There aren't many distillers out there who got their inspiration to create an award-winning vodka from a Mongolian warrior-ruler and one of the most famous conquerors of history. In fact, at our last count, it was one. One distiller. And his name is Jason Barber.
Jason comes from a long line of dairy farmers. With 300 years of dairy farming, his fam are one of the oldest cheese makers in Britain, so to say he knows his sh*t about the dairy industry is an understatement. But what makes him qualified to create the first and only vodka to be made entirely out of milk? We took a jaunt down to the Black Cow Distillery in Dorset to meet with Jason and his crew to learn about this ground-breaking vodka, how and why they make it, and obviously, we tasted a fair bit as well... would have been rude not to.
It started of course with the idea. The inspiration came in the form of Genghis Kahn’s world conquests fuelled by milk vodka… ‘Milk vodka?!’ I thought. After learning a bit about vodka production, understanding that essentially one needs sugar to turn into alcohol - I thought of the surplus whey left over after making cheese – which is full of sugar. This idea developed over a few drinks with my friend, neighbour and drinking companion Paul Archard.
‘Archie’ as he’s known, is an artist and at the time was directing commercials. With only the first few experiments we agreed we had never tasted a smoother or more ingenious vodka. Archie set about creating the bottle and developing the Black Cow brand… with a little help from our friends and family… the rest is history.
We are the first and only vodka to be made entirely out of milk, and more precisely what is leftover from the milk after making cheese. Beautifully economic and unbelievably smooth.
Black Cow is really so smooth you can drink it neat, and its especially wonderful with a charcuterie board filled with British charcuterie, pickles and cheese.
It also makes the perfect martini, dirty or twisted, and a superior espresso martini made our way with only espresso and maple syrup. I get up to a Black Cow Bloody Mary every Sunday with fried Black Pudding. Vodka has a wonderful ubiquity and because Black Cow is so pure you can use it in just about anything to great effect! We always pair Black Cow with food - from Mark Hix’s cheese fondue recipe which uses both our cheese and vodka, to a boozy tiramisu.
I get up at 6am in the morning, make myself a cup of tea, then get on my way down to the diary. I arrive at the dairy at 6.25am. I clean out the cows, push them around their big tilts, then check around the town. I’ve got two bulls – one from Austria, a Holstein one from a Copperdown in Devon.
Once done at the diary at about 9ish, I head back home, have a coffee, and answer a few emails and phone calls. Then head down towards Black Cow at 10.30 or so to get a distillation going. I meet Sean who heads up the distilling, we take off the heads. Our vodka is triple distilled, the last time in copper, which gets rid of impurities. Then we take the heart of the distillation.
Once its distilling I’ll check what orders are going in and what orders are going out before travelling up to where the family make cheese to pick up some more ingredients to make more vodka.
Then it's back to see everyone at the distillery again to have a drink with the barmen. They make espresso martinis and dirty martinis, but my fave is a vodka sour – especially in summer weather.
I finish at the distillery at 4.30ish – then I head back to the diary and check around all the cows and make sure they’re alright. I feed the young stock before heading back for supper, returning once last time to check on the cows around 9pm. Of course, days do change - occasionally I'll spend a day making cheese.
Setting up any business is a challenge from one day to the next, always something different. The biggest is probably being the little independent upstart, I think we are often targeted by competitors but that could also be an advantage, having to think how we solve a problem instead of simply throwing money at it.
I think we are most proud of the reach of our distribution, we are available all across the country and internationally too. We just need more people to try it and fall in love with it as we have.
Obviously the fact that our still is called Ermintrude means we have had magic success.
For now, we're going to continue concentrating on making the smoothest vodka and making it as sustainably as possible... from milk, of course.
Black Cow Vodka can be purchased directly from the source at blackcow.co.uk (make sure you order some of their epic cheese to accompany it)
You can also book the full distillery experience. The 3 hour experience includes a badass cocktail making class, a tour of the distillery, a peek at the secrets and skills that go into making Black Cow and a relaxed 3-course lunch in the Bar + Kitchen for £70pp. Book your place here to meet the maker for yourself.