Drunken Cheese: Our Favorite Dairy Product With a Twist

No one is sure how drunken cheese was invented. Perhaps it was an accident – maybe a farmhand sipped too much vino and knocked a round of Gouda into a wine barrel? Whatever the origin, cheese makers discovered at some point that bathing cheese in wine (or its residues) not only helped preserve the cheese, it also added a cadre of new flavors.

Today, creative cheesemongers focus on introducing libations of all types to America’s cheeses. Whether submerged in wine, bathed in beer or wrapped in liquor-soaked leaves, booze-infused cheese is gaining worldwide acclaim.

“Scientifically, the two are a natural fit,” explains Adam Goddu, manager at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York. “Once a cheese leaves the mold, it becomes the ideal environment for all kinds of molds, yeast and bacteria – but washing cheese with booze inhibits the growth of some types of mold and encourages the growth of others.”

Infusing cheese with alcohol can be labor-intensive. From cheese styles and beverage types to temperatures, curing and rotating time, countless decisions go into every wheel. Even the washing itself is tedious, explains Goddu. “Cheese makers use tiny brushes to wash the cheese frequently, delicately and by hand.”

Adding wine to the cheesemaking equation has been a European tradition for centuries. In France they age a cheese called Tomme au Marc for several months with pomace (seeds and skins left over from pressing wine). In Italy, artisans use the same approach burying Ubriaco cheese in pomace for a specified period of time. And in Spain, cheese makers soak goat’s milk cheese in a regional wine.

Pedrozo Dairy, a small dairy out of Orland, California, is a wine cheese giant. One of the first dairies in the US to tackle drunken cheese, Pedrozo made their first batch of Tipsy Cow in 2000 after tasting an Italian wine-soaked cheese. “So, we came home, did our research, bought some inexpensive red wine and started experimenting,” Pedrozo says. Today, Pedrozo soaks his 1.7-pound rounds in the lees (the substance most people know as sediment in a bottle of wine), creating a Gouda-like flavor and a beautiful deep purple hue on the rind.

Perhaps the most accessible intoxicated cheese is Drunken Goat, a semi-soft artisan goat cheese soaked in Doble Pasta (“double paste”) wine, a thick wine made from Monastrell grapes, for 48 to 72 hours, then aged 75 days. The cheese – sold at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and other national outlets – stays creamy white, while the rind takes on a violet tint.

With the rise of the craft beer movement, beer, too, can be a serious, complex culinary component. The fizzy libation lends itself to flavor profiles ranging from savory to sweet. A wash imparts some of the accent notes in the beer’s flavor profile. When it’s done well, washing with beer doesn’t change the nature of the cheese, it only enhances it.

While beer and wine are the most popular alcohol washes, wheels infused with brandy, bourbon and even whiskey are increasingly appearing on the cheese block. Centuries ago, Alsatian and Provençal cheese makers wrapped their rounds in brandy-soaked chestnut leaves. Today, a few producers are experimenting with similar techniques, wrapping their cheese in leaves that were macerated in brandy. Then they age the cheese for another four to six months. Those cheeses sell for up to $50 per pound, but if the flavors are unique and don’t overwhelm with a whiskey-like taste, they could be worth the investment.

Whether the cheese is “drunk” on wine, beer or spirits, marrying booze and cheese is a new-old trend that creates mouth-watering rounds. Photo courtesy Rouge Creamery.

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