We’re doing things a little differently this issue. While we usually dedicate this space to drinks paired with cheese, we’re trying drinks made with cheese this time—or rather, drinks made with cheese’s abundant byproduct: whey. To make most cultured dairy products, curds are separated from whey (that watery stuff at the top of your yogurt tub). Producing one pound of cheese displaces nine pounds of whey, making it one of the industry’s biggest waste liabilities. While some cheesemakers feed whey to livestock and others pay to have it hauled away or converted to solids like protein powder, a huge portion winds up in dumps or waterways. In this environmentally unfriendly excess, a few waste-conscious innovators have struck liquid gold.
That nutritious run-off can be upcycled into refreshing beverages, ranging from restorative to downright boozy. On the wellness end of the spectrum, whey makes an electrolyte-filled, calcium-rich, and gut-friendly sports drink. Markets for this already exist in Iran, Iceland, and Switzerland (where the Swiss ski team is sponsored by whey soda brand Rivella), but the US has been slow to adopt. “People are hesitant to try something new, but I feel kombucha and coconut water had similar hurdles to overcome,” says Homa Dashtaki, owner of Brooklyn-based artisanal yogurt company White Moustache, which produces a probiotic tonic with their whey.
If you like to warm up with something a bit stronger après ski, there’s a whey drink for you, too. It was while enjoying one of Dashtaki’s tonics that Long Island-based craft distiller Leslie Merinoff decided to make her Eau de Milk Punch, a 43 percent ABV spirit she creates by fermenting White Moustache’s whey with things like grapefruit and rhubarb. “I look for flavor wherever I can find it and I hate to see it wasted,” she says. Merinoff is among a cohort of distillers making clear spirits from both cow’s and sheep’s whey—France, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand produce whey vodkas, while Ireland makes a whey gin. In the States, even craft brewers are experimenting with whey.
“You have a slightly tart, sweet, salty liquid that most companies don’t know what to do with,” says Sam Alcaine, assistant professor of dairy fermentation at Cornell University. Alcaine was tasked with finding a use for New York’s excess whey by the Department of Environmental Conservation and, having worked at Miller Brewing before Cornell, he knew what to do. “I saw sugar we could convert into alcohol… and something with a base acidity not too far off from sour beers.” Alcaine developed a one-off whey ale with a local brewery and is now at work on another whey brew that he hopes will be exported beyond the Finger Lakes. For a few of our favorite whey drinks on shelves right now, read on.
About the drink: Best friends Justin Green and Antony Jackson make their whey gin using botanicals foraged around the historic inn Green owns, and those coriander, cardamom, and juniper flavors come through in every luxurious sip. Green and Jackson turned to whey because they wanted a farm-to-table product, but couldn’t source Irish-made grain spirit (it’s all reserved for the whiskey industry). The name is a nod to local celebrity cow Bertha, who held a breeding record of 39 calves—this relaxing tipple is her “revenge” for a lifetime of service.
Whey origins: Kerrygold Dubliner Cheddar
About the drink: Paul “Archie” Archard comes from a very longline of cheesemakers inWest Dorset, UK, but wanted to find a home for all their wasted whey before he continued the family tradition. He and his friend Jason Barber filter whey from Archard’s grass-grazed herds through coconut shell charcoal to make a clean vodka with milk-sugar sweetness to dull the burn; excellent on its own but also very martini-friendly.
About the drink: When Homa Dashtaki saw how much whey her strained Iranian yogurts left behind, she knew it needed a home. “We weren’t going to increase the volume of yogurt we were making ‘til we found a market for the whey,” she says. The yogurt whey paired well with similarly tangy flavors in Dashtaki’s recipe testing, so she crafted a lineup of passionfruit, honey lime, ginger, and pineapple beverages that refresh like lemonade on a summer day.
Whey origins: White Moustache yogurt
About the drink: Melissa Martinelli and partner Michael Hagauer got the idea to experiment with fresh whey in their Cambridge, Massachusetts kitchen from the traditional whey drinks Hagauer enjoyed while growing up in a remote Alpine village. The recipe for their refreshing beverage uses whey from both cheese and yogurt, and comes in flavors like Cucumber Lime, Lemon Elderflower, and Peach Mango, with a cranberry flavor forthcoming.