Show Me the Whey
Irish dairy is transforming into something a bit more intoxicating
“We’ve always been known for our field-to-fork philosophy,” says Justin Green, owner of Ballyvolane House, an idyllic inn in Irish dairy country. So when Ireland’s winter tourism lull prompted Green to diversify, he was determined to find a pursuit that complemented the inn’s locavore ethos. In a stroke of inspired creativity, he turned his attention to whey, the tart liquid byproduct of cheese- and yogurt-making, which is tricky to dispose of in large quantities.
Green’s sustainable solution is Bertha’s Revenge, a whey-based gin borne out of a tour of London’s burgeoning craft gin scene. While there, he met Charles Maxwell, head distiller at gin-focused Thames Distillers, who explained that whey distillation was pioneered in the late 1970s some 50 miles from Ballyvolane, at West Cork dairy outfit Carbery. “I came back going, ‘Right, we’re definitely doing it,’” recalls Green.
With the late 2015 debut of Ballyvolane House Spirits Company, whey officially entered gin territory. Green and co-distiller Antony Jackson completed 19 runs before they hit on their final recipe, a blend of whey distillate from Cork cows, a spice- and citrus-forward bouquet of botanicals (some, like sweet woodruff, foraged on-site), and Ballyvolane well water.
As it happens, whey-based drinks are increasing in popularity the world over. In the U.K., dairy farmer Jason Barber has been distilling the world’s first milk vodka since 2012. And last year, Roderick Hale Weaver, spirits adviser at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, and former cocktail director at Husk, launched a line of drinks, Weaver Family Whey, made with leftover whey from the Husk kitchen and flavorings like coconut, lime, and grapefruit. “Whey has a texture similar to milk, without the fat film,” Weaver says. Husk still uses his whey concoctions as mixers in cocktails such as the Wheyt for It, which combines bourbon, Aperol, Weaver Family Orange Whey, Braggs apple cider vinegar, and Nardini amaro.
For Green, however, whey’s smoothness is best showcased by standalone sipping. “It’s rather like a single-malt whiskey,” he notes. Best of all, Bertha’s Revenge echoes Ballyvolane’s philosophy beautifully. “It’s a lovely Irish story,” Green says. “We’re known for the greenest dairy pastures in the world, so it’s a natural step.”