“I saw my role as a product developer as someone who translated consumer needs into tangible products, so I was always looking at things a little differently,” says Emily Darchuk, founder of whey-based Wheyward Spirit. “There’s the Henry Ford quote, ‘If you ask people what they want, it’s a faster horse,’ but it takes innovation to be the person who realizes that you could build a car, and it’s the same in the food and beverage space.”
That kind of different thinking is what led Darchuk, a food scientist and entrepreneur, from the idea that a surplus of whey — the liquid runoff that remains once cheese curds have formed and separated to go on to their cheesy future — could be transformed into a clear, neutral, ultimately dairy-free spirit. More whey is wasted in the cheesemaking process than cheese is created, at a staggering rate of almost 10 to 1. “I realized the problem I saw with whey throughout my career was fixable,” says Darchuk. “It was a gap in the food cycle. And I thought, if someone’s gonna do it, it’s gonna be me. I can be that bridge.”
While Darchuk was especially motivated by the sustainability factor and believed that consumers would be as well, she faced early resistance while developing a whey-based spirit. “The message I was getting from buyers early on regarding waste utilization and sustainability is that nobody cares,” says Darchuk. “But I think that conversation is starting to shift.”
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Despite launching during the pandemic, Wheyward Spirit was quick to take off, earning a Double Gold Medal from the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition in 2021, and a Gold Medal in the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Because she partners with California dairies to collect the whey for Wheyward Spirit, the brand got picked up by the California milk advisory board, and Darchuk is now able to use the Real California Milk seal on her packaging, making Wheyward the first alcoholic beverage to qualify for such a marker. Her efforts have even attracted the attention of Ben & Jerry’s, which resurrected a flavor from its retired flavor graveyard in order to partner with the brand. “I never dreamed I’d be involved in the making of a Ben & Jerry’s flavor!” says Darchuk.
Darchuk spoke to VinePair about leading with sustainability, thinking differently, and the whey forward.
1. How did you initially become interested in food science?
I was a vegetarian from a young age, and I was always really curious about where food came from, as well as its impact. I always knew I wanted to do something with food that was based in science and could touch people, and it was also a creative outlet. The only thing I thought you could do with food was to be a dietician, so that’s what I initially went to school for, but I realized there that I don’t want to tell people what to eat — I want to inspire them. I’d never put together that obviously humans had figured out how to get things in a grocery store, and fortunately my school had a big agriculture program, so that’s the pathway I ended up taking for innovation and product development. I thought it was awesome that I could have that impact on the supply chain and the environment, but also that I could inspire and influence what ended up on the shelves.
2. What was your specific role in food science before you developed Wheyward Spirit?
I was working as a product developer in food and beverage — mainly in natural products — on everything from that initial ideation through commercialization. At Expo West and various conferences, I saw that there were a ton of small companies being really innovative. The power used to be mostly with big businesses, but smaller companies can take more risks; they can solve problems, push boundaries, and create new brands and categories. That inspired me to get my MBA, because I was always really passionate about the whole business aspect of product development, not just the science. I did a program in entrepreneurship and innovation, and I realized there was an opportunity for me to create the type of products — those that sought to make change and solve problems — I always hoped would land on my desk.
3. What inspired you to develop Wheyward Spirit?
One thing that I’m a part of that I actually think is the next big movement in food, having worked with organic and non-GMO verifications, is upcycled food. That concept is going to be really huge. There are makers taking the approach that food waste doesn’t need to be wasted. Upcycled means that you’re taking something that typically would be leaving the human food supply and you’re keeping it in. That doesn’t mean the quality is garbage — I can’t make a double-gold- medal-award-winning product with garbage. It’s assumed that about 30 percent of all food produced in the U.S. annually goes to waste: A lot of that’s on the industrial side, and a chunk is on the commercial side at grocery stores and restaurants, but it’s also on the consumer side. Food waste is like the 10th-highest contributor to carbon output in the environment, so upcycling is really trying to solve the problem of usable food going to waste, which I specifically saw in the cheesemaking industry with whey. For every one pound of cheese that gets made, there’s potentially nine pounds of whey that leaves the food supply.
4. How did you go about actually developing Wheyward Spirit?
From my food science role, I really saw that consumers do care about where things come from, but I didn’t see that interest as much in spirits. And I thought, here’s an opportunity to solve a problem and to add value to the consumer, the spirits category, and the conversation as a whole. So that’s what catalyzed me to just make the leap. But I was essentially a consumer looking at making a distilled spirit, without already being part of that industry. Initially, I really focused on the logistics of solving the whey problem, and then solving that problem at scale. This is because the food industry, which the beverage industry is a part of, is a supply chain industry. I asked: How am I transporting it? Who are the right partners? What does the whey problem look like for different makers? How can I ensure my supply and quality, and what is the spec I need to make a spirit? And where do I put it?
After that, it was a matter of understanding distillery operations, and thinking about how to bridge these two worlds. I did a ton of work on fermentation on my own while trying to understand yield and flavor. Something that was helpful for me was understanding that on a small scale, you can ferment anywhere. I realized that I could do a lot of that distillation on my own by focusing on getting great, fermented wash to then be able to take to a distillery to finalize cuts and make sure it translated on the line. I learned a lot and connected with a ton of people before I had a product that I was ready to sell.
5. Can you explain how Wheyward Spirit gets categorized, since it doesn’t fall under any typical spirit headings?
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) has a Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) which basically governs what things are, and what you can put on a label. Under that, Wheyward Spirit is considered a speciality spirit. Vodka can be made out of anything, so we could be a vodka, but then we would have had to take our distillation proof up to a point of neutrality. I thought, this is a beautiful, delicate, really versatile spirit — why would I strip out all of its character just to make it fit into a specific category? Vodka can be made out of anything, but we were also looking at the proofs and the characteristics of other spirits and putting that together. I call speciality spirits the category of innovation. I think a lot of it has been flavored spirits in the past, but we’re doing everything from a holistic approach, blending together the unique base with the process that’s going to give us the most beautiful, most versatile spirit that stays true to our roots.
6. Can you describe the flavor and texture of Wheyward Spirit?
We like to encourage people to use all their senses with it. Even visually, you can tell it has a little body and some legs to it. When you smell it, it’s inviting and delicate. There’s a kind of a sweet note: a little bit of Champagne, some pear, and you can tell it’s not pure ethanol. In the flavor journey, you’re getting a little bit of vanilla, and oaky notes. And those lactones help us play in some fun cocktail approaches, like with bitters and things like that, like an aged spirit would. Then the next avenue you’re going to take has some warm spice and a little bit of pink peppercorn. Some people pick up anise. And then, finally, it’s just a really clean, really smooth, really creamy finish. That’s where if you use this versus a vodka, you’ll get so much more character in the same type of cocktail.
7. Are there things that the beverage and specifically spirits industry could be doing more of in terms of acting more sustainably?
I’m a believer in connecting people on where their food comes from, and I feel like there’s a little disconnect in spirits in terms of how they’re made and where they come from. People buy things and they don’t even know what the raw material ever was. I think having that conversation would be good. I think when a category gets really big, like agave, for example, what does that do to that raw material? If you have something that’s really slow growing, like agave, and it’s in specialized regions, and it gets really big, that’s great. You sell millions of cases, but what then? How do you balance all of that out? Those are some of the conversations that I think people care about, and brands shouldn’t be afraid to have.
8. Can you tell me about how the Ben and Jerry’s partnership came to be?
We launched Wheyward Spirit during Covid. So we focused a lot on direct-to-consumer sales, getting to know our customers, telling our story, and just getting out there as best we could. We got on Ben and Jerry’s radar pretty early, and got connected with their innovation and marketing team just to talk to them about who I was, what we were doing, and why we were doing it. They really liked what I was doing as a values-led partner, and they liked our spirit. They liked that we’re adding value to the dairy industry, which they’re connected to and obviously care a lot about. They wanted to work together, and the most requested flavor from their flavor graveyard was actually Dublin Mudslide — it had been dearly departed for 15 years, and people really wanted it back. Instead of using a standard spirit, Ben & Jerry’s walks the walk. On our end, we care about sustainability, we care about diversity in categories, we care about quality and flavor, and we’re not afraid to be different. Those are the elements that we brought to the table, too. It was great to work with them. It’s fun for me having done product development for big companies in my past life to have a little part of that journey with our spirit.