Is that milk in your vodka?
Can you make vodka with residue from the production of butter, cheese and ice cream? That’s what Omid McDonald, an Ottawa entrepreneur looking for a novel way to produce vodka, wanted to know.
McDonald’s idea was to focus on milk permeate, a substance that dairy producers throw away in large quantities. “Permeate contains lots of sugar, and I said to myself that we could make something of that,” McDonald says. “You should know that it’s very expensive for dairy producers to get rid of this substance, because if it’s poured out in nature, it can cause an enormous amount of environmental damage.”
Looking for answers, McDonald turned to his alma mater, where he met Alexandre Poulain, a professor in the Department of Biology. Intrigued, Poulain jumped into the venture with both feet, along with biology student Jessica Gaudet.
“I threw out the challenge to Jessica because she is determined and I knew she would be able get into this original research,” Poulain says. “In our work, if you’re interested and curious, you go for it!”
First, Poulain and Gaudet had to find a type of yeast able to absorb the sugar in the permeate. Then, they had to optimize the fermentation conditions required for production of high-quality spirits.
They couldn’t make do with the yeast used in beer or wine fermentation, because it doesn’t work with permeate. More complex types of yeast were potentially of use, as they are only activated in an oxygen-free environment — a familiar setting for Poulain, who studies the metabolism of microorganisms that have adapted to living without oxygen.
“It took very specific skills and instruments to help Omid, because oxygen is everywhere,” Poulain says.
Starting in summer 2016, a dozen types of commercial yeast were tested at the University. Only one was chosen. This is when Gaudet, hired in 2017 as a biology lab intern, entered the picture. Her mandate: to optimize alcohol fermentation conditions and production output.
Jessica used hundreds of litres of permeate before she got the right formula. A sample of the spirits produced in the lab was then sent to the LCBO, which confirmed that the product was fit for human consumption.
These few millilitres of alcohol enabled McDonald to get the funding he needed to build a facility on land he had purchased in Almonte, Ontario. A new business was born: Dairy Distillery, which has been producing Vodkow since fall 2018.
When she completed her bachelor’s in 2018, Gaudet continued working at the distillery, where McDonald offered her a part-time job. “I had produced small quantities of vodka in the laboratory, so I had to adjust the fermentation process for 2,000-litre vats.”
Gaudet had never imagined doing research in a lab, much less taking on graduate studies. But her experience in industry with McDonald gave her the bug, so much so that she’s starting a master’s in January 2019.
“I will try to make the fermentation process more efficient, to increase output,” she explains. “I would also like to determine the molecular composition of Vodkow, to discover the secret of its very unique taste.”
Biofuel: A new outlet for dairy producers?
His collaboration with industry and discussions with McDonald now have Poulain thinking of new ways to use permeate.
“One possible outlet would be biofuel production,” he says. “Producing vodka, you can only make something out of a part of the waste generated by the diary industry. You’d have to consume astronomical quantities of it to use up all of the residue.”
Gaudet’s research will help determine the viability of such a project. Who knows? Maybe her work will open new markets for dairy producers.
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