The English countryside probably doesn’t rank very high on most vodka aficionado’s travel hit list. And understandably so, given that more than 70 percent of the vodka in the EU comes from the Nordic, Baltic, and Slavic countries that comprise Europe’s ‘Vodka Belt.’
And while smaller-scale English distilleries might not be able to compete with their more eastern counterparts in terms of volume, they are producing vodka unlike what you’d find anywhere else in the world.
Case in point: Black Cow Vodka, which comes from a herd of 250 grass-fed cattle in the lush, southwest county of Dorset, where the transportation of choice is often a rumbling tractor or a hand-me-down Land Rover covered in bumper stickers.
The brainchild of Paul Archard, the bearded film director and Chelsea Arts School-educated sculptor, and his longtime pal and dairy farmer, Jason Barber, Black Cow Vodka is a lactose- and gluten-free concoction derived from whey (as opposed to potatoes or fermented grains).
How it works: the milk from a herd of grass-grazed cows is distilled down and converted into everything from cheese to whey protein powder. The remaining product – which may have formerly been considered waste – is then run through a large copper still, appropriately named after Archard and Barber’s beloved English cartoon cow, Ermintrude. The result? Vodka.
While the concept seems deeply technical, the idea came to light rather simply thanks to one enterprising acquaintance.
“We were just making cider for fun in our spare time, and kept distilling it down, and somewhere along the way one of our Polish friends said to us, ‘You can really make spirits from anything,’” says Archard. “I saw the light bulb go off above Jason’s head, and we both looked out the window at the 250 cows in the field.”
The finished product – a light and well-rounded flavor that trades the usually harsh bite of vodka for an unmistakable smoothness – is a favorite of local residents and Londoners alike. And now that the product has made its way across the pond, vodka drinkers in the U.S. can finally get a taste.
But cow’s milk vodka isn’t the only thing being produced at this organic, family-run outfit in Beaminster, a town of less than 3,000 residents. The property is also home to the oldest cheddar-producing farm in the United Kingdom.
In addition to the spirits business, Barber, a descendant of one of the oldest dairy families in the world, dating back over 300 years, also produces an award-winning cheese. But he’s just as motivated by the creative energy that surrounds him as he is by his family’s history.
“I think there’s been this move to rediscover the country,” the dairy farmer says. “We’ve always been lucky to have these beautiful raw materials, but now there’s a new type of thinking as to how we can use them differently and perhaps modify the norm.”
Archard and Berber are far from the only ones inspired by the creative scene in Dorset. There’s also Pauline Amos, the painter whose provocative nude performance art has turned heads since the late 90s; Nick Fisher, the screenplay writer who chose to also pursue a career in commercial fishing off of the picturesque Jurassic Coast; and Daniel Chadwick, an engineer, sculptor, and budding restaurateur whose expansive Lypiatt Park estate—which is filled to the brim with modern works by the likes of Damien Hirst—regularly plays host to neighborhood gatherings, some in a repurposed chapel.
Together, the varied group mixes well thanks to a sort of alchemy, bound together by their love for the English countryside and all of its eccentricities.
“I think out here, it’s just about making things,” says Archard. “It doesn’t matter whether its art, or food, or music. Everyone is making something out here. For us, we like to say we’re in the business of booze and moos.”
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