In Food + Drink

“Sweet And Creamy”: How Sheep’s Whey Is Shaking Up The Craft Spirits Scene

When Ryan Hartshorn’s mother moved to Tasmania, her plan was to start a winery. She got as far as planting a vineyard in Grandvewe, 40 km south of Hobart, but needed an income stream while the vines matured and settled on sheep’s cheese.

Today the 80 milking ewes at Grandvewe Cheese still look out over lush farmland towards the beautiful D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Bruny Island in the distance, but the vines are long gone.

Instead, Hartshorn Distillery is making some of Australia’s most distinctive craft spirits.

“Thirteen years learning about the high-end food market through our cheesery sales helped me to tailor a product to suit an area of the Australian spirit market that had not yet been serviced,” Hartshorn says of the brand’s genesis.

As for the niche he chose, he adds with a smile that it was “vodka that you could enjoy neat without choking”.

Hartshorn says that making the farm as sustainable as possible “has and always will be our focus”. The property is certified organic, but four years ago Hartshorn took it a step further when he developed an ingenious method for turning whey, a by-product that many cheesemakers simply pour down the drain, into premium spirits.

The self-taught Hartshorn began “after reading online distilling forums for twelve months”, and it’s fair to say that it wasn’t an immediate success. There’s a reason whey is not a common base for distillers; it’s very difficult to work with and he describes the first-ever run as “terrible, very bitter”.

Consequently, it was only tasted by family and never released, but after a few tweaks to the fermentation process, he created a product far closer to his initial vision.

The vodka is double distilled, and because he doesn’t filter it he can only use a small section from the middle of each run with minimal impurities. That, he says, is “a big reason why I won World’s Best Vodka in London 2018”.

It also means that the whey character carries through to the finished spirit with a sweetness from the lactose and a creamy texture that sets it apart from anything else in the category.

It also limits his production – each batch is about 80 bottles – but that hasn’t stopped the distillery from growing continuously. The farm now sells more vodka than cheese and has begun buying extra milk from another Tasmanian sheep farm, with plans to build a new distillery that will increase production by 400 per cent next year.

As well as vodka, Hartshorn also makes a gin that uses native Australian ingredients including lemon myrtle, anise myrtle, wattleseed and two botanicals that are a very closely guarded secret. He describes them as “very hard to find botanicals other distilleries have not used” and will only reveal that they are “a native flower and native sweet grass.”

Hartshorn Distillery

Once the distilling is finished, those botanicals are wrapped around the outside of the Gin Herbalist cheese while it matures, as well as being made into a range of mustards and cheese pastes.

It’s a chance for Hartshorn to make sure that nothing is wasted and a measure of how much thought goes into each stage of production, right down to the award-winning bottle design.

Each bottle is spray painted black before Hartshorn’s design is hand-painted on, a laborious process that he used to do alone. Now he has four staff to help, though he still puts his signature by hand on every bottle.

Hartshorn Distillery

Looking towards the future, the young distiller is adamant that he’s only interested in making whey-based products but that still leaves still plenty of room for experimentation. An oaked vodka aged for a minimum of a year hints at his love of whisky, and the very limited edition “whey-sky” took it a step further. Because it wasn’t made from fermented grain it can’t be called a whisky, but it was distilled and aged in the same manner.

Unfortunately, the run of 64 bottles sold out in less than 24 hours, and Hartshorn has been so busy that he hasn’t been able to do another run so the wait for a second batch will be at least three years.

The new facility will allow him a bit more time to experiment, as well as keep up with the ever-growing orders, and it’s a fair bet that there are a few more surprises in store from this unique operation. It all began with an attempt to make something a world away from the intentionally tasteless vodkas intended for mixing, something with “a lot of character”.

It’s a description that could well be applied to its founder and the distillery bearing his name.

(All images: Hartshorn Distillery / supplied) 

Published 17 October, 2019