White distilled vinegar – ingredients explained

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Vinegar History, Vinegars, White Distilled/Spirit Vinegar19 Comments

Brazilian spirit vinegar, likely from sugarcane ethanol

Brazilian spirit vinegar, likely from sugarcane ethanol

New Zealand's DYC vinegar which is from ethanol--from milk whey!

New Zealand’s DYC vinegar which is from ethanol–from milk whey!

South Africa's Safari brand vinegar from distilled malt liquor (malt vinegar ingredient)

South Africa’s Safari brand vinegar from distilled malt liquor (malt vinegar ingredient)

 

Heinz's famous white vinegar from grain ethanol

Heinz’s famous white vinegar from grain ethanol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is white distilled vinegar?? There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what white distilled vinegar is, what it means to have “organic” white distilled vinegar, etc. Here I will try to explain in detail and clear up any misconceptions.

First, a bit of history. White distilled vinegar, known outside the US and UK as “spirit vinegar” or “alcohol vinegar”, originated around the 1860s, most likely in Germany. With the advent of a new manufacturing process (the quick process) for vinegar that allowed it to be industrialized, options expanded beyond the traditional slow fermented vinegar from grape wine or hard cider. What was discovered was that distilled spirits, from the cheapest source possible, could make a relatively bland vinegar that could be used for basic uses, cleaning, sauces, and importantly, for the new industries of pickling and canning.

Spirit vinegar used basically whatever was cheaper in the country where it was made. The Germans used alcohol from fermented potatoes, aka watered down vodka. The French used sugar beets, the British used low quality malt vinegar, the Kiwis in New Zealand settled on milk whey, and in the USA, spirit vinegar was made from alcohol distilled from fermented molasses. That is why we Americans call White vinegar “distilled”. In short, these gave you nearly pure ethanol and this was made into cheap vinegar. In the process it destroyed much of the traditional vinegar makers, particularly in Europe where the city of OrlĂ©ans went from about 200 traditional wine vinegar makers to 17 in a 100 year period up to World War I. Granted, other economic and political realities were at play here but spirit vinegar was the knockout punch.

As I stated before, the distillation of fermented molasses into a relatively clear alcohol called “low wine” is why Americans call spirit vinegar “distilled vinegar”. However, nowadays white distilled vinegar is not distilled in any part of its process. What happened in the post World War II period was the introduction of cheap ethanol made directly from ethylene that could be extracted from natural gas. This process, known as the Wacker Process, gave the vinegar industry ethanol cheaper than they could get from molasses and without the expensive distillation equipment that one would need. From this point on, white distilled vinegar, at least in the USA, would be made directly from ethanol.

US FDA regulations require any vinegar for human consumption has to be fermented naturally, by bacteria, so synthetic acetic acid was never used for white vinegar (legally). This is not the case in countries like Russia or India where industrially produced acetic acid using non-biological reactions can be sold as vinegar. However, the ethanol can come from any source as long as it is not tainted and is fermented naturally to white distilled vinegar. As manufacturers we also are not mandated to disclose the source of the ethanol.

Pure ethanol does not have enough nutrients for the bacteria to thrive so nutrients, such as phosphates or yeast extract, are added to get the fermentation going. As time went on, different sources of ethanol became available that allowed one to juggle your options to find the cheapest source to use. Ethylene was a favorite source but at times corn ethanol or sugar cane ethanol from Brazil have been cheaper options to use. In the current environment, many vinegar plants in the USA are using ethanol imported from France made from sugar beets.

So a lot of people get worried when they hear vinegar made from “natural gas”. In fact, some brands (I think Heinz is one) have white distilled vinegar only made from plant based ethanol as a marketing point. Fleischmann’s also sells organic white distilled vinegar that is made from ethanol from organic corn. So what is the point and what matters?

To be honest–and I am not making a marketing pitch since Supreme Vinegar does not manufacture white distilled vinegar–there is not a huge known difference depending on the source. The ethanol that is purchased usually has the same specifications – 190 proof (95%) ethanol with the rest being mainly water and a small amount of ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate is harmless and is a natural product of the vinegar fermentation process anyway. Now there can possibly be flavor chemicals in plant based ethanol (called esters) that may impart a bit of improved taste and aroma but there should not be any compounds that will cause health issues. If there are, there is a contamination issue that the refiner should not have if they meet spec. DYC Vinegars in New Zealand let’s you know their vinegar ultimately is from a milk product though I don’t know if those with allergies or lactose intolerance need to care. The yeast should have handled the lactose and the distillation of the ethanol should have removed the proteins.

That being said, there aren’t any studies really that analyze distilled white vinegar from different sources to determine the difference. Most studies are concerned with finding out if manufacturers surreptitiously sneak in industrially produced glacial (pure) acetic acid into food vinegar. There are various ways to detect this such as Carbon 14 ratios, etc. that I won’t go into detail on here. Also, realize that if you buy imported vinegar, particularly not from the US, Canada, or Western Europe, there is a risk that manufacturers use industrial acetic acid, regulations or not, to cut cost. This has been an issue in the past in places such as parts of Latin America, China, and Africa. You shouldn’t assume the vinegars are bad, it is just another heads up about food product safety.

Finally, depending on your use of white distilled vinegar, read the label carefully before purchasing. Standard vinegar strength, measured in acidity, is 5%. This is also the recommend minimum for canning. There are a lot of private label “budget” brands out there that look too good to be true until you read the label carefully and they are 4% acidity. The legal minimum in the US is 4% so these are the weakest vinegars you can legally buy. They may be ok for some cooking but for cleaning they will not work as well, will definitely not kill weeds effectively, and are risky to use for canning.

If you want to have grain based white distilled vinegar, Heinz makes theirs only with ethanol from grain. It sells for a bit of a premium but it is your best option in this respect. Fleischmann’s vinegar makes organic white distilled vinegar in the 16 oz. size only. It has spotty distribution though so it can be hard to find. The two largest manufacturers–Fleischmann’s Vinegar and Mizkan Americas–sell mostly private label but a lot of their ethanol is likely from sugar beets right now. However, the ultra-low natural gas prices recently may make ethylene attractive again.

19 Comments on “White distilled vinegar – ingredients explained”

  1. Your article on Spirit vinegar is the most informative i found on the web. Thanks you.

    I have a question does distilled vinegar/spirit vinegar contain traces of alcohol/ethanol once its in the bottle or has all alcohol turned into vinegar in the manufacturing process.
    I am asking this question because i have read on a few websites that alcohol is added in the manufacturing process to give it a much more acidic taste – this is for spirit/white vinegar in general – iam from the UK.
    I have been trying to find this information for a while and have not managed to do so – your research/article is by far the most useful on the web _ many thanks

    1. Hi Mitch, typically when vinegar manufacturers ferment vinegar, we leave 0.3-0.5% alcohol by volume as residual. We try not to ferment all the alcohol because when vinegar ages, the alcohol reacts with acetic acid (a process called esterification that forms ethyl acetate) to form flavor and aroma compounds that make the vinegar taste less sharp and have better flavor. This is why naturally fermented spirit vinegar tastes better than artificially produced raw 4% or 5% acetic acid. The latter can’t be legally sold as vinegar in most countries but does exist in the developing world.

      I have never heard of vinegar manufacturers adding alcohol at the end, it would be more efficient to just have a residual. In any case, the alcohol would be added to give it a less acidic taste, not more. I hope this helps.

  2. Thank-you for the information!. I have been curious how vinegar is made. I use it for cleaning (most regularly my hummingbird feeder between refills) and for some cooking.. i think i will switch to Heinz or Braggs, based on your info.

  3. By the way, am saving this site for future reference! Who’d have thought there could be so much to learn and know!

  4. Great article. The reason I found it is I’m trying to recreate a pickle recipe from 1870-1930 in Virginia. Your article makes me think it was most likely a molasses based spirit vinegar rather than a cider or corn based one. Would that be an accurate guess?

    1. The vast majority of the spirit vinegar came from molasses fermented to alcohol and then distilled to a bland rum of about 10% ABV. This was especially true once railroads connected the South to the rest of the country so the molasses could be shipped cheaply. However, not everyone used molasses and it depended on the cost and type of equipment one had. Some used beet sugar (though this was rare) and others used a corn based beer (85% corn, 10% rye, 5% malted barley) that was distilled to make spirit vinegar. This latter one was often termed corn vinegar and was made in parts of the South like Texas up until the 1980s.

      I would think you would be fine either way. Virginia vinegar makers could have used either. Let me know if this helps.

  5. I have some distilled white vinegar that has been sitting on the shelf for some time. I opened it to use Andy it smells like nail polish remover. What could cause this and is it safe to use? I havent been able to find much about it. Thanks!

    1. This smell is a compound called acetaldehyde. It is an intermediate chemical in the process where bacteria convert alcohol to vinegar. What likely happened is there were bacteria in the vinegar that tried converting residual alcohol but since the bottle was closed, they were limited for air and could not complete fermentation. I would try leaving it slightly open for a couple of days to see what that does. It is not harmful but could affect flavor if it is used for cooking instead of cleaning.

  6. Thank you for all this great information. I am corn sensitive, and as such, I’ve been avoiding any products that contain white vinegar, presuming they are likely corn derived.

    Can you recommend a good mild vinegar for pickling that is not derived from corn?

    Thanks again,

    Maggie

    1. Hi Maggie, guaranteeing a vinegar isn’t coming from corn ethanol is hard. The good news is that corn ethanol is relatively expensive for a feedstock so most use imported sugar beet alcohol from France or sugar cane alcohol from Brazil. Corn vinegar (as vinegar from corn syrup or corn alcohol was once called) has declined in popularity in the US. Heinz is probably the biggest risk for corn based vinegar but Fleischmann’s is now owned by a corn ethanol company so they may use it.

      In addition, private label vinegars at the store can come from multiple companies and these could use different sources of ethanol.

      Distilled corn alcohol probably has most allergens taken out in distillation and vinegar fermentation so I don’t think the risk is large but if you want to use white distilled vinegar Four Monks from Mizkan most likely doesn’t have corn ethanol. It can be hard to find though I think it is on Amazon and some other sites. I hope this helps.

  7. My child reacts (diar/throwup) to gmo corn found in vinegar by itself or in mustard & other food products. Are there any brands found in USA import or domestic of true non-gmo vinegars?

    1. Finding a distilled white vinegar that is guaranteed to not use corn is hard, since ultimate ingredients aren’t required by disclosure guidelines. My first question is are you sure it is only GMO corn and not corn in general? If you are sure (and have confirmed by tests) that it is only GMO corn, there are organic white distilled vinegars sold by Spectrum Naturals and Fleischmann’s. They are on Amazon. However, I know for a fact that they use non-GMO corn as a source for the distilled alcohol to make vinegar.

      I would say vinegars from France would be a good bet, look up the Maille brand of vinegars and mustards (though make sure they are French, not domestic or Canada made with the same label), Melfor’s honey vinegars, or the Martin Pouret brand of wine vinegar (some of the best out there). You won’t get distilled white vinegar imported here because transport costs are too high but you can get wine vinegar. They are available on Amazon but if you want to buy much cheaper in wholesale case quantities, contact French Feast (www.frenchfeast.com). If you can get white vinegar from France (vinaigre d’alcool) it is almost always made from sugar beets.

      On a final note, you may want to confirm it is the non-GMO corn causing the issue. The distilled white vinegar loses most proteins and other allergy causing compounds when the alcohol is distilled before vinegar fermentation. There are a few nutrient additives in vinegar fermentation that may contain GMO grain/corn but the amounts are relatively small. Have you seen if there is an acetic acid allergy (for example with apple cider or wine vinegar)?

  8. I just came to this website looking for answers. If the white distilled white vinegar is GMO and so it would be sprayed with Roundup Ready with Glyphosate. Would the Glyphosate still be in after the distillation process? I was using regular for many years, but went to usda organic because of the Roundup ready with Glyphosate being sprayed on grains.

    1. A very difficult question since many brands source their ethanol from different places. In the past few years some of the larger private label manufacturers have received a lot of ethanol from Europe or Brazil which I am unsure of the regulations regarding GMO and Glyphosate. Others use domestic corn ethanol which is probably GMO.

      To be frank, I don’t know how much Glyphosate remains after distillation. I would stay with organic if you are concerned.

  9. Hi!

    I have recently been diagnosed with an allergy to bakers and brewers yeast. Naturally nothing fermented for me and this includes vinegar. I have found much controversy on whether distilled vinegar is safe. I have read that yeast is broken down during the process. Is this true? Can I safely consume distilled white vinegar?

    1. I cannot give exact medical advice so I would ask your physician or health care provider.

      That being said, distilled white vinegar is typically made from a distilled ethanol that is far removed from yeast if there ever was any at all. The distillation process kills yeast and yeast particles cannot typically travel in water or alcohol vapor in a distillation column.

  10. I am looking for some spirit vinegar 12% for a pickled herring recipe I received. Can you point me toward a source? Or brand?

    1. Essig-essenz, an imported German brand commonly sold on Amazon or at German/East European ethnic groceries, is 25% acidity. Dilute that 1:1 with water and you will be set. Be sure to wear latex/nitrile/gloves and eye protection, preferably chemical styles safety gogles, during mixing. Even the fumes can be relatively irritating and if you get it in your eye or nose it will BURN.

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