So many names have served to motivate entrepreneurs, including some from history, although Genghis Khan isn’t probably the first which comes to mind as possible inspiration for a new business.
Since the early nineteenth century, Jason Barber’s family have been cheesemakers, with their own dairy herd producing the milk. When he took over, he wasn’t happy with wasting what was left after the fat and protein had been extracted. In 2012 he came up with a possible answer. Vodka made from milk instead of potatoes or grain.
With product designer Paul ‘Archie’ Archard, an artist who had worked in film production and now lists his occupation at Companies House as sculptor, he set up Black Cow Vodka, and says their inspiration came from Genghis Khan, (1162-1227), who established the largest land empire in history. “It wasn’t his bloodthirsty conquests,” says Barber, “but he was the first person who posed the question ‘can we make alcohol out of milk’?” The resulting drink, Airag, an alcoholic form of fermented mare’s milk, was consumed by his armies and is still made today; at approximately 7% ABV, it’s more akin to a beer.
Black Cow make their vodka using whey, which is high in lactose and sugars to convert to alcohol, and a particular yeast. It’s triple filtered, and the final distillation results in a clear spirit which is 40% ABV. Some twenty litres of milk are required to make one litre of vodka. The curds from the same milk are used by Barber’s farm to make its 1833 cheddar and Black Cow deluxe cheddar, meaning that there is very little waste between the two processes. Certainly with Black Cow, cheese and vodka seems more apposite than cheese and wine.
Friends and family tried the first batch and described it as “amazing,” recalls Barber. “We were able to get the investment we needed because the product did the talking,” With potential stockists as well. Waitrose, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Majestic, Fortnum & Mason, and Harvey Nicholls all have the product. ‘Some places you can’t drink Black Cow right now’ as their website quipped at the height of the coronavirus lockdown include Soho House, The Savoy, The Groucho Club, Bill’s, and Nobu restaurants.
It isn’t unusual to see ten different vodkas behind a bar, all being blinged up to get attention. “I’d like to think we’re naturally different which gives us authenticity,” says Barber. “When buyers from The Savoy came down to see us, what would we have had to show them to underpin that if we weren’t making and bottling our own vodka?”
“But I don’t want our brand to be described as ‘artisan’. We’re a craft producer because of our raw materials and location, not artisan, because we want the business to be as big as possible.
“When we started we were one of the very few distilleries in the UK, but today there are more distilleries in England than in Scotland, largely as a result of the market for craft gin. Because everyone seems to want to make gin, it left a vacuum for a vodka. We chose to make vodka because we love the spirit. If it hadn’t worked out, I’d rather have been left with a hundred cases of vodka rather than anything else.”
The twenty or so staff complement is augmented in the last three months of the year when 60% of the sales are made. “One week we had 20,000 miniatures to fill, and were helped out by friends of friends, nephews who happened to be staying with relatives; that community pull is one of the joys of having a rural business,” says Barber. Another advantage is that the business pays no rates as it is has agricultural exemption.
In full production, the distillery in the old dairy building has the capacity for two distillations a day, which could yield 1.2million litres a year. Beyond that? “In a town or city, if you want to expand, there are usually premises ready for you to move into, and you’ll have a choice,” suggests Barber. “What would help in a rural location is if change of use permission wasn’t required if no more vehicle movements are going to be the consequence.”
The kind of growth potential which could necessitate further debate on the subject could come from interest overseas. Initially exports have come about, well, because they came about. A barman returned to Poland from working at a cocktail bar in London which stocked Black Cow and has been selling it to bars and hotels back home. Someone acquires a bottle and then asks if they could have the distribution rights in their country (Singapore being an example). But when Black Cow identified interest from the USA they went over to see a distributor in California (who they signed up).
To have the highest profile with bartenders (and mixologists) internationally, the Black Cow Cup is presented to the winner of their annual cocktail competition. The company rents a house for the finalists who spend two days at the old dairy.
A recent theme was ‘Sonic cocktails: Blending the senses – if music be the food of love, play on’, with bartenders from around the world challenged to think about how the senses affect taste, and to create a Black Cow drink utilising sound in an innovative way. Winner of that particular contest was Jamie Lock of The Dead Canary bar in Cardiff with Bedtime Snack, which combined Black Cow vodka and chocolate chip vermouth, designed to be served warm, and with an appropriately evocative sound-track.
To increase consumer awareness, Black Cow became the vodka partners of the 2019 London Coffee Festival, the largest event of its kind in Europe, where they made over 2500 cocktails. And in 2020, the brand launched its first advertising campaign – on billboards in London – with the slogan ‘So wrong it’s right’, reflecting the reaction of many people when they hear the vodka is made from cow’s milk. Savvy enough to have trademarked Pure Milk Vodka, Black Cow have also coined the phrase ‘the smoothest vodka in the world’.Meanwhile, a variation on the waste-not theme which prompted Barber to come up with the idea to make milk vodka in the first place has resulted in a new product. Black Cow have produced their first flavoured vodka pressed with misshapen English strawberries which otherwise would have gone to waste.