The basics of fermenting a high alcohol wash at home.
Fermenting a high alcohol wash at home does not have to be complicated or tricky. It is actually a really simple process that can become as complex as you want it to be, depending on what your goals are. In this blog we’ll go over all the essentials of making high alcohol wash at home, including:
- Alcohol Wash Ingredients
- Yeasts ( Turbo Yeasts)
- Fermentables ( Sugar, Fruits, Grains, Molasses)
- Cleaning and sterilizing
- Required equipment
- Primary fermentation
- Secondary fermentation
- Conditioning and clearing
- Bottling and storage
Alcohol Wash Ingredients
There are 3 basic ingredients to any fermented alcohol wash:
- Fermentable Sugar
If you also count time and warmth as ingredients, that makes the total 5. (Still totally manageable!) When fermenting for high alcohol you'll want to pay attention to these ingredients to get the desired result. As mentioned before this can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, so here’s a bit about each to give you an idea!
All fermented alcohol is created by yeast, and since the goal in a wash is high alcohol content, the yeast you choose makes a huge difference. Yeast is a living organism that feeds off of sugars and nutrients and in turn produces alcohol. As living organisms they need certain things to survive and have preferred environments. One of the most important things to take into consideration when selecting a yeast for high-alcohol wash is it’s alcohol tolerance level - that’s right, all yeasts can only produce alcohol up to a certain point. This is why it is impossible to ferment 40% alcohol. Alcohol content like that can only be achieved through distillation after fermentation takes place. Choosing the right yeast is so important because if the one you pick is not strong enough to convert all the sugar in your wash you will be left with all that sweetness at the end and a lower ABV content than you wanted.
There are yeasts that have been designed specifically for making high-alcohol washes that are stronger than average beer or wine yeasts and more capable of fermenting in high-alcohol and low nutrient environments. For instance, Lightning Turbo Yeast is able to reliably convert a simple sugar water mixture up to a 23% ABV wash with a neutral flavour - provided there is enough starting sugar in the wash to achieve that level. Other “Distillery Series” Yeasts like Still Spirits, Rum, Whisky, and Vodka yeasts generally have an alcohol tolerance of approximately 15%. This is lower than the lightning Turbo Yeast, but higher than most average wine or beer yeasts. The benefit of using these yeasts depends on the flavour of the wash you want - which depends on the source(s) of sugar you choose. For instance, if you want a Rum style wash and wish to convert molasses to alcohol, using a specific Rum yeast will be helpful. We did some trials comparing turbo yeasts formulas.Fermentable Sugar
Since sugar is what gets converted into alcohol it’s a very important thing to consider when making a high alcohol wash. Depending on the source of sugar you want to use the process can be very simple or slightly complex. The main things to consider when choosing a source of sugar are:
- What base flavour do I want my wash to have?
- Is my sugar source fermentable? Do I have to do anything to it to make it fermentable? (Ex. Grains like barley need to be boiled to change to sugar)
Usually homebrewers want a neutral flavoured wash, and dextrose (aka Corn Sugar) is the best for this. However the possibilities are wide open for choosing a source of sugar in high alcohol fermentation because the only real requirement is the high alcohol content. In wine, the sugar must be fruit based, and in beer it must be grain based, but in high alcohol washes you can make the base from either grain or fruit. That being said, here are some of the most common sources of sugar used in high alcohol wash:
- Dextrose/Corn Sugar - This is the best source of sugar for making clean, neutral flavoured washes. Generally a neutral alcohol wash is the most desired, because it leaves you options afterwards to flavour it however you want with flavour enhancers and essences once it is done. Flavour essences can be added to the neutral alcohol to replicate popular spirits and liqueurs. It is also the most simple source of sugar to use because it is not only inexpensive in comparison to fruits and grains, but also 100% fermentable as is, you simply dissolve it in water. This also makes it very easy to measure. This Corn sugar comes in both dry and liquid syrup form.
- Malted Grains (Barley) - Malted grains, like rye and 6 row, are also a popular source of sugar for making high-alcohol wash, but are take more work to use than sugars like dextrose. It is generally used by homebrewers who want to create an authentic whiskey flavour in their alcohol wash rather than depending on essence flavour enhancers. However malted grain (if in grain form), is not at all fermentable to begin with. It must be “mashed” like in beer by cracking the grain (milling) and then by boiling it in water, usually around 152°F, for about an hour. Then it must be siphoned off and the resulting liquid “mash” must be boiled. This process, breaks down the starches into sugars, which are then ready for fermenting. If you are using liquid or dry malt extract this process can be skipped but you will still need to dissolve well in hot water. If using grains in your high-alcohol wash, it is best to use a yeast like Still Spirits Whisky yeast that is specifically designed for converting this type of sugar and enhancing those flavours or use alpha amalyse to break down those proteins.
- Molasses and Cane Sugars - This type of sugar is fermentable to begin with so no extra processes are necessary besides dissolving it properly in water. These sugars are generally used to create more authentic rum flavours in their alcohol wash. Depending on the type of molasses or cane sugar selected, a different flavour and colour will result from clear to dark.
- Fruit Sugars - These type of sugars can come from any fruit, berry, or vegetable you can think of. They can be used to add flavour to an alcohol wash as well as colour, but the main benefit of blending a fruit sugar into a wash is that they are often rich in acids and nutrients which help the yeast ferment. Most fruit sugars can be simply added directly into your sugar water mixture. However, be careful with grocery store juices and concentrates as they may contain preservatives - preservatives will often prevent fermentation and cause your whole batch to get stuck.
Whatever you choose as the source of sugar you use remember that yeast has its limits. When putting together your sugar mixture to make an alcohol wash make sure you use a hydrometer to ensure you are not using too much or too little. If there is too much sugar your yeast will not be able to convert it all, and if there is less than you want your final ABV (Alcohol By Volume) will not be as high as you’d like. With a hydrometer you can monitor:
- how well something is fermenting
- note when fermentation is finished
- calculate your final ABV.
Water is the next key ingredient in making a high alcohol wash. The main things to consider when choosing a source of water are:
- Sanitation - An unsanitary source of water will lead to contamination and off flavours and bacteria in your wash. That being said you don’t want your source of water to be chlorinated either. If using a gently chlorinated source of water - like tap water - leave it out overnight to dechlorinate it.
- Nutrient and Mineral Content - Remember that sugar is not all that a yeast needs to live on. Turbo Yeasts like the ones recommended are excellent even in harsh environments but can still be helped with your choice of water. Distilled water is the least recommended in terms of nutrient content because it is completely stripped.
- Acid Content - Acid is necessary for fermentation to take place. This is especially true for high alcohol content washes because the acid content gets depleted as fermentation progresses. Adding tartaric acid to your water or wash can help prevent stuck fermentations.
Time and Temperature
While not necessarily “ingredients,” time and temperature are the next two most important factors when fermenting alcohol. It takes time for your sweet mix of sugar water to ferment into an alcohol wash, and more for it to clear. Generally the whole process takes at least 4-6 weeks. Warmth works hand in hand with time in accomplishing this. As living things, yeasts have a preferred temperature they like to live in and they are most productive at this temperature (often 20-23° C, depending on the type of yeast and what is being fermented). At their preferred temperature, a healthier fermentation will take place, whereas if the temperature is colder it may be slower. Warmth may also affect the flavour of your wash when it is fermenting. Regardless of what you are going for it is best to avoid large temperature fluctuations and extreme heat as these may produce harsh flavours in your wash. Having a thermometer and a room reliably at the desired temperature is key to producing great high alcohol wash.
No matter the ingredients you use in your alcohol wash, there is certain equipment that is necessary to the process. Since it will all be coming into contact with the alcohol, you’ll want to ensure everything you use is clean, sanitized, and food grade. Cleaning and sterilizing your equipment is one of the most important steps in brewing and there are a number of products for this purpose.
- Cleaning: Cleaning is all about removing things like stuck on stains, mold, or yeast. It is important that all your equipment is cleaned thoroughly as these things can be the sources of bacteria that will ruin your alcohol wash. When cleaning your equipment you may want to use brushes and faucet mounted washers with products such as Diversol (B Brite) mixed with water.
- Sanitizing: Sanitizing involves getting rid of as much of the unwanted bacteria from your equipment as you can. This is done by using sanitizing agents such as Aseptox or Sodium Metabisulfite that are mixed with water.
There are plenty of cleaning and sanitizing agents each with specific features. Some may work well on one piece of equipment, but not on others. For instance, chlorine can damage stainless steel and boiling water is dangerous to use on glass because it might shatter. For more detailed information on cleaning and sterilizing, the different products available, and Learn how best to clean certain types of equipment
In general, the basic equipment can be broken down into 3 categories: containers, stoppers, and tools.
Containers: When making alcohol you will need a minimum of 3 kinds of containers:
- A large pot to heat water in and dissolve ingredients like sugar, or mash and boil grain.
- A primary fermenter to begin the fermentation in. Buckets tend to make great primary fermenters because they are easy to clean and have extra space for the alcohol wash to ferment in. When wine is fermenting it is bubbling and active.
- A secondary fermenter to stabilize and condition the wine in. Secondary fermenters should be glass or plastic carboys with minimal headspace, so that the alcohol isn’t exposed to too much air.
- Vessels to store and serve the finished wash. Bottles or jugs can be used to store and serve the finished wine from.
Closures/Stoppers: These are used to protect the alcohol wash from contamination and aeration during the fermentation stage and after bottling. When the wash is in the primary and secondary fermenters you will want to have an airlock and rubber bung. These will seal the wash from outside contaminants, while also letting the gasses from the fermentation process to escape. Corks, screw caps, or spigots can then be used to seal the finished wash.
Tools: There are plenty of home brewing tools that make the experience easier. However, if minimalism is what you’re after there are only a few that are absolutely necessary. They are:
- A hydrometer - to measure the sugar content of the must and wine.
- A test tube - to use with the hydrometer.
- A thermometer - to measure temperature.
- A siphon - to transfer wine between the containers and into bottles without disturbing any sediment.
- A corker - if you are corking glass bottles.
- A brush - to clean bottles, jugs, and carboys.
If this is your first time, don’t fret, Danny’s has a number of all-in-one starter equipment kits ready to pick-up in store or ship. Browse equipment kits here.
General Process of Making a High Alcohol Wash:
While there will be some differences in terms of process depending on the ingredients you choose, here are some basic steps to fermenting an alcohol wash at home.
And that’s the basics of fermenting high alcohol washes at home!