FRUSTRATING it may be, but there’s something comfortingly fitting about being stuck behind a milk lorry when you’re travelling down a West Country lane, especially when in search of a dairy farm. On a recent occasion, crawling at a snail’s pace and backing up every five minutes to let other cars pass, I found myself sorely tempted to use the advice of one of Douglas Adams’ characters, Dirk Gently, and simply follow the vehicle in front to see where I would end up. As it happens this particular milk lorry soon headed off in a different direction, no doubt to deliver its cargo to a processor who would put it to its traditional use of making cheese or even bottling milk. I, on the other hand, was in search of a dairy farmer who had come up with an altogether more unique idea: that of making vodka from his milk. Pure, clear and deliciously smooth Dorset vodka, made from the milk of cows grazed on the lush green fields of a county that many see as the jewel in the West Country: at least that’s what I had been told and to my absolute delight, that’s exactly what I found.
Black Cow vodka, as it is known, has been in the works for about two years and is now available at a select few shops, pubs and restaurants locally, as well as a few fairly well known establishments outside of its home patch.
At the moment it is a classic cottage industry but Dorset dairy farmer Jason Barber and his team have a very simple, clear ambition. They want Black Cow vodka to be ubiquitous in the West Country. Jason’s partner in the business Paul Archard, better known as Archie, explained how he sees the future. “You’ve got Scotch whiskey made from grain, French Armagnac made from local grapes, Japanese Saki made from rice and Kentucky Bourbon made from corn—why not Dorset vodka made from milk?” The profound logic of this statement is blazingly clear and most locals who have tried the product agree. The new ‘Spirit of the West’ has been born and it’s not in a stable but a couple of fields away in a dairy.
Sitting on the veranda at the back of Jason Barber’s house near Broadwindsor it’s hard not to think ‘rural idyll’. As the early autumn temperature begins to drop, the waning evening sun throws a soft light over multiple shades of green and birds flit though nearby trees. As though on cue, cattle call from a nearby field and I ask Jason how he went from dairy farmer to vodka farmer. With a cup of green tea in his hand he quips: “I drink a lot of vodka and wanted to cut down on my bills!” Weather beaten after twenty years milking, his face lights up into a devilish smile and he keeps the humour going. “Basically I’ve always drunk vodka. It’s the only way I can get up in the morning to milk the cows …without a hangover. I also thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I could get two more pence a litre for our milk.” Like with many farmers it’s hard to know where the humour ends and the canniness begins. He tells me that he was inspired by the people of Tuva, a small country in southern Siberia where they made vodka from Yak’s milk. “I thought that can’t be bad stuff” he says. “So I set about making it. Once I realised that I could make a brew out of milk, the next step was to make it into vodka—I didn’t fancy drinking fermented milk. So we’ve been refining the process for two or three years.” No stranger to the processes involved in making alcohol Jason explained that he was asked to leave his school when it was discovered that he was making a brew by fermenting orange juice in the back of a fridge. When he needed to increase production he found that the heating pipes running along the school’s unused cellars proved a better fermenting area and was soon being supplied with orange juice from other students. Jason remembers how his father was informed that he may well be wasting his money on his son’s education.
Today the process is somewhat more modern and infinitely more successful. Archie explains the basic principle. “We use nothing but milk. There are no added ingredients whatsoever” he says. “After the curds and whey are separated and the curds have gone off to be made into cheese, we take the milk sugar out of the whey and that is what the vodka is made of.” The secret of why this particular vodka is so smooth is a mixture of using a truly quality source product and ‘processes that we can’t really tell you about’. The fact that Jason’s milk is also used to produce internationally renowned cheeses at Barbers in Somerset and Ashley Chase in Dorset only serves to enhance the growing reputation of Black Cow vodka as being a cut above the rest.
Archie was aware of the commercial viability of their discovery from the very beginning. He remembers how the very first time they tasted it they realised they had something special. He says: “I remember getting a phone call from Jason saying ‘come down now, I think we have got something really unique here’. It’s very difficult to think of things to do that are exciting in a rural economy and we really felt we had hit upon something, and felt we really needed to bottle it and get it out there.”
Initially they called it gold top so they could come up with a blue top, green top etc. but both Archie and Helen Watkins, who along with Neil Gregory make up the rest of the team, are keen to concentrate on producing the best possible product before expanding their horizons. “The problem is people tend to be over keen to diversify and often the dilution is covering up for a not great quality product” says Helen. Archie joins in: “What we want to do is make the best pure milk vodka that can be made. We want to create one really fantastic, high quality premium product—because vodka is a very singular drink. It’s very neutral and ours is just different enough. It’s smoother, it’s got a creamy finish and that’s what’s really good. We’re just concentrating on keeping that high quality.” They have had a few people asking if they are going to produce flavoured versions but as Helen points out people can do that at home. “By all means take it home and stick a vanilla pod into it” she grins. “We just want to produce the best possible milk vodka. That’s our goal.”
Black Cow vodka has also been championed by local chef Mark Hix who now stocks it throughout his restaurant chain. It is also available in Washingpool Farm Shop outside Bridport, Miller’s Farm shop in Kilmington, the Townmill Cheesemonger in Lyme Regis, River Cottage Canteen in Axminster and Felicity’s Farm Shop in Morecombelake.
It’s not hard to reel off the names of West Country producers whose brands conjure up images of working farms where producers have created added value to their products. Locally they include Denhay Bacon, Wild Meadow Lamb, Woolsery Cheese, Somerset Ducks, Somerset Cider Brandy and most recently Furleigh Wines—to name just a few. Collectively, these along with so many other products from the West Country, represent a diverse and resilient part of the country that has, over the years, earned a deserved reputation as the source of many excellent products. It’s nice to see Dorset milk helping to add yet another dimension to the mix.