Piles of straw, a rusting Massey Ferguson, a napping sheepdog: there are lots of farmyard clichés one might expect to see when pulling into Childhay Manor Farm in rural Dorset but a fully functioning vodka distillery with bottling plant, distribution storage and production office is probably fairly low down on that list.
Back in 2009, dairy farmer Jason Barber looked at the waste coming from his brother’s cheese firm up the road and his mind started to wander. Whey, known formerly from the nursery rhyme of Little Miss Muffet and latterly from muscle-building gym fanatics, was simply being poured down the drain as waste from the process of making cheese. The whey protein powder that the pectoral-obsessed hordes glug down in the gym is one half of whey. The other is lactose, a sweet milky liquid which, following a complex and finely tuned process, is poured into a 70cl glass bottle as some of the smoothest, purest vodka ever likely to pass your lips.
Over a beautiful lunch prepared by Jason’s wife that starts with vodka-cured salmon (Black Cow, of course), he and co-founder Archie explain that turning milk into a vodka is not an attempt to one-up Jesus’s water-to-wine bluff but is actually an ancient Mongolian technique. A theory perhaps for Genghis Khan’s insatiable blood thirst and huge ego: too much vodka?
The process of making any spirit starts with making a ‘beer’; a sweet, yeasty liquid that can be further fermented, distilled and refined. Whereas others will use grown ingredients like wheat, potatoes or rice, the Black Cow lot believe moving higher up the food chain produces a much purer and far superior end product. What others use to make their alcohol, these chaps feed their animals with.
The farm pervades everything Black Cow does. They couldn’t be further from the brick-walled railway arches of south London’s micro-distilleries if they tried, which they aren’t. Jason, while stood in their new, pristine white office space in mud-caked wellies, mixes us up a Bloody Mary so close to perfect I can’t stop at just the one.
After we’re plied with a vodka-based drink or seven, we’re escorted to the Land Rover and given a tour of the family farm. The fate of British agriculture isn’t just an interesting dinner-table debating topic for Jason, it’s the livelihood for himself, his family and his friends. Don’t be fooled by the ruddy face and the muck-smeared trousers, this is a man well-versed in the economics of the agriculture sector.
He spends a good ten minutes explaining the combination of ingredients that go into his cows’ feed: a mixture of straw, rolled oats, silage and a couple of other ingredients I’ve been sworn never to reveal. All natural, of course.
Nothing is left to chance with Black Cow. Every aspect of the operation has been perfected, not by fun-scroungers and nitpicking bellyachers but by genuine, full-throttle enthusiasts, searching for the most perfect drop of vodka. And by George, they might just have achieved it.