Hartshorn Distillery, winner of the Beverage of the Year at the 2017 Food & Beverage Industry Awards, uses a cheese making waste product to create alcoholic beverages. Matthew McDonald writes.
About 15 years ago, Ryan Hartshorn’s family moved from Queensland to southern Tasmania with the idea of establishing a dual wine and sheep-cheese-making business.
As Hartshorn, a director and owner of Grandvewe Cheeses and Hartshorn Distillery told Food & Beverage Industry News, given that nobody in the family had experience in these fields, the move was a gamble. His mother Diane Rae did much of the early work. Among other things, she travelled to Europe to learn from experienced cheese makers.
From the outset, sustainability was a key priority for the business. For example, the original idea involved the sheep doing the job of maintaining (eating) the vegetation between the vines. Unfortunately, the sheep weren’t disciplined enough to limit themselves to grass and destroyed the vines themselves. So the vineyard was abandoned in favour of just the cheesery.
Then, three years ago, Hartshorn decided to take another gamble. “I started to get a bit sick of the cheese side of the business and wanted to have my own creation. I decided to learn how to distill. Essentially, I was trying to figure out how I could make a distillery relevant to a cheesery and how they could work together,” he said.
The obvious path would have been to make milk liquors, but Hartshorn wanted to try something different. He had heard about a business in Ireland using cow whey (a cheese making by-product) to make alcohol and decided to try something similar with sheep whey.
“I asked the Irish operation how to do it but they wouldn’t tell me,” he said. So he had to work it out for himself.
The process of using lactose (the complex sugar found in whey) to make alcohol is not simple because fermentation requires a basic (not complex) sugar.
The only way to transform the lactose into a basic sugar is to use enzymes to break down its protein molecules. Hartshorn read about some enzymes that might be able to do this. With the help of some food technologists in Melbourne, and by a long process of trial and error, he identified the right enzymes and then started to develop his products.
Today, Hartshorn Distillery makes Sheep Whey Gin, Sheep Whey Vodka (which took out the aforementioned award) and Vanilla Whey Liqueur. After three years of operation, the distillery has now overtaken the cheesery, accounting for about 60 per cent of the overall business.
Experience is crucial
Hartshorn emphasised the fact that, in his case, taking a risk and innovating was not easy. He advises others considering taking such a step to first make sure they have plenty of experience behind them.
“I don’t think I could have done this if I came straight from working for someone else. I’d worked in my business (the cheesery) for 12 or thirteen years before making this leap,” he said. “So I had a pretty good understanding of the market. I wasn’t in the alcohol industry but there are a lot of similar factors involved. I had an idea what the market wanted.
“Basically, if you want to innovate, you need to do your research. You need to make sure you know what’s out there and what’s not out there, then try and fill those gaps.”
There is another unique aspect to Hartshorn Distillery. All its bottles are hand-painted and one-of-a-kind. As Hartshorn explained, nobody has copied this. “Big companies can’t really do it because of the work involved,” he said.
The distillery has grown by an impressive 600 per cent in the last year and, while Hartshorn is currently focusing his energies on keeping on top of this demand, he conceded that he may have to soon start thinking about adding some new buildings to the operation.
“I’ll keep my range the same but I’ll keep changing the bottle design. I want to do more collector items,” said Hartshorn.
Whatever happens, sustainability will remain important to the business. “We’ve been trying to use our waste almost from the beginning. We do a few other little lesser-known products like making fudge from whey,” he said. “We also make some of our older sheep into a sausage that we sell through our cheesery. And we make a fruit paste that goes with our cheese made from the waste of wine making.”