Meet Wheyward Spirit, the company putting the leftovers from cheese production to good use.

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A bottle of Wheyward Spirits next to a cocktail on an illustraion of a pedestal and designed background
Credit: Wheyward Spirit

For every pound of cheese made, 9 pounds of liquid whey remain. That means the 13.3 billion pounds of cheese made in the U.S. in 2020 yielded a dizzying 120 billion pounds of whey—the majority of which was discarded. Enter Emily Darchuk, a Portland, Oregon-based food scientist whose career in product development for major food and beverage companies opened her eyes to this pain point. "I knew you could make whey into alcohol," she says, explaining it just needs to be fermented, "so I started thinking about ways to create a spirit so that liquid wasn't wasted."

A woman next to a fence looking at 3 hairy cows
Credit: Daniel Cronin

What She Does

After dedicating three years to crafting the perfect formula, Darchuk launched Wheyward Spirit in 2020 (you can get it shipped right to you on Drizly, too!). Using whey sourced from northern California dairies, the result is a clear-colored, 80-proof spirit that is lactose-free. (The yeast turns the lactose into alcohol in the fermentation process.) With notes of vanilla and spice, it's best served up on the rocks or as a base for cocktails. "It's like if sake had a baby with vodka—terrific," says restaurateur Danny Meyer, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and founder of Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern, among other New York City restaurants.

Why It's Cool

A 2018 study in the Journal of Dairy Science showed that producing whey spirits results in significant carbon and water savings over traditionally distilled spirits. And in just one year the company has already diverted more than 500,000 pounds of whey from the waste stream. Darchuk hopes customer demand will make beverage-industry upcycling the norm, not the exception. Leah Graham, marketing director for the Upcycled Food Association, believes the future is bright: "Companies like Wheyward Spirit give shoppers the purchasing power to make a real impact in the fight against food loss."

This article first appeared in EatingWell, September 2021.