The road from Milwaukee, Wis., to Ithaca, N.Y., is awash in the runny, proteinaceous by-product of the yogurt-making process known as whey. Or at least it was for Sam Alcaine, who worked on novel fermentations in the research and development department of Molson Coors (then known as MillerCoors) in the early aughts before migrating east and eventually taking an associate professor gig in Cornell University’s food science department. “Serendipitously, when I started up here, my focus was on dairy,” he tells VinePair in a recent phone interview. New York produces more milk than all but four other states, and more yogurt than 49. The result is a billion-dollar business that churns out hundreds of millions of pounds of acidic, milk-adjacent whey, which for various environmental reasons is not the sort of thing you can simply dump down the drain. Modern problems require modern solutions, and Alcaine had just that. “Looking at it with my brewer’s hat, I’m like ‘Hey, there’s a lot of sugar in here. We can convert that into alcohol.”
There is nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes, and Alcaine’s whey-based epiphany is no exception to that rule. Accounts of kumis, a central Asian beverage of fermented mare’s milk, date back to the 5th century B.C.; kefir grains, gelatinous bacterial lumps, have been used to ferment animal milks for thousands of years. Dozens of culinary traditions around the world, if not hundreds, have their own expressions of fermented milk beverages and foodstuffs, and many of them contain trace amounts of alcohol. But those products were fermented for sustenance, flavor, or preservation as much as leisure consumption; like kombucha, many feature low, incidental alcohol-by-volume figures. Plus, they’re broadly unknown to the Western drinking public. In 21st-century America, though, the kombucha is hard, as is the lemonade, tea, soda, and, of course, seltzer. The past 10 years have seen an unparalleled parade of beverage-alcohol innovation as American drinkers became enamored with ethyl-izing everything. Alcaine saw an opportunity in the milky alco-alchemy. With a partner, he began testing out prototypes in a local taproom in Western New York for a whey-based hard seltzer in 2016. Six years and a pandemic later, Norwhey Nordic Seltzer — a nod to the whey-producing skyr that Nordic sailors relied on at sea for nutrients — hit store shelves across Western New York for the first time.
Mixed with milk, or derived from dairy?
Even for the lactose-tolerant and forward-thinking American drinker, the concept of dairy-based hard seltzer may be tough to digest. After all, “fluid milk,” as it’s (unfortunately) known in the agricultural industry, is a polarizing beverage in the United States. It’s been a recommended diet staple for American children due to its much-touted nutritional value since the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its first official Food Guide in 1917. But for the past half century, adults in the United States have turned their backs on milk in increasingly large numbers, put off by its unctuousness and environmental impact or simply siphoned away by dynamic and flavorful drinks that aren’t secreted from a fellow mammal’s mammaries. On that last point, contemporary pop culture has been particularly unkind. “There’s something kind of horrific about milk,” Jordan Peele told The Los Angeles Times, explaining the milk-sipping scene he wrote for Allison Williams’ character in “Get Out.” “Think about what we’re doing. Milk is kind of gross.”
It’s true that the American beverage-alcohol landscape is increasingly awash in Frankensteined gimmicks that defy preexisting notions of palatibilty and posterity; it’s also true that fictional representations of dairy-based booze in canonical cinema (Korova Plus in “A Clockwork Orange”) and contemporary prestige TV (Gut Milk, the 13 percent ABV multi-level-marketing scheme from “Only Murders in the Building”) offer some precedent, however outlandish, for the real thing. And it’s not as though there’s a dearth of milky, dairy-based alcoholic beverages on the American market. Drinkers are familiar with White Russians and Grasshoppers, Irish cream and RumChata, all of which derive rich texture and taste from the dairy that lurks within. (This is also the case vis-a-vis Adult Chocolate Milk, a now-defunct vodka milk endorsed by one Elgin Baylor Lumpkin, better known by his stage name, Ginuwine, for a stretch last decade. Lumpkin did not respond to a social media message requesting comment.) On the non-dairy tip, plant-based milk alternatives are already pushing into liqueurs.
But lately, real, potable, and premium-packaged drinks that — and this is a crucial distinction — derive alcoholic content from dairy are making inroads with American drinkers. Momentum is building. Major dairy brands like Chobani and FAGE are already selling their whey to distillers who produce neutral spirits and high-end gin from it. Small brewers and distillers are eyeing hard kombucha’s success as they concoct would-be milk-made equivalents. Dairy is generally amid a bit of an American redemption tour, and tomorrow’s LDAs (that’s legal-drinking-age adults, in the jargon) are on the hunt for cleaner, lower-impact alternatives to today’s climate-crushing booze brands, says Andrea Hernández, the founder of the popular consumer packaged goods newsletter Snaxshot. “This feels right.”
From ‘milk sugar’ to potable product
Turning dairy into booze is easy enough in theory. After all, humans were doing it literally millenia ago. Animal milks contain lactose, which — in addition to being an adjunct à la mode at haze canneries across the country — is a simple sugar, the vital starter upon which all alcohol-producing yeast feast. But finding a bacterial strain that can break down the dual molecules that comprise lactose (galactose and glucose) efficiently enough to make modern booze production viable isn’t quite as straightforward. “Conventional [brewing] yeast can’t ferment lactose,” explains Paul Hughes, an assistant professor of distilled spirits in Oregon State University’s Department of Food Science & Technology. A few years back, a recently graduated OSU student had approached him with the idea of turning whey into alcohol to address the challenge of whey disposal (“effluent,” in the parlance, and something we’ll talk about more in a minute) at small and mid-sized creameries. They quickly learned what all successful dairy-drinks innovators know: Saccharomyces cerevisiae and other popular yeasts for distilling and fermenting alcohol have simply no appetite for milk sugar. Luckily, there are approximately 98,000 varieties of yeast in the USDA’s Agriculture Research Center’s Culture Collection, and they deliver. “You send them a shipping label by email, and they’ll put a small sample of the 10 or 12 yeasts you’ve selected in the mail, and send them back to you,” Hughes tells VinePair.
After some trial and error, the OSU team settled on Kluyveromyces marxianus. The strain can “chop up” the lactose into its subunits, and yields a pair of alcohol molecules from each, but unlike the Brettanomyces claussenii that yields Norwhey’s approachable 4 percent ABV, K. marxianus ferments a solution that’s just 3 percent ABV. “Anemic even by Coors Light standards,” scoffs Hughes. But, pleased with the flavor properties of the slightly spiked slurry, the professor began pondering a whey-based spirit. A serendipitous call from TMK Creamery, a small dairy outfit an hour north of Corvallis, Ore., whose owner had read a local news item about Hughes’s work, provided a real-life opportunity to distill whey for commercial purposes. Partnering with Divine Distillery, a Salem spirits outfit, the team set about developing liquor with TMK’s excess whey and Hughes’s lactose-eating yeast. Cowcohol, a full-proof vodka, followed, arriving on store shelves in 2019.
“I still consider my main expertise to be beer,” says Hughes, who entered the United Kingdom’s brewing workforce, and later picked up distilling expertise during a decade-long turn in Scotland. “But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
Speaking of authorities: The U.S. has a bunch of ‘em, and when it comes to the production, sale, and taxation of alcoholic beverages, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is usually the big cheese (ahem). But because a dairy-based hard drink derives its alcohol from the sugars found in milk, rather than fruit or grain, it’s an outlier from the regulatory herd. When the booze comes from fermented whey, “because it’s not going to have hops and it’s most likely not going to have malt, it’s going to be considered an IRC beer” that falls outside the purview of the TTB, says Kevin Anderson, a compliance consultant and the vice president of AlcoholConsulting.com. (That’s the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, which contains the legal definitions for “beer” and “malt beverage.” Whey-based hard seltzer is the former, but not the latter.) Instead, that sort of beverage falls under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which requires nutritional facts but doesn’t approve labels, like the TTB. “You just have to do it correctly,” says Anderson, so as not to run afoul of the agency. Formula approvals from the TTB, required whenever someone is trying to make “a product that is not generally recognized as … ‘beer,’” can also be challenging for whey-fermenters, whose unconventional brewing ingredients must be designated as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe. That’s the FDA’s call. As you might guess, this all takes time. Anderson’s firm recently concluded a 10-month process to secure for a client the appropriate approvals to use a certain bovine collagen in its formula. By contrast, an approval for formulas using normal ingredients could take as little as a week. Such is the conundrum whey-based upstarts face. “Federal guidelines do not allow [brewers] to produce something that requires a formula without a formula approved,” says Anderson. “It’s like, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Or in this case, the cow or the dairy-based hard seltzer.
Making alcohol in the U.S. is no mean feat even on conventional terms. Given the additional dimensions of difficulty that dairy demands — the special yeasts, the regulatory chicanery, the trial and error — the whey-ignorant might wonder whether all this extra effort is worth it.
“First and foremost is sustainability,” says Alcaine, whose business partner owned an Upstate New York creamery prior to launching Norwhey. Finding uses for whey is critical because the U.S. dairy industry produces so much whey, and it can wreak ecological havoc if not properly handled. We’re talking inland oceans of sloppy, acidic effluent toxic enough to cause vast fish kills and algal blooms if dumped. The biggest corporate cheese and yogurt manufacturers have multimillion-dollar machines for capturing this dairy discharge, upcycling it into biogas, protein supplements, and other products. But smaller dairies and creameries can’t afford that sort of thing, so any whey they can’t use must be gotten rid of in accordance with local environmental law. This is pricey: “The lactose in whey accounts for about three-quarters of effluent charges in a typical environment,” says Hughes. “Just by fermenting out the lactose, even if you did nothing else and just threw it down the drain, you’d save about 75 percent of your effort. But of course throwing alcohol away gives me the heebie jeebies.” Hence Cowcohol (and Black Cow, Wheyward Spirit, Vodkow, and so on): liquor, sure, but also a model for how other small- and mid-sized creameries can recoup effluent costs.
Hughes, a multiyear judge on the American Craft Spirits competition, calculates that a fromagerie selling high-end cheddar at $40 a pound can capture another $20 per pound producing beverage alcohol from the whey. Cheddar on cheddar! Of course, nothing is easy, least of all turning tossable whey into salable liquor. “The problem with all these sustainability efforts is matching processes,” Hughes cautions. To put it another way: Yogurt- and cheesemakers aren’t necessarily prepared for, or even interested in, the booze business. “The challenge is saying to creameries, ‘What we want you to do is bolt on this unfamiliar process that maybe distracts from your main value product.’” That can be a tough sell for small, undercapitalized agricultural outfits.
Getting drinkers through ‘the gateway’
It’s a compelling concept, and a laudable mission, especially given the dire straits in which America’s independent dairies find themselves these days. But to actually make a difference environmentally or economically, drinkers will have to actually buy it. After all, supply is nothing without demand, and though there’s plenty of whey to go around, Americans thirsty for dairy-derived hard drinks aren’t quite so available — not yet, at least. The rise of hard seltzers and broader consumer interest in non-traditional beverage-alcohol segments over the past few years has already provided elbow room for whey-based innovation on the regulatory front, though. As the feds have reviewed and revised rules to keep up with the rapidly changing market, says Anderson, “it’s definitely started a great trend at making life easier for these alcohol manufacturers.”
This has created a virtuous cycle: As producers got more regulatory latitude to experiment, they attracted drinkers seeking novel beverages, which in turn incentivized more innovation and reform, and so on. Mary Guiver, the global principal category merchant for beer and spirits at Whole Foods Market, calls flavored malt beverages’ mainstream turn late last decade “an absolute gateway” moment in beverage alcohol that has since made customers more willing to try a broader spectrum of drink. Stroll down any Whole Foods beer aisle, and it’s easy to see what she means. Finding new types and flavors of alcohol to impress the supermarket’s sophisticated customers “wasn’t something we had to worry about seven years ago,” Guiver tells VinePair. But the game has changed in so many ways since 2015, and it bodes well for alternative alcoholic beverages with strong backstories, she says.
Consider kombucha’s trajectory: A polarizing beverage to Americans in its own right, it has nevertheless managed to spawn an alcoholic pseudo-segment over the past half decade thanks to its “health halo” and unique flavor profiles. Whey-based hard drinks have effectively no protein (which is why they won’t curdle), but oodles of electrolytes and minerals; though brands can’t legally pitch the beverages as healthy on account of the alcohol content, dairy has a strong nutritional reputation with most Americans. Plus, whey itself has become an “it” ingredient in boutique groceries. “This is something an Erewhon Market consumer, they’ll get it,” says Hernández, referring to the trendsetting Southern California specialty store. (Erewhon did not respond to a request for comment.) It’d likely be a tougher sell in a mainstream supermarket at this stage in the products’ U.S. lifecycles, she speculates, but for whey-based booze to transcend novelty, that’s where those products must ultimately compete.
“As a dairy person, I would obviously love to see” Norwhey and other whey beverages follow a similar path to kombucha from specialty store to supermarket, says Alcaine, who says the brand has opened around 100 accounts in Western New York with wholesale partner T.J. Sheehan, and has signed on with another distributor to develop a direct-to-consumer channel. “There still needs to be a little bit of work on the [whey-based alcohol] space, but obviously the fermentation is there, the technology is there. It’s just getting the consumer to take that leap.”
Will they? What would it take to quench U.S. thirsts with boozy bovine byproduct today? “I think the timing is really good,” says Guiver. “To be frank, it’s not like we’ve ever really looked at the dairy case as a place for us to monitor trends, but what I do think is really interesting about whey vodka is its global impact and its anti-waste angle.” As for why it hasn’t yet (Whole Foods, for example, does not currently carry any whey-based alcohol SKUs nationally), she cites the relative lack of drinker education on the dairy-based products and their sustainability bona fides, and the challenges of demo-ing new products in stores during the first couple years of the pandemic. But Guiver sees the potential, musing in a recent interview about a one-two retail punch of whey-based ready-to-drink cocktails and spirits that would allow customers to get acquainted at a more approachable price point before stepping up to full-proof bottles. “If you had every cylinder firing and you launched something with this kind of story, and it tasted good, it’s got the potential to change the dialogue,” she says.
In other words, for whey-based booze to transcend Ginuwine gimmick to become a genuine segment, it’ll need to follow the same road of countless successful beverage-alcohol category creators that came before it. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.