To continue farming in Britain it is becoming increasingly important to ‘think outside of the box’ in order to survive, which is why Tim and Tan Spittle, sheep farmers in the Cotswolds, have been shortlisted as finalists in the Farmers Weekly Awards 2022 for Diversification Farmer of the Year. Not only did they convert disused cattle sheds into a successful gym but with Blacklion Vodka they have launched an internationally recognised and lauded new premium spirits brand… and it all comes from a waste product from cheese production – Europe’s first vodka to be made from sheep’s milk. Peter Dean talks to the Spittles and tastes the vodka.
“Diversification is becoming the key to survival and this is often met with reluctance by farmers, but if you are a forward-facing business and want to continue farming then change is unavoidable,” says Tim Spittle, co-creator of Blacklion Vodka.
Peter Dean: What gave you the idea that you could make vodka out of sheep’s milk?
We wanted to produce something sustainable, environmentally desirable, British, and with our love of vodka, we wanted to showcase a diversification project within the farming industry which was also innovative; so much so that we have now been selected as finalists in the Farmers Weekly Awards 2022 for Diversification Farmer of the Year. The results will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel in London this October. We knew there were vodkas made using cow’s milk, but being sheep farmers wondered why no one had done it with sheep’s milk and so our journey began…
What did your fellow sheep farmers say to you when you said you were going to do this?
We didn’t tell anyone. Between us (husband and wife) we kept it a secret until we actually had something tangible to shout about. As soon as we started telling people, they were puzzled! “Vodka from sheep’s milk? How does that work?” We still get asked that question now especially as people still consider vodka to be made out of potato or grain.
Did you create a crossbreed specially for this vodka? And if so why?
We did. We thought if we were going to create and develop something super special and niche, it wouldn’t be long before others followed in our footsteps. We had our own flock of Valais Blacknose sheep (known as the cutest sheep in the world) so decided we would make our product doubly rare and create our own breed of sheep; a cross between the Valais Blacknose and a British milking sheep which we call our ‘Black Lions’. These are the face of our brand. There were benefits of crossing the breeds including improved vigour, hardiness and temperament.
Can you explain how the vodka is made? And who is the distiller?
Unfortunately we’re unable to disclose the distiller as we use a local contract distiller. In terms of the vodka, after the cheese-making process the curds are removed to make an exquisite sheep’s cheese by our friend at Berkswell Cheese. The whey is typically thrown away, so we take that byproduct, ferment and then distill to our own special recipe.
Can you talk us through how the project kicked off?
After returning from holiday, my wife and I began our quest. The first thing was to consider how we would filter and extract the sugary-whey from the milk. This involved exploring various methods of clarification and separation. We spoke to various people around the world and sent samples to Germany for testing. Once this element had been achieved it was then the lengthy process of getting the balance of flavour and abv. Working closely with our distillers, we finally found ‘the one’ and Blacklion Vodka was born.
What research did you do into the market – and who is your target audience?
Our research and development phase took four years before launching in 2021. On that journey we had to overcome a number of hurdles and learn the industry to create our multi award-winning vodka. As a super-premium vodka, our target audience is the discerning spirit drinker who is looking for exceptional quality, taste, mouthfeel and finish with an ethical eye on sustainability. Blacklion is extremely versatile and appeals to a wide audience – whisky drinkers, gin drinkers, mixologists and those who love our spirit of adventure!
How has the brand developed since launch?
Launching in 2021, Blacklion has gone from strength to strength in the past 15 months winning international awards, recognition within the farming industry, international, national, regional news (print and broadcast) as well as trade press. We have developed a strong element of direct sales, good traction within the on-trade and are now about to expand distribution.
What are your ambitions re. the product – distribution, increased lines etc?
Our vision is not to introduce various lines of Blacklion, but only stay true to our brand identity which is to produce and create and pure vodka spirit from a byproduct. We do have other development projects in the pipeline for later on but for now our focus is on distribution across the UK, Europe and USA. It is our ambition for people to walk into a well respected bar and ask for a Blacklion!
Re. distribution – how key is getting into the on-trade and what’s your strategy for getting there?
The on-trade market is very important to us and the brand as it gives Blacklion visibility. However, following market trends and worldwide financial climates our focus has to be weighed more towards retail and direct to consumer as the on-trade battles through these difficult times with rising energy costs, staff shortages, and difficulties with supply.
£60 for a bottle is ‘toppy’ perhaps? If your base material is waste, why the premium price point?
£60 is very good value if you consider the process behind Blacklion. It all starts with the birth of a lamb and it’s two years in the making before those ewes start their milking careers! It does not only involve distilling but also we are running a farming enterprise with livestock every single day of the year which is the backbone behind our product. Not to mention all the processes such as milking sheep, cheese-making and then distilling. For the record, the cheese-maker who was once throwing the whey away, is now being paid by us to supply that whey which increases his farming income. Above all, you pay for what you get and if you want a versatile vodka with real provenance, that can be served straight from the freezer and taste absolutely exceptional, then Blacklion is for you!
How important is the vodka compared with the rest of the farm’s business? (how many bottles do you produce? What % or resources are devoted to the vodka and how much devoted to farming/ the gym?)
The farm was supported initially by our gym business where we converted disused cattle buildings to create a means of income to improve our tired and under-funded farm. Now, after developing Blacklion the farm will hopefully have a revenue stream which will secure its future for generations to come which has always been our objective. We currently produce runs of 1250 bottles on a supply-and-demand basis and this can be upscaled to multiple runs per month. The gym is a stand alone business and is used to prop up the farm. The vodka is also a stand alone business which is fully integrated with the farm. Ultimately, we would imagine the vodka will become the main source of income for all future developments of our business.
Has it helped keep your farm afloat?
Blacklion only launched in 2021 so it’s too soon to say, but it is one of the main reasons behind developing Blacklion.
Is there a need for British farmers to think outside of the box in this way?
Absolutely! British farming is facing many challenges on many levels, not unlike other industries in this current climate. For many small-to-medium-sized farms, diversification is becoming the key to survival and this is often met with reluctance by farmers, but if you are a forward-facing business and want to continue farming then change is unavoidable. It is our view that we would like nothing more than to simply farm, but it just couldn’t happen so we are prepared to take the necessary steps and take our business into other areas enabling us to keep farming, stay in the countryside and enjoy a way of life that is second to none.
How have you funded these diversifications and do you get much government help?
We are self-funded and it was a comment made by another producer at the very beginning of our journey who said ‘you will need a second income to support the developing years of building a brand in this industry.’ We had the gym which allowed us to get started, however we are fully aware that we will potentially require further investment to take Blacklion to the next level.
Putting Blacklion vodka to the taste test
Earlier this summer the Spittles sent me a taster sample which I duly froze for the brand’s signature serve. I have to confess I think this spirit is a great idea. A vodka that is made from sheep’s whey – a waste product from cheese production that would normally be poured down the drain – that comes from a rare crossbreed of sheep farmed in the Cotswolds. Personally I am not normally a vodka drinker but Blacklion’s signature serve – neat from the freezer over ice – is very good indeed. There’s not much in the way of aromatics, but the creamy flavour on the palate is a winner, followed by the heat of the 40% abv. It feels very pure, there is a natural sweetness to the milk base. Really quite delicious – this may convert me to drinking vodka yet.
In addition to the many awards it won last year, Blacklion Vodka has won the following awards in 2022: Gold Medal at the American Distilling Institute’s International Spirits Competition (ADI ISC) and Best of Category for International Vodka at the American Distilling Institute’s International Spirits Competition (ADI ISC).
For further information contact Blacklion here or on 07540 879619