siggins.

The Melbourne Gin Company founder Andrew Marks with his gin still. Photography by Albert Comper.

When one thinks of sheep’s cheese, chances are the last thought to spring to mind would be, “This would make a great vodka.” But that’s exactly what the team behind Hartshorn Sheep Whey Vodka in Tasmania thought. Hartshorn’s vodkas and gins are made from a base of sheep’s whey, the liquid leftover when milk solids (curds) are separated to make cheese — in this case at its Grandvewe sheep cheesery on the same site. This leftover whey contains just enough natural sugar to be fermented and distilled into alcohol.


The resulting spirit is unlike any other vodka in the world, but it’s still vodka. With a silky texture and the distinct but not at all unpleasant funk of sheep’s milk, it’s a revelation in a dry martini with good olives. In fact, so pleasantly surprising is this bizarre-sounding spirit that it won World’s Best Vodka at the World Vodka Awards in 2018. Take that, Russia. 


Around Australia, the craft spirits industry is booming at a time when sustainability has gripped our collective consciousness. As such, more and more producers are looking to rescue waste products that would otherwise end up in landfill, down the drain or rotting in fields. It’s also a good way to keep costs low rather than competing with multinational beverage producers on the open market for the more common commodities used to produce alcohol, including wine grapes, grains and sugarcane. 


Ryan Hartshorn on site at the sheep farm and distillery in Tasmania. Photography courtesy of Hartshorn.

Ryan Hartshorn, the founder of Hartshorn distillery, came up with the idea of distilling sheep’s whey in 2015. “I was on the hunt to make the micro-distillery we were building relevant to the cheesery we already had,” he says. “There was an issue with making use of our waste whey, and during my research on distilling I came across an article about Black Cow distillery in Dorset, England, using cow’s whey to make spirits. I reached out to them and they never replied, but it gave me the hope that my idea was possible.” 


Hartshorn’s Sheep Whey Vodka. Photography courtesy of Hartshorn.

The idea of using waste agricultural produce as a source of fermentable sugar is nothing new. Most grain-based spirits such as whisky were originally conceived as a way to use up the lowest-quality grains deemed unworthy of bread or beer. Rum, too, was likely created by enslaved workers on Caribbean sugar plantations who had access to molasses, the sticky black leftovers from refining white sugar. To this day, the vast majority of rum produced globally, including here in Australia, is made from molasses produced as a byproduct of refined sugar. Grape must, the leftover stems and skins after the juice has been pressed from the berries to make wine, has long been used to produce a type of brandy that the French call marc and the Italians call grappa.


But while some of these lesser-known European brandies and their local counterparts find their way onto the shelves of specialty bottle shops, the bulk of Australian grape must, of which we produce a prodigious quantity each vintage, ends up at Tarac, one of Australia’s biggest distilleries, to be turned into a neutral grape spirit. 


Tarac has been operating under the radar for nearly a century. This is not a distillery that sells spirits to consumers under its own brand, but an industry-based operation taking leftovers from the vast South Australian wine trade and turning it into spirits mostly used for fortifying sticky wines like tawny, apera and muscat. But in recent years, Australia’s gin producers have also been looking to Tarac as a source of spirit. 


Gin is essentially vodka flavoured with juniper and other natural flavours. Most gin is made from a base of neutral spirit derived from cheap grains like wheat. But as the tsunami of local gins shows no sign of receding, Australian producers are looking to grape-based spirits as a way of standing out. One such brand is The Melbourne Gin Company, a beautifully constructed premium gin from the mind and hands of winemaker Andrew Marks.

 

Marks cut his teeth as a winemaker in the Barossa Valley, where he was lucky enough to work with industry veteran Andrew Kleinig, who went on to be production manager at Tarac distillery. “As a winemaker, I loved the idea of using grape spirit to make my gin,” says Marks. “I was also able to use the knowledge of my mate and he helped me come up with the blend for my gin.”


Asked why Tarac’s grape spirit makes for great gin, Marks explains that their facility produces an almost perfectly neutral base to work from. “If I’m the artist, the spirit is the blank canvas,” he says. “There’s no way on a small still like mine I could create a base so clean. I looked at some other spirits and they were quite rough, so I really trust the Tarac product and I love the purity and sweet aromas we get from it.”


Marionette uses 700 kilograms of imperfect fruit per batch; inspecting the produce at a local farm. Photography courtesy of Marionette.

While Tarac’s spirit is refined to the point of barely any grape flavour remaining, other Australian producers are looking to harness as much character from their fruit as possible. “We work as directly as possible with farmers to source the fruit we use,” says Hugh Leech of Melbourne’s Marionette, a company making craft liqueurs from locally sourced fruit.


Leech explains that an incomprehensible amount of perfectly good produce goes to waste because it’s not the shape or size retailers want. “Walking onto our stone fruit farmer’s property and seeing pallets being carted off was sickening,” he says. Leech and his partners have saved tonnes of fruit from an inglorious fate — about 700 kilograms of stone fruit per batch — and with stunning results. “We have access to Australia’s best fruit within days or sometimes hours of it being picked and before it gets waxed or otherwise processed,” he says. 


The resulting products are dripping with fresh fruit flavour, far more so than most commercial fruit liqueurs. 


Inspecting the produce at a local farm. Photography courtesy of Marionette.

“I love using Marionette because the flavours are actually natural and they pare back the sugar so the fruit can shine,” says Cara Devine, manager of Melbourne’s busy Bomba rooftop bar. “We’ve built cocktails around Marionette’s products because they have such a distinct flavour, where usually a liqueur would be playing backup in most cocktails,” she says.

As Australia’s craft spirits industry continues to grow, the age-old tradition of using excess agricultural produce to make delicious drinks is undergoing a welcome revival — proving that when it comes to great spirits, nothing should be wasted. 


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 92 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The Remains of the Whey”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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