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April 29, 2013

The Best Yeasts for Distilling

Distillers Yeast Review

We get a lot of questions about yeast. Folks want to know "which yeasts are the best" for making high quality whiskey and other spirits.

Admittedly, our experience with distillers yeasts is somewhat limited. We found a yeast we liked using a while back and stuck with it. We hadn't really done much side by side experimentation with other yeasts...until recently. We decided to test the 4 most common yeasts used by home distillers (with the exception of a wine yeast) and pitted them head to head against one another. Here's how we did it.

 

We made a 2 gallon batch of rum mash using 3 pounds of pure cane sugar and 2 pints of unsulfured molasses (with a potential alcohol of 12.9%). We then split the mash into 4 glass carboy's and added a different yeast to each container.

We tested bread yeast, champagne yeast, super start distillers  yeast, and Turbo Yeast.

We let the batches ferment for almost 3 weeks (to make sure we had maxed out the potential of each yeast), then we conducted a taste test. We were never able to actually distill the batches of wash because mother nature just wouldn't cooperate with us (it was too damn cold outside).

Our assumption was that the bread yeast had not met its alcohol potential and would be sweeter than the rest of the samples due to excess sugar. We also assumed that the turbo yeast might taste and smell a bit funky, because that's what a lot of people report about it. We also have some experience with turbo's ourselves and have noted these characteristics. We thought the champagne yeast would be dry, and weren't sure how the super start would taste among the rest of the samples. We hadn't taken a final specific gravity reading before the taste test, so the alcohol content of the samples was not known to us as we were sampling them.

As it turns out, our assumptions were dead on, with one surprising exception. Here's what we noted:

Turbo Yeast

We tested Liquor Quick's Turbo Pure X-Press (dehydrated), which is rated to produce up to 18% alcohol. According to the manufacturer, this yeast was created to produce "a very clean wash with minimal congeners." We disagree with the first part of that statement.

The wash was anything but clean. It smelled and tasted absolutely awful, most likely due to excess nutrients that weren't used by the yeast. In defense of Liquor Quick, perhaps if we had added more sugar and the yeast were able to work longer (using more of the nutrients) the wash would not have tasted so bad.

We actually agree with the second part of the above mentioned statement. The wash contained very few congeners. Congeners is a fancy term for all of the tasty ingredients found in the mash. The more congeners, the more mash flavor, the less congeners, the more devoid of taste the wash and final product will have. There was hardly any trace of the cane and molasses flavors. However, remnants of the nutrients were still very present and the wash tasted and smelled terrible.

In summary, we don't recommend turbo yeast for making high quality spirits. If you're making gas for your lawnmower, turbo will work just fine. Otherwise, we recommend you avoid it at all costs.

Champagne Yeast

We tested Red Star's Pasteur Champagne Yeast (dehydrated). The champagne wash sample was extremely dry. Molasses and cane flavors from the wash were almost completely gone. A very slight bitter taste from the molasses was all that remained, which is definitely not the best part of the molasses flavor. The yeast itself also imparted little to no flavor to the wash, making this sample extremely clean. If one is striving to make a neutral grain spirit, such as vodka, we think champage yeast would work very well. However, it is now apparent to us that this yeast is not appropriate for flavorful spirits such as corn whiskey, full bodied, authentic rums, etc..

Super Start Distillers Yeast

We tested Crosby & Baker's Super Start Distillers Yeast, now known simply as Distillers Yeast (UPC: CB 9904A*). This stuff is available by the pound and is given no description by the maker. Over the years this is the yeast we've become accustomed to using, partly because it's sold by the pound (and It takes a long time to use an entire pound of yeast) and partly because we experienced what we felt were good results. Our assumption was that this yeast was going to blow the competition away. However, we were wrong.

The Super Start wash tasted almost exactly like the champagne yeast wash. They were actually a bit difficult to tell apart. The only difference was that the champagne yeast had a slightly cleaner taste and smell. Yeasty smells and flavors were a bit more prevalent in the SS sample. In our opinion, because these samples didn't taste anything like cane or molasses, these yeasts are probably better suited for making high alcohol, neutral grain spirits than they are for making sippin' whiskeys. Because the champagne yeast had a cleaner taste than the Super Start, we'd venture to say that it'd be the better choice between the two.

The performance of Super Start in this experiment is actually good and bad news to us. It's bad news because we have a lot of Super Start on hand. It's good news because we're always looking for ways to make better whiskey, and moving away from SS is an obvious change we need to make. Accordingly, due to the results of this experiment, we now no longer exclusively recommend Super Start as our yeast of choice. We're currently planning our next yeast experiment and will re-test champagne, super start, and a few other high alcohol yeasts to determine which we think is the best for making high alcohol, neutral grain spirits.

Bread Yeast

The surprise of the day was bread yest. We tested Fleischmann's Active Dry Yeast. Our initial assumption was correct: the bread yeast tasted slightly sweeter than the others. Much more of the cane sugar and molasses flavors were present. Overall, this was actually the best tasting wash, which we kind of half expected. We assumed that the bread yeast sample tasted better because the yeast had hardly done anything and hadn't produced much alcohol. However, we were dead wrong.

The ABV of this sample was on par with the rest of the samples (see below). This means that bread yeast had managed to produce as much alcohol as the rest of the yeasts, but had done so without stripping out as much of the natural mash flavors. This wash tasted great and we see no reason to recommend against using bread yeast for creating flavorful spirits. However, in our next experiment we're going to test bread yeast against other yeasts designed for crafting full bodied whiskeys.

Alcohol Yield 

We determined potential alcohol using a beer hydrometer. We also did some calculations by hand to back up hydrometer readings (and to prove how smart we are). Also, our brix refractometer was missing on test day, which is the other reason for the hand calculations.

Our beer hydrometer displayed a starting gravity of 1.10, corresponding to a potential alcohol of 13%. Between the molasses and the cane sugar, we ended up adding a total of 969 grams of sugar to a total of 3785 grams of water, for a brix of 25.6 and a potential alcohol of 12.8%. Because the result of both calculations is so close we're very confident that the potential alcohol was somewhere around 12.9%.

The final gravity measurements of wash samples were almost identical. The samples were all within a half percent of 12.5% starting alcohol, with champagne being slightly higher than the rest. In other words, each yeast essentially maxed out its alcohol production potential by eating more or less all of the sugar present in the wash.

These results convey absolutely nothing meaningful about the alcohol production potential of champagne, turbo yest, and Super Start yeast. It's obvious that these yeasts should be able to produce 12.5% ABV or higher. If we wanted to compare the alcohol yield potential of these yeasts we'd need to bump up the sugar content of the wash and give the yeast samples more to work with.

However, the experiment sheds some interesting light on the alcohol production potential of bread yest. We assumed that bread yeast would have stalled out well before consuming all of the sugar in the mash. We can now say with confidence that bread yeast (at least the brand we used) is able to produce 12.5% starting ABV, and maybe even higher. This is surprising news to us, as our previous (limited) experience with bread yeast suggested a much lower potential ABV.

Additional Yeast Resources

If you have not read our article "Making Moonshine - Fermentation and Yeast" check that out as we go into more detail about the fermentaiton process. We strongly suggest purchasing a copy of the book "Yeast" from Amazon.com. This books is 300 pages long and was written by professional brewers and scientists. It's an awesome resource on the topic of yeast. We've been reading this book and have learned a ton of stuff about yeast. Yeast is just as important as the other ingredients (corn, barley, sugar) in fine spirits, and without it, there'd be no spirits, as yeast is solely responsible for making alcohol during the fermentation process. Get this book if you want to improve the quality of your whiskey. Also, checkout our article "Bourbon, Whiskey, Vodka and Moonshine - How Much Yeast?" for more information on how much yeast to use on a batch of mash. 

 

 

  • There’s no avoiding THE NASTY FLAVOUR IN TURBO YEAST,(yes even if you do follow the instructions) I’ve had spirits made by a small batch distiller that uses turbo and you can taste it…vulgar. THAT’S WHY THE manufacturer Recommends CARBON FILTERING….If you are going to run a still, may as well make something nice….just do 2 runs if you want more alcohol….taste is far more important that volume…

    Posted by pete on July 24, 2019
  • @Pete Conklin, 12 weeks? I get a good 15% using Fleishmans in 2 weeks. What is your brix level before adding yeast? Might need to add some sugar for the yeast to transform or use more yeast. I have no problem double distilling any type of alcohol and getting a 90%+ ABV.

    Posted by Flatland Hillbilly on April 15, 2019
  • To all those asking about how much yeast to use. Yeast multiplies. Yeast multiplies faster with more sugar and warmer environments.

    Posted by Dillonhildebrand on March 28, 2019
  • Does anyone have a recipe for making just one gallon of moonshine?

    Posted by Aprli Phonix on March 18, 2019
  • Sorry if this is a stupid question, I am just curious. Why is it the cold weather prevented them from distilling but not fermenting the mash? I would have thought it would be the other way around, no?

    Posted by Bambi on January 28, 2019
  • great blog. I read your post, the way of providing the information is awesome. Thanks for sharing this type of information, great work. keep on.
    Yeast Substitute

    Posted by txbrewingbm@gmail.com on January 21, 2019
  • There is a guy on eBay who sells a yeast blend that I have used several times and have had crazy great fermentation’s and leaves the corn/ rye flavor without stripping like turbos. I don’t remember the name but it is a 17 gram pack for $4.99. There has been a lot of interest in his stuff on other forums- seems like he might work at Jack Daniel and gets some special stuff.
    Also, make sure your temps are above 70 f for best results. This is a tough time of year if you live up North and don,t have a heated fermentor.

    Posted by Brew Dude on January 14, 2019
  • I use 18 pounds raw cane sugar (aka turbinado sugar) in 5 gallons of filtered spring water and 1 packet (175g) of turbo yeast for a great wash. Instead of 48 hours, I let the wash work for 5 days, often achieving 18-20% ABV. I then run the wash through an 800 thread count pillowcase as I pour the wash into my 8 gallon stainless still with plate column. I generally get a gallon of 160-170 proof that I run through a berkey filter with 4 carbon elements. Really makes a smooth, slightly sweet product. All the still components are codenamed and I am very pleased with their products and service. Next project is now to incorporate a dephlegmator.

    Posted by WV mountaineer on November 12, 2018
  • I experiment with lots of commercial and naturally occurring yeasts over the years. The Best results that gave good compromise betwee % and taste is the Premium Bakers yeast made by LOWAN. Also one of the cheapest.

    My batch is 6Kg raw sugar, 1 Litre molasses (horse Feed quality) and fill up with hot water to equal 30 litres total. Wait a day or so for it to cool between 22-28c then add 2 level tablespoons of yeast and mix in.

    To speed up fermentation, I Incorporated a small 12v recirculating pump which reduced the normal time to around 5-7 days depending on ambient temperature.

    A basic still works OK and produces around 5 litres @ Around 40%. A thumper increases % and also removes some flavours, but I find that a simple carbon filter at the Still output works well, and 40% is a good enough result for me. Add your own flavours or just mix with sodas or flavoured milk (shake vigorously for a few seconds to prevent congealing).

    Total cost to producef 5 litres at my place is less than AUD $15.00 whereas a cheap bottle of rum here is a ridiculous AUD $30.00 per 700 ml. So around 20 times cheaper.

    Posted by Scoffer on April 26, 2018
  • A great page on a often overlooked topic.
    To throw my two cents in, I believe turbo yeasts receive unfair criticism.
    I have used Turbo yeasts for years and never had an issue, mainly because I follow the instructions on the pack!
    All of the turbo’s I have seen are designed for neutral sugar/dex. washes and should be ran through a proper reflux column (I’m talking a tightly packed 2" wide by 40" tall tower as a minimum!).
    When your spirit is coming off at 94 to 96 % ABV, you have an excellent vodka/neutral base to proof and work with.
    Anyone trying to use turbo’s for running favored washes through a pot still is not going to get good results and really isn’t following the yeast manufacturers instructions.

    For flavoured spirits I always use DADY or bread yeast.

    I am always dumbfounded when people do not follow instructions and then complain about the results!

    Thanks.

    Posted by Sparkie on April 16, 2018
  • Hi, i LIKE THIS A LOT. hOWEVER CAN ANYONE COMMENT ON d.a.d.y i HAVE BEEN A BAKERS YEAST BREWER, SINCE GIVING UP ON turbo. I FOUND TURBOS CARRIED A SLIGHT VANILLA FLAVOUR. BAKERS IS GREAT, BUT I KEEP READING ARTICLES SAYING DISTILLERS aCTIVE DRY YEAST IS EQUALLY AS GOOD BUT HAS HIGHER ABV POTENTIAL. I AM IN UK AND CAN ONLY FIND dady ON EBAY IN 1KG BAGS SO EXPENSIVE MISTAKE IF WRONG. ANY IDEAS?

    Posted by Dale on March 28, 2018
  • This is a great read!
    I’ve been brewing for a few years and trying some different washes/mashes. I’ve learned that it’s not only the yeast that will create a high abv, it’s the gravity of the wash/mash that helps the yeast produce as much. I’ve started out using turbo yeast and learned that a lot of times once the wash hits a certain abv; the yeast will go dormant or die off (roughly between 15% to 18%. Bread yeast on the other hand, I’ve gotten mash up to 19% with the gravity of 1.101 and adding 4oz of tomato paste halfway through the fermentation (1 week in) tomato paste makes a great nutrient for yeast and won’t mess up your mash. I only use fleichmanns yeast. All in all, I agree 100% with this study. Thanks a lot!

    Posted by Irishman on August 22, 2017
  • Id be interested to know if you could mix yeasts without them destroying each other or something to create a mix that gives you the best of all worlds, so far I see its always one type or another never a combined tag team, maybe its because its not possible? or no one has considered it ?

    Posted by scott on August 19, 2017
  • Great info thanks

    Ok since we are asking questions:
    If a bullet training is going at 300 mile per hour and you throw a ball from the train side ways, will it go further sideways or in aforward directing?

    Posted by peter on June 12, 2017
  • I have been making brows for well over 5 years and my favorite yeast is actually the bread yeast, I have gone with flavour over alcohol content and Im pretty sure I havent made a dud batch for a long time.

    Posted by Aussie Mick on March 28, 2017
  • good read ,i would be interested to see a comparison with the turbo yeast were the manufactures instructions were followed

    Posted by Rory on December 12, 2016
  • Good article for the most part (im not here to judge).

    I’ve found over the past few dozen washes if run out that one way to get both good flavor and a higher. Abv is to mix your yeast strains – use a turbo (high abv) and bread (flavor). Many of my runs have come out in the upper teens to twenties, and the flavor is most definitely more present.

    My $0.02

    Posted by T-reks on November 26, 2016
  • Fleischmann’s active dry yeast wont produce as much alcohol as champagne or the others, but it produces a nice n’ sweet flavor with much of the grain flavor brought through. I get between 8%-12% ABV after ferment with the bakers yeast which isn’t much.

    If you want more end-product with higher concentrations of alcohol in your pint jars for later dilution stick with Champagne and/or specialty yeasts.

    Posted by Clay on October 26, 2016
  • I want to make brandy. Which yeast would be best to use to make the wine to distill into brandy?

    Posted by Dea on September 23, 2016
  • Appreciate your efforts…how much bread yeast would you suggest for a 5 gallon spirit wash..kind regards Alan

    Posted by alan on July 07, 2016


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