Making use of what we have available to us, re-using, and doing good with what our farm offers has always been key. Nothing gets thrown out unless its absolutely goosed, because you never know, in 20 years time it might come in handy, and often it does! The family are people that do, makers and tinkerers, and has never been in our nature to willingly get rid of things of use, and in this case, that resource is the sweet whey.
Before the distillery was built, we fed a small amount of our whey to our pigs. The pigs love it and as it is full of sugar, it helps to make lovely sweet pork. We dipped a toe into a number of different options for using the whey we produce. Selling it for protein powder wouldn’t have been viable for us due to our island location and transport logistics, and the number of pigs we would need to drink all of the whey was not a farming practice we wanted to venture into. Making alcohol was the one that people were most excited by, and the one which we hoped would contribute to our business the best.
The idea of the distillery was re-ignited by all the family, but mainly by Chris Reade, wanting to make the once crazy idea of Jeff’s, a real live thing. Brendan Reade, the eldest of the 4 sons, began researching how to actually turn whey into alcohol. Basically Brendan figured out how to do it, read many many books and articles online, had advice from a friend who was a microbiologist but really figuring out how to do it was a labour of love.
A few years before the distillery was built we installed a woodchip boiler to produce the hot water for the farm. This was the kick off for the distillery as it was built to be adjacent to the distillery with the intention to be that it would heat the stills.
Brendan, Garth and others began working on the building. A whole new building was put up on the farm to accommodate the distillery, a very functional one that needed to be close to the boiler and also accessible from the cheese making dairy to make passing products between buildings easier. The building was started just before covid so then the builders had to leave.
We finished the building ourselves at the beginning of 2022, the Stills arrived from Germany and the Fermentation tanks from Aberdeen. Then the installation began. Much of the remaining equipment is bespoke and a large amount has been made from old dairy equipment. The heating system is probably unique. We use bio-mass (wood) to produce the heat required for making the cheese and alcohol.
We have known that alcohol could be made from whey for years, friends of ours, Errington Cheese, used to make a type of wine from their spent whey, and there are a number of alcohols made around the world from whey, however there are currently only a few in the UK and none (that we know of) in Scotland. Jeff Reade was very passionate about the idea of turning the whey into alcohol, and being an out the box thinker, it was something he had hoped would happen one day at Sgriob-ruadh even before his death in 2013.
The plan to use our whey for this purpose has been a very long time coming, with there being one project after another at Sgriob-ruadh there hasn’t been much time to bring it to fruition. After Jeff’s death, and a lot of initial research by Brendan, the family sat down once again to discuss whether building a distillery was a direction everyone thought the business should take. It is a fair direction change for a dairy farm to go in, and one we always knew would end up being a very, very big job, but one we felt was the right next step for the business to take.
Disposing of the whey has been a constant challenge for us, with the dairy (cheese making process), producing around 16,000 litres of whey each week. The best solution up until now to handle this by-product has been to mix it in with the slurry produced by the cows, which we then use to fertilise the fields. Living on an island that provides us with plenty rainfall, this extra 16,000L each week (which is mostly made up of water anyway), is a fair amount extra liquid to be going on the fields which are wet enough already.
The whey is made up of water, some hard fats, and crucially, lactose – the sugar which we can turn into alcohol. All of the lactose in our milk ends up in our whey during the cheesemaking process, but this sugar isn’t great for our land, and so spreading it on the fields has never felt like the best use for it, and with the components that whey is made up from, it has already felt like we could do something much more useful with it.