Black Cow Vodka came about through having a drink with a friend. Jason Barber is my next-door neighbour here in west Dorset and an old friend of mine. We were talking about what new venture we could come up with, while sipping some apple eau de vie I had made out of some cider. A guy called Joseph, who works on Jason’s farm, popped in and we got him to try it. He said it was okay, but mentioned you can make great alcohol from milk. We looked at Jason’s 200 cows and I think I saw a lightbulb go on above Jason’s head.
Doing my own thing was the only path for me. I relish the freedom and the upside potential – and to be honest I’d always done my own thing since I left art school. After that conversation, Jason and I went on a year-long adventure to experiment with the idea. Nailing how to make pure milk vodka was a breakthrough moment– it’s made from nothing but grass-grazed cows’ milk.
The first thing you need to run a business is vision. Then you need to be prepared to work towards that vision without being deterred by the inevitable obstacles, people and/or circumstances that can work against you on your trajectory. The only downside is there’s no off switch.
People have surprised me. I wish I’d understood quite how important careful recruitment is for the business. I’ve learnt some people work because they are interested in the work and committed to the success of a business. Then there are people who are ultimately focused on their career, which doesn’t necessarily serve the needs of the business employing them. As a small business, I think this is an important difference to take into account.
The biggest challenge comes when you are the little independent upstart. There are lots of different day-to-day challenges in setting up any business, but this is the one that stands out. At this stage, you’re often targeted by competitors, but you can turn this into an advantage: it can force you to think about how to really solve a problem rather than simply throwing money at it.
The opportunity we saw with Black Cow was twofold. Firstly, because we use the whey left over from the milk that’s used to make cheese, our vodka is inherently sustainable – nothing goes to waste. In these times of mass consumption and environmental concerns, it makes absolute sense to us to use every available raw material and put it to good use. Secondly, in my opinion, no other vodka is as smooth as ours, and that’s because no other vodka uses as smooth a raw ingredient as milk.
We have a very big point of difference. No one has ever made a pure milk vodka before. We need to stand out because vodka is a massive category in every country of the world, which makes it a very competitive business.
To get a product into a retailer, I’ve found it’s best to take the meetings myself. That way, I can get my passion for the brand across first, then the financials will follow.
There is a third thing that helps us stand out… We keep things local. We work with our community down in west Dorset, and support our friends within the wider hospitality industry. We recently ran a social-media series called Waste Not Want Not to support chefs who have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
For a while we were not too sure what anything would look like on the other side of Covid-19. So many of our friends have lost their jobs or businesses, but we’ve been weathering the storm together and doing what we can for our community and hoping we can continue to do what we love.
Right now might not be a good time to launch a business, but when is a good time? The answer to that depends on the business, of course. It might not be ideal to set sail in uncertain weather, but you do have to leave port sometime.
In the vodka category, there is still an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Trends come and go but, from everything I’m seeing and hearing, flavoured vodka, low-alcohol and low-calorie cocktails are the ways forward.
We’re going to focus on making Black Cow the best it can be. Our aim is to be seen as the pre-eminent milk vodka brand globally. We love the idea of people drinking our vodka from west Dorset all across the world. It’s great hearing feedback from people from different cultures and places – that’s a very gratifying and rewarding part of our job.
The best way to drink Black Cow is neat. It’s that smooth. Though we always pair it with food – it’s particularly good with a board of British charcuterie, pickles and cheese. The chef Mark Hix has a great fondue recipe that uses both our cheese and our vodka. You can also make a delicious espresso martini just with Black Cow, espresso and maple syrup.
PAUL’S TIPS FOR STARTING A BUSINESS
- Surround yourself with the best advice you can get – ideally from people who have done it a lot longer than you have.
- Recruit the right people – the ones who can do the job even better than you!
- Make sure you have your branding properly finished and thought through before you launch.
For more information, visit BlackCow.co.uk
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