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Wheyward Spirit says closed-loop distilling is the future of drinks

This brand is the future of spirits

Emily Darchuk profile.
Wheyward Spirit / Wheyward Spirit

If you’re going to run a business these days, sustainability plays a big role. From clothing companies to Napa Valley wineries, everybody is getting in on doing things in a fashion that looks after the environment and ensures a healthy future. Some outfits, however, are taking things to the next level, innovating in ways that amplify what it means to be sustainable.

In the drinks realm, Wheyward Spirit in leading the charge. Operating under a closed-loop distilling model, the California company is turning food waste into booze. Founded by a former food scientist, the brand is very much the future of the beverage industry, at once crafty, creative, and mindful of a system that has its share of issues.

Emily Darchuk started Wheyward Spirit after working in the natural food and dairy realms. Something in the former spawned the idea. “Billions of pounds of whey are discarded every year from the cheese-making process, and I wanted to tackle this excess whey by bringing a natural food ethos into the spirit category,” she says. “I wanted to not only connect the dairy and spirit industries through sustainability but also make a unique product for those who care about the origins of their food. I also saw a huge gap in spirits on the market and an opportunity to craft a spirit aligned with the needs and values of a modern consumer.”

For context, nearly 6.5 million tons of cheese was produced in 2022 in the U.S. The process yields an estimated 57 million metric tons of whey per year, which can adversely affect soil and water health if not disposed of properly.

Most spirits brands involve several facets like grain growers to create the raw ingredients and distillers to make the whiskey or vodka. With Wheyward, the whole arc is taken in. “Sourcing and creating our own supply chain is a unique challenge of Wheyward Spirit,” Darchuk says. “The food industry is a supply chain industry, and we had to build this from scratch to craft our spirits from farm-to-flask.”

She adds that whey is highly perishable, so timing is key in terms of aligning production and sourcing. “Because of this, we keep our sourcing miles low and have a connection with our producers.”

The process

Wheyward Spirit lineup.
Wheyward Spirit / Wheyward Spirit

“Our philosophy starts with our sourcing, so instead of using a traditional grain or agave, we source whey from sustainable dairies in California and upcycle this high-quality ingredient to its highest and best use,” Darchuk says.

For the record, whey is the resulting liquid from the cheese-making process. A faint yellow is what is left after milk is curdled and strained, low in fat and full of lactose. In the old days, as in the 18th Century, some would sip on whey or whey wine. Darchuk celebrates the stuff with her distillation process.

“Instead of stripping out all of the flavors to make a neutral spirit or covering it up with botanicals or flavors, our process to create Wheyward Spirit is focused on retaining an incredibly smooth and versatile signature flavor true to the whey source,” she says. “For Wheyward Wheyskey, we then upcycle barrels by re-coopering them instead of using new oak barrels compared to traditional bourbon to continue our sustainability efforts through the aging process.”

What’s it like? Darchuk describes the original Wheyward Spirit as having “oaky hints of vanilla cream and warm spice, a subtle natural sweetness, and a unique velvety smooth finish naturally created during the fermentation and distillation process.”

The whiskey-like offering, or Wheyskey, is essentially an aged version of the flagship Wheyward spirit. “It has balanced notes of oaky vanilla, toffee, and warm spice,” Darchuk says. “The more delicate flavors in Wheyskey offer a clear differentiation and elevation from a standard whiskey or bourbon.”

Sustainability

Calf raised for dairy
WireStock / Alamy

Using upcycled whey means a smaller carbon footprint. “Food loss and waste are top factors in the climate change crisis, contributing to eight percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and upcycling is one of the most preferred ways to combat food waste,” Darchuk says. “Each bottle of Wheyward Spirit and Wheyward Wheyskey reduces this excess whey, and Wheyward Wheyskey further reduces waste by upcycling barrels instead of using new oak barrels.”

The brand’s ethos pairs well with farm-to-table bars and restaurants that stress local, seasonal ingredients. The sustainability aspect is key and ongoing, refined over time, just like a good recipe or aged spirit. “We see sustainability as a continuous improvement exercise, so we will continue to improve our impact and drive innovation in this space as we grow,” Darchuk adds.

Closing loops is a major part of the practice. “Circularity should be everyone’s goal within production,” Darchuk says. “It’s important to look at how to prevent waste in their own processes and also how the broader alcohol production fits into the food system to prevent waste across the entire supply chain.”

Darchuk says there are companies specializing in offering means of capturing waste and turning it into something useful. “We are proud members of the upcycled food community, a collection of passionate makers and solution providers that prevent or repurpose industrial food waste,” she says.

“We are so excited to see the push for more sustainable and upcycled cocktails coming to menus in bars and restaurants across the country, and we are eager to be at the forefront of this change,” Darchuk says. She references a study from Bacardi suggesting that bartenders are especially interested in zero-waste ingredients in 2024. “We are passionate that sustainability doesn’t have to stop at the bar, whether that is prioritizing sustainably sourced spirits or finding unique ways to connect the bar and the kitchen with food scraps to create upcycled cocktails.”

The whey spirit process appears to be working. In addition to being environmentally sensitive, Wheyward Spirit is certified carbon neutral and racking up awards. The releases have already garnered gold medals at top competitions like the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The drinks industry is evolving fast, with sustainable alcohol brands turning out climate-positive spirits and more sustainable agave spirits. And the best brands are the ones that give back, like Hood River Distillers. Here’s to liquid that’s made with the environment in mind.

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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