Redhead Creamery Spirits

Brooten, Minn.

By Maria Surma Manka | Photography by Paul Middlestaedt

Redhead Creamery is known for its award-winning cheeses, much of which is made from the milk of its onsite Holstein cows. But creamery co-owners Alise and Lucas Sjostrom wanted to offer more, and they chose a product most people wouldn’t associate with a dairy farm: Spirits.

“People are really confused when you tell them spirits can be made out of milk!” said Alise.

Redhead Creamery Spirits is the brainchild of Alise’s husband, Lucas. Together, they co-own Redhead Creamery with Alise’s parents, Linda and Jerry Jennissen. Lucas leads the spirits operation and Alise, a 2020-2021 graduate of the Foundation’s Initiators Fellowship program, oversees the cheesemaking. The Jennissens operate the farm side of the business, called Jer-Lindy Farms.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whey

Whey is a byproduct of cheese manufacturing, and a spirit made out of whey is called “araga.” According to Artisan Spirit Magazine, araga is one of the most popular beverages in Mongolia and Eastern Russia. Similar to a vodka, araga is clear. It can be served as-is or made into other types of spirits, such as gin.

The challenge is that araga production doesn’t come with a manual. The exact techniques and processes depend on the cheese and farm operations.

“Araga has been one big research project for Lucas,” said Alise. He’s immersed himself in dozens of books and has visited 141 distilleries of all kinds to learn tastes and techniques. He completed an online spirit-making course through the University of Oregon, which has done research on the yeast used to ferment whey.

Despite the challenges, the Sjostroms say araga is the best choice for expanding their business because of three factors: Efficiency, customer interest, and finances.

“If we wanted to do milk or butter, I’d have to buy a bottling machine or cream separator, and they’re significant investments,” Alise said. “By doing spirits first, we can share that equipment with future products. Spirits also are great for our restaurant—people want to order alcohol! Lastly, we had more potential for financing and for a return on investment. When you’re our size and scale, you don’t make a lot of money per cow. If we can convert milk into a bottle of spirits, that makes more financial sense.”

  • Redhead Creamery has received several grants to expand its cheese-making operations and add araga production. The total investment is about $2 million and is expected to create the equivalent of six full-time jobs.
  • Cheese is made by capturing most of the fat and protein from milk. The leftover is a liquid called whey. “We first filter the whey to remove the protein, which is fed back to the cows,” said Lucas. “We filter it again to remove water and concentrate the lactose.”
  • As far as the Sjostroms know, theirs is the only place in the world where araga will be milked, cheesed, filtered and distilled onsite.
  • “Only five farms on the planet have the cheese and distillation onsite, but none filter onsite. Instead, they’re located next to large cheese plants with huge filtration systems,” said Lucas. “No filtration system like ours exists. What we are doing might just be a little bit crazy!”
Tour of Redhead Creamery
  • To make araga, lactase is added to break the lactose molecule into glucose and galactose. Yeast comes next to ferment the glucose and convert it into alcohol. It takes 5-10 days to produce araga from fluid milk.
  • “No matter the type of liquor we eventually make, it’s all based on the initial araga spirit,” said Alise. “The whey infuses it with a slightly creamy texture and buttery flavor.”
  • Does the type of cheese influence the taste of the araga? “The short answer is yes, but we’re still figuring out how discernible that influence is,” said Lucas.
  • The creamery expects to churn out 45 to 50 bottles of spirits per batch of cheese.
  • The Sjostroms hope to start the distillery in time for the 2023 holiday season and offer unique gift baskets and a unique setting for holiday parties and private events.
  • Like fashion, the cocktail world has its trends. “We’re watching what’s popular with any kind of vodka or gin,” said Alise. “There’s a caramel-based spirit from Ireland that’s really good and lots of people don’t even realize it’s made from whey!”

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