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The whey, when and how of milk-based alcoholic drinks

From a Central Asian alcoholic drink made with fermented mare’s milk to several whey-based spirits, beers and liqueurs, alcohol and milk have been enjoying a historic coupling for centuries

(Left) 'Kumis' is made from mare's milk; and milk stouts are brewed with lactose.
(Left) 'Kumis' is made from mare's milk; and milk stouts are brewed with lactose. (Wikimedia Commons)

While travelling through the wilds of a Central Asian country like Uzbekistan, it is almost impossible to ignore how important the region’s number one beasts of burden, horses, are to the nomadic people. Particularly to those of the grasslands-saturated Karshi Steppe. An extensive foothill plain of the main Eurasian Steppe that runs through the doubly landlocked country. One that’s intersected by the Kashka River.

It is said that grazing on the lush grass that grows on the river banks is what gives the mares’ milk that distinct sweet, nutty flavour that’s prized by the nomads. But for those of us who can't really get to taste that character in the milk’s raw form, we need not despair. There's always kumis, a fizzy, mildly alcoholic, fermented drink that’s been made from mare's milk for centuries.

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Cultured taste

Known throughout Central Asia, Mongolia, southern Russia and parts of China as koumiss, kymmyz, or kymis, kumis is a cloudy, slightly salty drink made by fermenting either donkey’s, or, in this instance, mare’s milk. It is during the fermentation process that the lactobacilli culture acidifies the milk, and the lactose-produced yeasts turn it into a delicious carbonated drink with a mild, but perceptible 2.5% ABV (alcohol by volume). A lot higher than the other fermented milk drink of kefir at 0.21-0.71% ABV.

An ancient drink that’s always found fond favour with the nomadic people of this vast region, the name kumis is derived from the Kumanes (ancient Cumans) people. A Turkik tribe who are said to have lived along the river Kumane in the Central Asian parts of the Eurasian Steepe for eons. In fact, the genesis of kumis is said to be the result of this nomadic lifestyle.

Quite like how cheese was first discovered, kumis came about when mare’s milk was transported for drinking in lambskin bags. The bits of remnant gristle and flesh in the lambskin provided the microflora needed to accelerate the fermentation of the milk, rapidly turning it into kumis.

Available for purchase either in sealed bottles or loose, poured out of vast street-side vats, kumis is one of the world’s OG milk-based alcoholic beverages.

Cream and the crop

Milk, sweet or cream stout is a distinct type of stout invented in England in the early 1900s. It was a way to cut down on the inherent bitter flavours of beer’s two main ingredients, hops and barley. Basically, cream stouts are dark-hued beers that are brewed with the milk sugar known more commonly as lactose. What makes it all very interesting and relevant, is the fact that the lactose does not ferment when exposed to the yeast in beer. This results in imparting of sweet notes which is the perfect flavour foil to the aforementioned bitterness.

And just like red wine, in its early days, cream stout was marketed as a drink to help not just in the convalescence of the sick, but also as the de facto beverage of choice for nursing mothers. It was believed that imbibing such beers actually helped in lactation.

Modern expressions

What’s also interesting to note is the sudden rise in the development of several whey-based alcoholic drinks. A by-product of the cheese making process, and thus considered a waste product, whey is being put to good use.

Whey-based alcohol brands like Norwhey, a hard seltzer of 4.0% ABV from Ithaca in New York, USA are made pretty much in the same manner as non whey-based alcoholic drinks like the whole milk-based kumis. It involves fermenting the lactose present in whey with yeast to produce alcohol.

Besides hard seltzers, the alcohol produced with whey can also be used to make various types of other alcoholic drinks, including gins, vodka and even liqueurs. Australia’s Hartshorn Distillery in Birchs Bay produces such spirits. Sharing land with the same family run sheep’s milk Grandvewe Cheeses, the distillery has been making sheep’s whey-based gins and vanilla bean liqueur for a few years now. It all started with a double-distilled and unfiltered whey-based vodka that they say was born out of their need to repurpose the surplus whey that would often get thrown out in the cheese-making process.

It sure looks like the “whey ahead” for milk-based alcohol.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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