The Brace cocktail, made with whey

When I got a promotional bottle of vodka in the mail recently (unsolicited—if I were going to solicit anything, it certainly wouldn’t be vodka), I glanced at the press release that accompanied it and did my usual eye roll at its puffed-up claims. The co-owner of the company, Broken Shed, is quoted as saying, “We wanted to create a drink that was not only enjoyable—but also better for you. The creamy origin of this vodka makes it sugar free, gluten free, and highly palatable.” The first two claims may be true (I’ll get to the third later)—but all vodka is sugar free and gluten free, unless it has sugary flavorings added after it’s been distilled.

The “creamy origin” part intrigued me, though; it turns out that the vodka is made from whey. I don’t buy the release’s claim that Broken Shed vodka is “whey better for you.” But I’d never heard of distilling vodka (or anything else) from whey before, so I started doing research online.

Whey spirits aren’t all that common, it seems—but distilling from whey is far from a new innovation. It’s not necessarily simple, though, which may explain why it’s not more widely done. The best explanation I found was on the website Liquid Irish, which points out that whey contains 4 to 5 percent lactose (a type of sugar). Sugar, of course, is necessary for making alcohol, but it has to be fermented and there are only a few yeast strains that can ferment lactose. A dairy company in Cork, Ireland, found an efficient way to convert whey into ethanol in the late 70s and has been ramping up production ever since. Also in the late 70s, two Wisconsin companies started making vodka from whey. Irish poteen, a traditional spirit that’s been made for centuries, is sometimes distilled from whey, and I’ve seen mention of both wine and elderflower gin made from the dairy byproduct. And there are at least two distilleries in the U.S. (VDKA 6100 and Vermont Spirits) and one in England (Black Cow) making whey vodka.

Reading about whey was the fun part, though. I eventually had to taste the vodka, a spirit I dislike and rarely drink. For that reason, I’m not reviewing Broken Shed, which I’ve learned from reading reviews (by people who actually enjoy vodka, I assume), is a very well-regarded vodka. I thought it smelled like rubbing alcohol and tasted just marginally better than it smelled. But I also had the same reaction to the Reyka vodka I found on my shelf and tasted alongside the Broken Shed.

While searching for information about whey spirits, I’d also come across a few mentions of cocktails involving whey. And, of course, I remembered that the Violet Hour’s John Smillie had created a whey cocktail for the Reader‘s Cocktail Challenge earlier this year. I would have loved to take a stab at that recipe, but I didn’t have any Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac or Palo Cortado sherry sitting around. For that matter, I didn’t have any whey. But I did come across a recipe in a blog post by bartender Jennifer Colliau for a cocktail called the Brace that included instructions for making whey: combine milk with lime juice, let it sit until it curdles, then strain out the solids.

It seemed a little extravagant to use up perfectly good milk to make something that’s usually a by-product in the creation of more exciting stuff like cheese and Greek yogurt, but for the purposes of experimentation I went for it. It’s a fairly simple drink: besides the lime/whey mixture, the only ingredients are pisco, simple syrup, Cointreau, and manzanilla sherry. I had everything except the sherry, so I substituted a little dry white wine (which I realize is not at all the same thing) and it wasn’t bad. The whey made the cocktail a little foamy, and gave it a creamy texture the way an egg white would. It didn’t taste creamy at all, though; the cocktail was light and citrusy, similar to a pisco sour. (I halved the recipe, which is why the drink looks so small in the photo at the top.) I don’t think I’d bother to make my own whey again, but if I happened to have some around I’d try using it in other cocktails.

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Thursdays.