Officially launched only at the beginning of this year, the White Sheep Company is an all-new alcohol aiming to be Aotearoa’s answer to Scotch whisky or Russian vodka. The tipple, fashioned from the finest New Zealand sheep milk, was dreamt up by Coromandel local Sam Brown while living in China.
“Initially I went out there to study Mandarin,” says Sam, “but then I made some friends and some connections and ended up staying in the country for a few years, working in international trade.”
It was during a drinking session with said cosmopolitan circle of friends while doing shots of spirits from their home nations that Sam realised New Zealand needed a chaser to call its own. He soon settled upon the notion of making one from sheep milk—what could possibly be more Antipodean than that?
Sam’s previous booze-making experience was limited to knocking up—and knocking back—a “few batches of home brew as a teenager with my mates”, but as it turns out, one almost requires the skills of an alchemist to do it with sheep milk. “It’s more involved than traditional spirits,” Sam says. “You need special yeast to really optimise the conditions for fermentation.” Unable to find such yeast, Sam simply made his own.
In fact, he spent months researching and reading scientific papers before presenting his findings to Massey University in Palmerston North (famed for their work with all things dairy) who, thoroughly impressed with what he’d so far achieved, helped him perfect the process.
It takes a lengthy 12 days to complete the fermentation of the milk before the product is distilled—importantly, just the once—using a traditional copper still to retain more of the natural flavours.
“So much of the vodka marketing these days revolves around how pure the spirit is, how many times it’s been filtered and distilled,” Sam says. “But all that really means is the stripping away of the base flavour, which defeated the purpose of what I was truing to achieve. I wanted to leave much of the flavour and the aroma in there, and you certainly notice on the nose, especially with our vodka.”
And as for those flavours?
“On the nose you’ll certainly pick up milky undertones. It’s got a lot of body, a lot more viscosity. The milkiness means you don’t really get any of the burning on the throat which puts a lots of people from drinking vodka neat.”
Not that this needs to be drunk neat, the creaminess makes for some interesting riffs on classic cocktail combinations—think white Russian or espresso martini—and Sam plans to regularly add recipes to his website with creations named using sheep-inspired puns such as the gin-based ‘Golden Fleece’.
It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that each boutique batch has a slightly different taste. It’s also a fine option for those who suffer from the likes of lactose intolerance. So, the million dollar question, is it any less unhealthy than other booze?
“Well, legally you’re obviously not allowed to advertise health benefits, though I have had a few people remark that they don’t seem to get as much as a hangover from it! But, overall, the reaction has been very positive. The initial response is usually one of curiosity, and people are always interested in not just what it tastes like, but how it’s made, too.”
It’s especially effective for a dinner party conversation piece, and, as for Sam’s group of spirit sharing pals in China?
“I’ve sent a few bottles over to my friends in far flung destinations,” he says. “And it went down well!”
• Anyone’s who’s ever ventured to certain Southeast Asian nations will have undoubtedly seen snake wine, a traditional (and controversial) drink that sees an (often live) snake drowned in a bottle of rice wine. A centuries-old tradition—and now a popular tourist dare—the drink is said to have healing properties, believed by some to boost everything from your libido to your hairline. There have been a handful of instances, however, whereby the snakes have seemingly survived for months submerged in the wine only to bite, and occasionally kill, those who have gone to sip at it. So, if you do decide to take a drink it might be wise to opt for a bottle that’s already been opened, and, in the meantime, here are some more unusual offerings with a different kind of bite.
• Beginning life as April Fool’s joke, Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout is a US craft beer that’s brewed with bull testicles.
• Seagull wine isn’t for sale, rather it’s enjoyed by Inuits in the Arctic Circle, made by placing dead sea bird parts—or an entire gull—into a bottle of water and leaving it to ferment under the sun.
• Another offering from the northern reaches of the northern hemisphere, and another involving the nether regions, Hvalur 2 brew is a seasonal Icelandic boutique beer brewed using a combination of smoked whale testicles and sheep dung.
• Considered a tonic in some small parts of China and Korea, baby mice wine, alas, doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The only stipulation is that the submerged rodents must only be a few days old, so that they’re still hairless.