Omid McDonald is the founder and chief executive of Dairy Distillery, an innovative new way of distilling premium vodka from milk sugar. Also called “permeate,” milk sugar is routinely dumped by milk processors, which can cause environmental issues. McDonald and his distillery, in Almonte, Ontario, are lessening that impact while producing a delicious spirit. We caught up with him for a chat. 

Story by Gavin Conway, photography by Daphné Caron.

Is there a precedent for what you’re doing?

There is precedent for this approach. Ironically, in a lot of cane-producing islands, they now make sugar cane only to produce molasses for rum. But in the past, molasses was just a by-product of producing cane sugar. They had huge lagoons of the stuff and it was a real environmental problem. Then somebody figured out it could be converted into alcohol.

What exactly is permeate?

When you make ultra-filtered milk there’s a by-product called permeate. So when they pull out all the water, they also pull out the lactose. And that’s being dumped on a huge scale. That’s where we come in. We didn’t originally think about using milk permeate; we were thinking of using skim milk. There was a time in Ontario when we were just dumping skim milk because of oversupply. Then we were introduced to permeateit’s the perfect thing for a distiller.

When did you realize you had a winner?

Well, I never dreamed Vodcow would taste as good as it does. We really thought we had something, but wanted to get some validation before we went to market with it. So we asked bartenders and restaurateurs to come around. We did it as a blind test. We had three leading brands to compare. We ran about 40 people through this test and seven out of ten ranked Vodkow their favourite, which is statistically significant with that population. It doesn’t have the harshness of a typical vodka. I’ve had people say they don’t believe it’s only 40 percent alcohol!

“I fell in love with the copper and the stills and really wanted to show them off, so when we were sketching the building I said let’s make the front all glass so people can see the stills and beautiful copper tones”

Omid McDonald

What’s the history of the “Vodkow” name?

In Canada, a vodka can currently only be made from grain or potato, whereas in the U.S. and European Union, it can be made from any agricultural product. So we couldn’t call ours “vodka.” The government has announced that the rule will change and we’ll be allowed to call our spirit “vodka.” But the thing is, we like our name so we won’t be changing it!

While we’re on the topic of names, what’s the origin of yours?

My name, Omid, means “hope” in Farsi. My dad is Canadian and my mother is Iranian. And here’s a fun fact—I am actually orbiting the planet as we speak. The first satellite launched by the Iranians is called “Omid.”

Your stills are German made. What’s the advantage?

Yes, we use German Carl artisan equipment, which is beautifully made and good for smaller, craft distillers. A big reason why this equipment is German is that they didn’t have Prohibition so they maintained their tradition of small-scale distilling. That meant manufacturers stayed around to support them. In the U.S., it all went to very large-scale production when Prohibition ended and became centralized. And I just love the craftsmanship and the copper.

Can you describe the thinking behind the bottle?

We really wanted to create the look of an old-fashioned milk bottle, right down to the cap. That was the really tricky partthose caps you see on juice bottles and suchlike are not rated for alcohol above 10 percent. It took us six months to find a qualified maker, which turned out to be in Spain.

How big a challenge was finding the right yeast for fermentation?

It was big. Even though there’s all this excellent energy in milk to make alcohol, people have discovered it is quite difficult to do. Yeast that would work to make whiskey or rum won’t work on lactose. So when we decided to try this, we knew we needed help. I was introduced to a professor at the University of Ottawa, Alexandre Poulain, who thought it was a neat idea and put his undergrad student Jessica Gaudet on the project. So we got some funding for her research and she spent a year on getting the yeast to work with the permeate. One day she distilled some and we were like: “Yes, it’s alcohol!” The taste wasn’t fantastic in the lab but it had the yield we were looking for to make it viable from a production standpoint.