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Theory of Distilling Volume 2:  What Makes a Wash

Theory of Distilling Volume 2: What Makes a Wash

In our first installment of the Theory of Distillation, we painted a broad brush over types of stills, using quality ingredients, the different parts of a run, and basic terminology.  If you want to brush up, give Theory of Distilling Volume 1:  Basic Ingredients and Process a quick read!

For volume 2, we’re going to focus on recipe formulation, get specific about each type of wash, and the difference that your yeast makes so that you have a better idea of how to move forward and make whatever amazing concoction that you want!  Let’s get started!

Drip from Alembic Still 

Your Wash Broken Down

Just like beer, wine, mead and cider have different terminology, so do spirits.  The combination of different ingredients, yeast and fermentation profile will determine the base spirit.  The type of wash and sugar or ingredients that you use will determine what type of spirit it is.

For example, many backwoods moonshiners prefer to drink and make ‘corn whiskey’.  In most cases, this is feed corn in the fermenter spiked with tons of cane sugar.  This is not a bad recipe, but would fall closer to sugar wash, or type of rum, than it would to whiskey.  We’re really splitting hairs here, but the technicality stands!  Let’s break wash types down a little more and talk what goes into each.

Proof Hydrometer 

Vodka / Gin Wash

Vodka may be one of the most versatile types of spirits, because it can literally be made from anything.  As long as it comes off your still clean and above 90 proof, the wash ingredients can be sourced anywhere.

For the home distiller, especially if you’re just getting started, a sugar wash is a great place to begin.  If you’re running an alembic still, you’ll likely have to distill it more than once to get the purity to call it vodka, otherwise you’re just making a classic rum (nothing wrong with that!).

I like sugar washes for getting started in distilling because it gives you a chance to learn how your particular setup works without having to worry about issues like puking, where the proteins in the wash can foam up and come out of the still, burning the entire way up.

All of that being said, a vodka wash can literally be anything.  In Poland they used potatoes because they were inexpensive and abundant.  In other locales around the world, rye and wheat were popular base ingredients for the same reason.

If you’re doing gin, then you have an extra step.  Gin makers will typically do what is called a stripping run first, which is a quicker run to strip the majority of the hearts and tails without trying for that end purity.  What comes out of a stripping run is called a ‘low wine’, just meaning that it’s not the initial wash, but it has been processed at least once so the abv is higher and ready for the final finishing, or spirits, run.

They will then steep their chosen botanicals in the low wines, then run the low wine through a fresh batch of the botanicals as they’re doing the final spirits run.  This process ensures that the flavors of juniper berries, tangerine peels, anjelica root and other botanicals impart their flavor into the finished product.

Brown Sugar for Rum 

Rum Wash

Rum is another versatile spirit, although not quite as versatile as vodka.  Rum is considered to come from any wash that uses simple sugars as the food for the yeast.  Everything from molasses and cane sugar to honey.  Depending on where it comes from determines the sugar used, but it is universally a type of sugar wash.

No matter what kind of still that you are using, you can still make some really incredible rum.  Just remember that it does not need the heads mixed in to be rum!  Clean cuts are ALWAYS the way and the path.

For us, we usually stick to Black Strap Molasses because it makes an absolutely delicious finished product.  That being said, no matter what sugar you choose, use a baseline of about three pounds per gallon in fermentation.  This seems to be the sweet spot for flavor and yield, at least for us.

Peach Shine 

Brandy Wash

Brandy is an incredible spirit that comes from a fruit wash.  Whether it’s grapes, pears, apples or kumquats, using fruit for your wash is what makes the final product a brandy.

One important thing to remember when fermenting fruit and putting it through the still is that fermentation of fructose, and especially apple bases, tends to produce a lot more methanol during fermentation.  Plan on a little less yield and a bigger foreshot and head cut to make sure that your product stays clean and safe.

Many brandies, especially the well oak aged French brandies, will use a reflux still with the reflux turned down to a point where it is still clean, but instead of being at the high proof of a vodka, it comes out around the 160 proof range.  This preserves more flavor while still leaving an incredibly clean spirit with plenty of flavor from the original wash.

These tend to take extremely well to oak aging, and are easily some of the most incredible oak aged spirits that I’ve ever tasted.

 Agave for Tequila or Agave Shine

Tequila / Mescal / Pisco Wash

Tequila, Mescal and Pisco are all very cultural, regional  and specific types of spirits.  Tequila is made from 100% Blue Agave, while Mescal is typically different varieties of cacti.  Pisco, which you see more in South America, is typically made from aromatic grape varieties.  Technically, this is a brandy, but because of the regions and variety of grapes, it gets a slightly different reputation. 

Frey Ranch Whiskey Alembic Still 

Whisky / Whiskey / Bourbon

Grain based washes are all considered whiskey of one form or another.  These may be some of the most flavorful and delicious spirits around. 

Whiskey is typically understood to be American Whiskey, and this covers everything from American Rye to Bourbon.  Bourbon is always at least 51% or more corn, but the American Whiskey category is amazing because it can be anything from single malt to wheat based, and covers an expanding creativity of what whiskey can be. 

These are almost always aged in oak barrels, and the oak aging is a huge part of the overall profile.  Sometimes you will see ‘White Dog’ whiskey from newer distilleries, but not very often.  Most American distilleries stick to the tried and true oak profile.

Whisky is usually produced overseas, and covers both Scotch and Irish Whisky.  This is also a HUGE category, but usually sticks to single malt or blended from both countries.  Different areas of Scotland will produce more or less smokey offerings, but all made with that fancy Scottish water.

Irish whisky is always aged for a minimum of three years, but just like a solid Scotch Whisky, the more time in the barrel, the more amazing the finished product.

Whiskey Grain Recipe 

Recipe Formulation

For most vodka, tequila and rum washes, we always stick to the standard of 3 pounds per gallon.  That’s 3 pounds of whatever sugar that you want per gallon of fermenting wash.  That means in a 5 gallon batch, you would add 15 lbs of sugar.  This ensures that you have plenty of potential yield, as well as plenty of flavor from the agave or molasses in the finished product. 

This rule of thumb works really well for any wash that starts as a simple sugar, including honey (which makes an absolutely incredible spirit).  Having a more concentrated wash means that more of the flavor of the initial product comes through.  Don’t go light on the flavors!

For brandies, we will typically try to get all of the sugar from the fruit that is being used.  Just like in a sugar wash, the more concentrated the fruit sugars and compounds are, the more flavor comes through.  For example, if you’re making a blackberry shine brandy, you want to puree as many pounds of blackberries necessary to make 5.5 full gallons of straight blackberry.  This is how you maximize your flavor.

For grain based washes, there are as many options as there are beer recipes in the world.  We have several Distiller’s Fermentation Kits that copy popular recipes like Angel’s Envy and Maker’s Mark, but you can also do single malt and blended recipes. 

We like to use the Irish Distiller’s Malt or Maris Otter for our single malt recipes, but the Peated Malt makes an amazing smoked style whisky as well.  These higher end base malts come through in the flavor, especially with an alembic style still, making an incredible product pre-oak aging.

Oak Aging for Home Distillers 

Oak Aging on the Homebrew Level

It’s absolutely no secret that oak makes many spirits.  With grain based spirits, this is especially true.  On the homebrew level, this becomes a little harder.

For us, we add the oak to the spirit instead of adding the spirit to the oak.  This tried and true method works really well for small batch distillers, especially since it’s very hard to fill a 53 gallon barrel when you distill from 5 gallons at a time. 

The versatility and availability of spirals, cubes and chips makes it easy for us on the smaller scale to get what we want from the oak without having a huge barrel.  There are some tried and true methods to help make it more authentic, though.

My favorite and maybe the most effective is temperature cycling.  Once you have jars with oak in them, in any form, temperature cycling is as simple as putting the jar in the freezer for a week, then somewhere warm for a week.  This causes the oak to ‘breathe’, which makes it absorb and expel the spirit respectively.  This will help you get a faster and more complete oak profile because it will get into the meat of the oak and absorb more of those delicious compounds.

We hope that this quick guide gives you a better idea on how to formulate recipes and make what you want!  These tips and tricks are all tried and true, so use them as a baseline so you know what to expect out of your next spirit!

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for tons of amazing content and general beer geekery!  Check out BrewChatterTV on YouTube for one on ones about everything homebrewing!  If you have any other questions about anything in this article, stuff it in the comments below and get answers from us and an army of your peers!
Next article Getting Started in Recipe Formulation Vol. 3: All of the Malts

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