Turning whey waste into spirits: Researchers explore “whey-based” vodka

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12 Jun 2018 --- A new movement is emerging where whey waste is repurposed and used to make vodka, lessening the environmental impact of dumping whey and giving artisanal companies opportunities to turn a profit. According to studies at Oregon State University, recently published in the Journal of Dairy Science, up to 90 percent of the milk that goes into a cheese-making facility comes out as whey.

This can be expensive to dispose of in landfills and potentially harmful to the environment.

Larger companies in the industry can afford the equipment to turn some of that whey into protein powders and other nutrition-enhancing products, but it’s harder for most smaller artisanal creameries to do so, researchers say. 

However, some of these smaller companies are exploring whey-based “spirits” – namely, vodka. And this could lead to more cows becoming a “potential cog in the distilling process” as well as lessening the environmental impact of dumping whey into a landfill, says the University's studies. 

“Even though some energy is required to transform whey into vodka, there is still a huge environmental gain by not disposing of it through waste streams,” said Lisbeth Goddik, a professor of food science and technology at OSU.

“TClick to Enlargehere is a significant reduction of greenhouse gases and the creameries also have the potential to boost their revenue.”

A handful of companies are already producing “vodka from whey” products and Goddik, along with Paul Hughes of OSU’s fermentation science program, are researching the flavor characteristics of different wheys and the spirits they produce.

Most of the whey in the US is “sweet whey,” which comes from the process of making cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss cheeses. “Acid whey” is produced from making cottage cheese and Greek yogurt, Goddik said, and its disposal is particularly challenging.

But not when they are converted into alcohol.

“Both types of whey ferment and distill beautifully,” said Hughes, who leads the burgeoning distilling program at OSU. “Our chemical flavor analysis suggests some differences between the two wheys and eventually we hope to isolate more of the chemical compounds and match them with flavor characteristics.”

Acid whey distillate, in particular, has a lot of terpenes, which are unsaturated hydrocarbons that are also found in beer and wine. Common in many plant products, the terpenes originate in the grass cows eat, yet the whey – and the distilled products that result – don’t taste “grassy,” Hughes says.

Distilling whey to make spirits could be easier and cheaper than converting whey to protein powder, according to the researchers. 

The process of distilling could be done by individual artisanal creameries, or several creameries could create a cooperative to turn their whey waste into spirits.

Oregon has 22 artisan cheesemakers, Washington has about 70 and there are approximately 1,700 across the US. Oregon, alone, produces roughly 2.6 billion pounds of milk annually.

“Cheese companies used to spread whey on fields, feed it to animals, and dispose of it in landfills,” adds Goddik. “Neither is a great solution. Even if you decide to ferment the whey and then dump it down the drain, there is less damage to the environment. But why do that if you can create a value-added product?”

Hughes said the distilling industry had shown a keen interest in OSU’s research into whey products and taste characteristics. “We’ve never had this much interest from them since we started our distilling program.”

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