Sheep cheese and vodka – a perfect match?

How are two award-winning products as apparently disparate as sheep cheese and vodka produced by the same business in a sustainable process at the southern end of the world? Hill Street recently spoke to producer Diane Rae of Grandvewe Cheeses and Hartshorn Distillery to find out.  Read on to learn more.

At Grandvewe Cheeses and Hartshorn Distillery, the mother, daughter and son team of Diane Rae, Nicole Gilliver and Ryan Hartshorn (pictured) make cheese and they also make vodka, and the circumstances of how it all happened makes a lot more sense than you might think.

When Diane and her then-partner moved to Tasmania more than 21 years ago, the idea was a standard tree-change dream – a plot of land in Birch’s Bay overlooking the D’Entrecasteux Channel in Southern Tasmania, with a curl of vines, and a toe dipped into some small-scale wine production.

The vineyard was based on polyculture principles, raised off the ground so that sheep could roam beneath the vines removing weeds and fertilising, while providing an additional revenue stream for the farm.

The vines are long gone, but the dairy sheep took off and soon became the centrepiece of this operation. 

Twenty-one years on, Diane says her business’ mission is to craft innovative products from sheep milk that are socially and environmentally conscious. 

As such, there are now three brands - Grandvewe Cheeses making sheep milk cheeses, Hartshorn Distillery which takes the waste product, whey, from the cheeses and converts it into vodka, and Ewe Care which creates skin care products based on sheep milk for the hands and face.

Diane says that the special thing that sets her products apart is the properties of the sheep milk. Very different from both goat and cow milk cheeses, sheep milk cheese has an elegant structure with an unmistakable lactic sweetness. There's a gentle creaminess that is quite different than thick, heavily creamed cow milk cheeses, and none of the barnyard aromas that goat cheeses sometimes have.

What’s more, being a low-allergen milk, it can often suit people with dairy intolerances. It also has twice the calcium of cow milk, contains no cholesterol and is a healthy mono-unsaturated fat.

Cheeses in Grandvewe’s range include the Drunken Admiral, a red wine- soaked semi-hard cheese with a sweet, slightly nutty flavour, the Gin Herbalist, a Fleur de Marquis-style flavoured with native botanicals from Hartshorn Distillery’s gin, and Primavera, a Manchego-style cheese with a smooth buttery flavour and creamy finish. Grandvewe also produces some pretty special mustards with the ingredients from Hartshorn Distillery’s gin and vodka production process, a pinot paste and a sheep milk soap.

Hartshorn Distillery produces small batch spirits made from sheep’s whey, the cheese making by-product often discarded in the manufacturing process. Hartshorn Distillery has perfected the process of converting this to complex and delicious vodkas, liqueur and gin, the latter flavoured with an array of native botanicals. Hartshorn’s original Sheep Whey Vodka was awarded World’s Best Vodka in 2018 and has collected many additional awards since then.

Diane’s personal favourite amongst the products the business produces today, is the Gin Herbalist sheep cheese:

“We have a soft spot for the Gin Herbalist, as it was awarded World’s Best Cheese 2019 at the World Dairy Innovation Awards, based not just on taste but on the fact it is a 360-degree recycling story.  The whey from the cheese creates our vodka and gin and then the spent botanicals from the gin are returned to the cheese factory to be placed on the rind of the cheese creating its unique flavour”, says Diane.

Dianne says the best part about being a producer in Tasmania is the physical splendour of the place, and the ‘can do’ attitude of its people and government which “means that everyone is pulling together to make Tasmania the incredible island of great food and drinks that it is.”

The only real challenge, she says, is the freight cost of getting product off the island which makes it difficult to be price competitive with mainland producers.

Grandvewe cheeses are available in Hill Street’s cheese ranges at Hill Street Sandy Bay, West Hobart and Devonport, and Hartshorn Distillery’s vodkas and gins are available at Hill Street West Hobart.


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