How Now, Vodka Cow
Vodka made from milk? Paul Archard and Jason Barber at Black Cow vodka are doing something rather delicious. And it’s Fortnum’s best seller so they’re clearly doing something right
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Can milk and vodka go together in the same sentence? Well, in a picturesque part of deepest Dorset the answer is clearly yes. Black Cow vodka has been producing vodka made from milk since 2012, “like all good ideas it happened over a drink,” recalls co-founder Paul (Archie) Archard, “my colleague Jason (Barber) and I had always been interested in distilling and he’d always had a soft spot for vodka – less of a hangover!”
Jason’s family has been in the cheese making business for almost 300 years, being one of the oldest cheddar makers in the country. Nonetheless, “it was a journey of how to do it” recalls Archie. Once they’d settled on the idea of using milk as the base, it took over a year of experimentation and “trial and error” to come up with a workable concept. At one stage, the pair were discussing filtration and filters with a PhD specialist, only to find that, as a practising Muslim, he was unable to sample the result of the process. These obstacles were soon overcome and the team of 15 at Black Cow are now dealing with customers in 11 countries.
The process starts, clearly, with the cows. Black Cow uses the milk from the grass-gazed, 250 strong herd Jason’s family own. When cheese is made, it is traditionally is spilt into the curds and the whey. The curd goes on to be the base of the cheese and the whey was unfortunately a waste product. Archie and Jason take this whey and ferment it into a milk beer using a specific yeast they eventually found worked. One constituent part of the whey is high in lactose and this provides the base from which the yeast works. The result of the fermentation process forms the foundation for the vodka and it is then distilled and subsequently triple filtered.
Like Jason, Archie’s journey to the Black Cow distillery was not through the traditional drinks industry. He trained in Chelsea as a sculptor before moving into the film industry in London and then also working in California. His experience overseas has been of great use to the brand, as their US effort is now focused on that state. “California is where the zeitgeist is,” Archie remarks, “it’s not just the Hollywood thing, but there is such an ever burgeoning food culture out there and sustainability is very big.” Black Cow’s sustainability credentials from using the usually wasted whey also give it a unique edge in this market. The other area of North America the team have focused on is Toronto. The Ontario Liquor Board is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – purchasers of spirits in the world. From his time in North America, Archie has cultivated contacts to get the board to give the thumbs up to the vodka, though he also remarks upon the assistance given by the Department for International Trade back here.
Archie finds the creative aspect of building a brand fascinating, “it’s so similar to any creative process. There is design and creativity in everything you do – even the financial and logistical side of it all – as building a brand is in many ways just a much longer creative project than creating one single item. You continually innovate. Doing this is very much a logical extension of what I was doing.”
Black Cow is by no means just focused on Northern America. It is the top selling vodka in Fortnum & Masons and Archie comments that they have extensive stockists across London and the South East of the UK, as well as selling in Japan, Denmark and Singapore amongst other countries.
One can see why. The vodka has a much softer, rounder feel in the mouth than almost any other, “it’s not flinty is it?” Archie observes with a smile. This softness makes for a lovely martini base. The soft taste allows the crispness of any garnish on a dry martini to shine through and gently lift the drink. Jason experiments with various infused vodkas and whilst at Black Cow, the Riddle team had a number pressed upon them. Whilst the Stilton-infused one may be an acquired taste, the orange-infused example used as the base for an expresso martini was just delicious (this writer didn’t like expresso martinis until this “spiritual” (sorry, couldn’t resist) epiphany). Given where it comes from, Black Cow vodka is equally delicious served neat with cheese; Jason and Archie’s Black Cow Truckle Cheddar is beautifully strong, nutty and crumbly.
Off the back of gin’s current extreme popularity, Archie and Jason are very phlegmatic, “spirits come in cycles,” Jason remarks, “like German wines! An awful lot of the small gin brands we don’t know if they will last as businesses in the long run.” With smaller vodka makers now appearing on the scene, “people with stories to tell,” vodka now has a similar buzz about it to gin – “you could see at one stage why the bar community went off vodka in favour of gin as it was all big name, soulless, tasteless stuff. Now that’s changing.”
One area the pair see evolving in the vodka world is on food pairing. After all, it has been done in the spirit’s historic home in Eastern Europe for centuries. As mentioned, given the same raw base, Black Cow vodka sits very naturally with cheese and the brand collaborate closely with chef and nearby fan Mark Hix, having joined forces at Food Rocks in Lymn Regis. “As Mark always emphasises, ‘anything over three ingredients and you lose the simplicity of the taste and the individual ingredients,’” remarks Jason. The Black Cow team have a large open space with a kitchen to allow them to serve Hix inspired lunches. On offer is a five course paired meal and the Black Cow team offer these as well as more simple tours and tastings. “One of the best things about these events is it’s great to get feedback and meet passionate fans and aficionados” remarks Archie.
This vodka brand is certainly gaining friends in faraway places too. Archie mentions they’ve had visitors from Mongolia – as there is a similar culture of making alcoholic drinks from milk in that country – and that Black Cow miniatures are served on board Mongolian Air. Black Cow certainly has plans moving forward, as Archie says, “we always want to do one thing well. Ultimately we want to turn it into the premier pure milk vodka globally.” At the moment, they bottle just over 100,000 bottles per anum, though the site has capacity to go up to half a million per year. They also run the Black Cow cocktail competition and, as Jason rightly puts it, “as much talent and sweat goes into a glass as a plate. Vodka just has such tremendous utility.”
Enquiries: Black Cow Vodka, Childhay Manor, Childhay, Beaminster, Dorset DT8 3LQ / 01308 868844 / www.blackcow.co.uk/