Canadian dairy farmers were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden closure of restaurants, hotels and schools as a result of COVID-19 health restrictions has led to a sharp decrease in demand and in distribution channels for dairy products. Since cows cannot simply stop producing fresh product, dairy farmers have had to dump large quantities of their milk, resulting in wastage. So. creativity and innovation to reduce waste is especially welcome during the pandemic.

Dairy Distillery, a vodka maker in Almonte, Ontario, has come up with a clever answer. They use the waste sugars from milk production to make vodka through an environmentally sustainable process.

During the processing of milk into dairy products, the milk undergoes filtration. During filtration the milk is separated out into its various components. The cream extracted from the milk are used for ice cream or butter. The proteins are used in yogurt or cheese products. The remaining by-product is milk permeate: a substance containing lactose, sugars, minerals and vitamins. Milk permeate is often disposed of as waste, as dairy producers have no use for it. Hundreds of thousands of litres of milk permeate are wasted across Canada each year.

Vodkow was invented because of Dairy Distillery’s desire to reduce the wastage of milk permeate, and to create a delicious spirit. The Distillery needed to figure out how to ferment the sugars in the milk permeate for use in Vodkow. The Distillery partnered with the University of Ottawa to find the solution. University of Ottawa professor Alexandre Poulain, and his student Jessica Gaudet, were the lead researchers. A summary from the University of Ottawa’s article Is that milk in your vodka? described the initial research process.

First, Poulain and Gaudet had to find a type of yeast that would absorb the sugar in the milk permeate. They then had to create the fermentation conditions needed to produce a high-quality spirit. They could not use the yeast that ferments beer or wine, as it does not work with permeate. A dozen types of yeast were tested, only one was chosen.

“[W]e have a yeast that will eat the lactose [in the milk permeate] and produce alcohol… We distill out that alcohol to make our vodka” noted Omid McDonald, the Founder and CEO of Dairy Distillery. According to the company’s website, every bottle of Vodkow diverts 3.6 Kilograms of milk permeate from waste.

Using milk permeate in vodka production has environmental benefits. Making vodka using milk permeate is more energy efficient than using traditional ingredients like grains or potatoes. Traditional vodka production starts by converting the starches contained in grains and potatoes into sugar. Since milk permeate is already a sugar, Dairy Distillery can bypass this energy and water intensive process. Next, the yeast used can start directly fermenting the lactose in the permeate. This further reduces the energy usage and production time of Vodkow.

The future looks bright for the Diary Distillery and for the use of milk permeate in other applications. Omid McDonald has this to say about the future of milk permeate:

“Our long-term hope is to find more applications for using that permeate and essentially give it a value… For example, Whey used to be just be thrown out with no value to the dairy community. Then they started realizing that the Whey proteins can be extracted and sold for good money. Whenever a waste product [can have a value placed on it], there is [benefit] for everybody involved”.

Omid also added that “[the Dairy Distillery] continue[s] to collaborate with the University [of Ottawa] on other applications for the permeate, We have created a world centre of excellence for permeate use. We have done alcohol, a hand sanitizer, we are also looking at the application for fuel ethanol”

Omid describes the Dairy Distillery’s next innovative product and how it will help Ontario farmers with great optimism, “Our next product, which is releasing soon is our cream liqueur. We have invested in the equipment and know-how to create our own cream liqueur. A lot of company’s just buy a cream base from an American company and add it in their alcohol. We actually have our own cream base; we have the homogenizer technology and the know-how to do it and that has allowed us to innovate”.

Omid continued on to say. “One interesting aspect about this cream liqueur is that it is lactose free. People with lactose concerns do not have to worry about drinking our vodka or cream liqueur. That innovation attracted the attention of the Canadian dairy farmers, they have granted us access to their blue cow logo. That is the first time that logo has been used on a bottle of liqueur. If we make this successful, we look to displace foreign creams from countries such as Ireland. Ontario alone sees the importation of 1.5 million litres of cream… Our goal is to replace that foreign cream with Ontario made cream”.

The Dairy Distillery also produces a hand sanitizer using the milk permeate alcohol it uses in its Vodkow beverage. For each bottle of hand sanitizer it sells, the company donates one bottle to community groups in need. The Distillery has partnered with local businesses to promote and distribute their hand sanitizer in the community.

Now is the time that Canadians need to support innovative local businesses. The Dairy Distillery has found a way to transform a previously wasted sugar into a useful beverage. Through their products, Dairy Distillery continues to support Ontario dairy farmers, the environment as well as community groups in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we can all raise a glass to that!

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