You may well have heard the story of the carpenter who turned water into wine – but have you heard the one about the farmer turning milk into vodka?
Crazy as it sounds, that’s exactly what Jason Barber is doing at his family-run farm in West Dorset, where the innovation has helped turned his dairy business around.
The spirit is traditionally made by distilling fermented grains or potato, but Jason has ripped up the rule book and created the world’s first pure milk vodka – made from the milk of his grass-grazed cows.
Since launching the Black Cow brand to critical acclaim in 2012, Jason has produced more than 35,000 bottles, many of which have been served up at top bars and restaurants, including Claridges, Fifteen and River Cottage.
Stockists include London department store Selfridges, while 007 actor Daniel Craig and actress/model Liz Hurley are among the beverage’s growing army of fans.
Jason first tried creating his own vodka about eight years ago after watching a programme about Tuva, a small Siberian republic where the locals have been making alcohol from mare’s milk for centuries.
“Milking cows is enough to drive anyone to drink,” laughs Jason, “And when you’re trying to get up early in the morning you can’t have a hangover, so vodka has always been my drink of choice.
“I knew the Mongolians were making alcohol from milk, so I thought let’s try to do some of that here.
“It was very much a hobby to start with. I did some research on the internet and there was a lot of trial and error,” he adds.
“We were messing about for three years before figuring out our final recipe, but when I finally got it right, I thought this is actually very drinkable.
“Everyone else who tried it agreed and said it was really smooth, so I decided to do something about it – I knew it had legs.”
Jason comes from a long line of farmers: Seaborough Manor, the dairy farm he runs in Beaminster, was started by his father Richard in the 1950s; his brother Jeremy keeps and exports sheep and pigs; while his cousins are AJ and RG Barber, makers of Barbers 1833 Cheddar, which won the World Cheese Awards cheddar trophy in 2012.
A few years after taking over the farm in 2000, Jason, who also grows a small amount of maize, was struggling to meet the organic expectations of some of his customers and decided the time – and business – was ripe for diversification. So he began to expand his hobby into a commercial enterprise.
He still sells the milk from his 250-strong herd of Holsteins, Swedish/Norwegian Reds and Austrian Fleckvieh to his cheese-producing cousins up the road in Somerset, but now uses the leftover whey to make his unique vodka.
“My cousins separate the milk into curds and whey – with the former used to make their cheese and butter. I then collect the ingredients I need to make the vodka,” he explains.
“To make the alcohol, lactose is brewed into a beer, then distilled. The ‘milk beer’ is distilled before it is specially blended, filtered three times and finally bottled by hand – with each batch producing about 900 bottles.
“We can’t give away too much of the process because that curiosity factor is something that helps us.
“It is great that, between us, we’re using the whole milk. My cousins make really tasty cheese to go with the vodka and it’s like two friends coming together. They seem to know each other very well.”
- Don’t neglect your core business
- Diversify into an area you have a personal interest in, or are passionate about
- Carry out plenty of research
- Be prepared for trial and error
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though – it took 18 months for Jason to achieve the necessary licensing that enables him to produce alcohol commercially, a process he found incredibly frustrating.
Another vexation, and something he admits he wasn’t initially aware of, is the amount of duty and VAT he is required to pay on the sale of each bottle.
Black Cow – so named after Jason’s black herd – retails at about £31.25 for a 70cl bottle and £25.75 for 50cl.
“On a [70cl] bottle of vodka the government takes more than £15 – that’s duty and VAT. I didn’t really realise that you had to pay VAT on the duty,” he adds.
“We started off making 50 bottles of the vodka a month and then it went to 70, and then 100 and it has just kept increasing ever since.
“We’ve just done our 35,000th bottle and by the time Christmas has gone, I’m hoping it will be more than 40,000. This is our busiest time.”
But of course, what everyone really wants to know is what does Black Cow taste like?
“It’s smooth and very rounded,” says Jason. “You get a creamy character without it actually tasting of cream and none of that afterburn. You really have to try it to appreciate what I am getting at.
“There are 50 new vodkas launched each year – the drinks industry loves us because we’re the only one worldwide that is made entirely from milk.
- 100-120ml Black Cow vodka
- Dry vermouth
- 6 medium or 3 large, good-quality green olives in brine
Rinse chilled cocktail glasses with vermouth and shake out. Crush 2 olives in a tablespoon of brine, removing the stones. Put the crushed olives and Black Cow in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into glasses and serve in a glass with olives on a cocktail stick.
“It’s our unique selling point – and it’s true, if you line up eight vodkas, you’ll come back to ours every time. It’s just so drinkable.
“Everyone has so much enthusiasm because it’s different and it’s a very good vodka – the farm staff have really risen to the challenge of more responsibility, which has helped a lot, too.”
Since launching Black Cow, Jason has expanded his workforce. As well as his business partner Archie, Archie’s wife and Jason’s own wife Sally, there are also several key team members looking after the marketing, social media and sales, as well as the bottling by hand. And of course, the cows themselves.
Dad-of-two Jason embraces hands-on roles, taking on milking responsibilities, looking after his herd and artificial insemination to keep the cows in calf and therefore milking.
As well as its unique appeal, Jason puts Black Cow’s popularity down to a combination of factors.
“A lot of people tried it at the experimental stages and it seems to have gathered from there – word-of-mouth has played an important part, too, plus we’ve now got a fair few distributors,” he says.
Those distributors include London department stores Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason, Mole Valley Farmers, Countrywide, Booths and a raft of independent delis and farm shops.
For the past six months it has been taking the bars in Singapore by storm, too, and an order to Barbados has also recently been agreed.
“Dairy farmers and supermarkets are not really best friends at the moment and we wanted to give delis and farm shops the first big shot at it,” says Jason.
“Local chef and restaurateur Mark Hix has also been a great ambassador for us – he has some lovely bars and restaurants in Lyme Regis and Soho and he was one of our first customers.”
And thanks to the involvement of Mark and others, the growing popularity of Black Cow has also given rise to a new wave of cocktails, including the rather appropriately named Shanghai Mary, Orange and Vanilla Mootini and Dirty Cow Martini.
“It mixes very well with all other drinks, such as Martinis and lime and soda, which is known as the Skinny Cow, and is one of the lowest calorie drinks you can have,” says Jason.
“We leave it to the barmen, rather than try and flavour it ourselves, because they know what the customer wants. But it also tastes great on its own.”
Although there are no plans yet to expand the range, Jason is keen to keep on increasing the number of bottles being produced.
When it comes to diversifying, he would advise others to continue to keep an eye on their central business and move into an area they are passionate about.
“In my case I couldn’t just diversify and forget the cows – you can’t take your eye off the core business. Without the cows there would be no vodka. You have to do your research, and go with trial and error. But in our case that was the fun part,” he adds.
It’s unanimous – Black Cow has definitely put the “moo” back into smooth.