Hartshorn Distillery is run by sheep milk product specialists Ewenique Enterprises, which also operates sheep cheese firm Grandvewe and personal care firm ewe care.
“The whole spirits operation actually came about in the spirit of sustainability, as we were making cheese from the milk and realising that a lot of the whey was being wasted – so we looked into how we could utilise this and found a really valuable product market opportunity in spirits and craft distillation,” Ewenique Enterprises Executive Director Nicole Gilliver told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“We also very much wanted to ensure that we were not doing anything too pedestrian or common, and I don’t think there’s anyone else in the market making sheep whey-based spirits – It’s sort of a weird, unconventional area to innovate in, and that’s a great thing as it also means we don’t have a high amount of competition due to the weirdness.”
Hartshorn has won various awards over the past few years for its vodka, including the Best Varietal Vodka of Australia at the World Vodka Awards for five years in a row (2017 to 2021), the World’s Best Vodka award in 2018, and the Australian Beverage of the Year in 2017.
Now, Gilliver is looking to expand Hartshorn’s horizons and markets in a big way, confident that the quality and uniqueness of the spirits can hold its own in the international arena.
“We’ve got some presence in UK and Japan, and had some other plans before COVID-19 hit – now there’s the opportunity we’re looking to enter Macau in early 2022, as well as distribute to other markets like Singapore, Hong Kong and more in South East Asia,” she said.
“The EU is also another big target market – we’ve got a French company looking to distribute and we’re discussing terms in more detail this quarter, but definitely we hope to enter the EU some time this year too.
“We’d also love to get into China but still are working to overcome a challenge there – in Mandarin Chinese, both ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’ are basically called by the same term (羊) so we need to find a way to highlight the differences between the two animals and appeal to the local consumers.”
Hartshorn’s Sheep Whey Vodka is unique in terms of its manufacturing process, where it is double-distilled and 100% non-filtered.
“Most distilleries use just below half of their yield, but we use only the best 10% of distillate to ensure minimal impurities and maximum quality,” she added.
“No filtering is done because we find that this strips out the character of the sheep milk sugar, which provides a very different texture and mouthfeel to the product compared to what one can get using fructose or other sugars, adding even more uniqueness to the vodka and giving it creaminess, complexity and a sweet finish.”
Hartshorn also has a Sheep Whey Gin which is made using unbottled vodka and native Australian botanicals including lemon myrtle, anise myrtle, wattleseed, juniper berries, Tasmanian pepper leaf and two unique secret ingredients ‘not used by any other gin-makers before’. There’s also a whey-based liqueur as well as a ‘whey-skey’, which is the world’s first sheep whey-based whiskey.
From cheese to alcohol
The whey to make Hartshorn’s spirits comes from its Grandvewe sheep cheese business, which is also making a name in its own right in Australia.
Sheep’s milk comes in three different milk seasons, and the milk from each season has its own unique characteristics – Spring milk is lower in fat and protein, summer milk has more milk solids and increased fats and proteins, whereas autumn milk has the highest milk solids, fat and protein content.
“Accordingly, the cheeses are seasonal based on the milk we get from the sheep at that time – in spring we make the hard and semi-hard cheeses, in summer the softer variants, and in autumn variants like blue cheese,” said Gilliver.
“Any botanical waste from the gin-making also can be used for flavour in our Gin Herbalist cheese, which is also unique to us.
“Whichever cheese is made, it is important to note the value of sheep milk, especially the nutritional benefits – Sheep milk is the only milk containing natural vitamin C, and has more nutrients litre for litre compared to cow and goat milk in addition to being more digestible.”
As for the other parts of the sheep, the wool is used as compost and fertilizer, the belly wool is now being used as a unique burn-on design for packaging in the ewe care business, and ram lambs, which of course do not produce milk, are usually sold as ‘ornamental lawnmowers’, which are surprisingly in-demand in Australia where people need help eating down their paddocks. Very few, if any, animals are sold for meat.