Making white distilled (spirit/alcohol) vinegar at home

Reginald SmithMaking Vinegar, Uncategorized, White Distilled/Spirit Vinegar24 Comments

White distilled vinegar, the workhorse of home canners/picklers and DIY cleaners around the world. Not known for its culinary subtlety it is still the largest vinegar produced and sold by far, with the majority of sales actually being bulk shipments to other food manufacturers such as those making ketchup, mustard, pickles, sauces, etc.

Most home vinegar makers don’t endeavor to make white vinegar at home because it is very cheap in the supermarket and also is not looked at as a gourmet vinegar worth the time. Fair enough, I don’t expect this to change one bit. Some people have asked, however, how to make white distilled vinegar at home. The good news is the process is relatively easy and scalable. The bad news is you are unlikely to save much money given the super low margins on white distilled vinegar in supermarkets and the relatively high cost of retail store distilled alcohol. But if you really want to make your own for health, interest, or even emergency preparedness type reasons, this article is for you.

For those not familiar with the basic driving factors of vinegar making, start with these posts of part I and part II of the vinegar making process. Also read my blog post on the ingredients of white distilled vinegar. However, the “slow process” of letting vinegar sit and form a mother is ineffectual for white distilled vinegar making. In fact, you will likely get a moldy mess rather than success; trust me on this, I have tried. So we are going to use the semi-quick (Boerhaave) process I described a couple years ago in this blog. This is actually a good thing since it accelerates vinegar production to as soon as 10 days.

Step: 1 Ingredients

The main ingredients are any kind of distilled alcohol, raw vinegar, and a nutrient source since distilled alcohol has too few nutrients for fermentation. Accessories will include two containers filled with oak chips or grape stems to act as fermentation vessels. Use grape stems (or if you can find them, beechwood shavings) if you don’t want amber coloration and oakey flavor in the vinegar. Also oak chips can get expensive if you scale up. Corn cobs can also be used and historically were used, but I haven’t done so and can’t vouch for them.

For distilled alcohol, you want the cheapest alcohol possible per proof liter to make your vinegar as cheap as possible. Usually the cheapest is the bargain brand gin or vodka that is less than $10 for a 1.5L or 1.75L jug.

Raw vinegar can be any raw vinegar including our mothers of vinegar or another source of raw (unpasteurized) vinegar. Please note for the semi-quick process no solid mother is necessary, only raw vinegar.

Nutrients are necessary to give the vinegar bacteria something besides ethanol to work with in fermentation. Fortunately you do not need much. The best recipes for 1 gallon of vinegar are:

1 gram yeast extract or dry malt extract

1 gram yeast nutrient (diammonium phosphate)

dash (small amount) of epsom salt

OR

30 mL (2 tablespoons) of beer, any kind, ABV does not matter

The epsom salt isn’t strictly necessary but this is a scaled down version of professional nutrient recipes. If you don’t have a precise metric scale, 1/8 tsp of both the yeast/malt extract and yeast nutrient should be fine. Malt extract and yeast nutrient are available at home brew shops or on Amazon. A common brand of yeast extract is Marmite, also on Amazon. I list yeast extract as a gluten free alternative to the dry malt extract or beer but the gluten level should still be very low. The best dry malt extract types are like the pilsen light which has a light color and won’t darken the vinegar much.

Beer is just as good and easier though you may get solid mother on your packing over time. Any kind, literally ANY, will work. If gluten is an issue use sorghum beer.

Step 2: Methodology

First note that you need 2x as many containers for the volume you want to produce with the semi-quick method. So if you want to make gallon of vinegar you should have two, preferably open top, 1 gallon jars or pails.

For cleanliness sake, first sanitize the packing with dilute unscented bleach (1 Tbsp to 1 gallon of water) or use Star San or boiling water. If using chemicals rinse the packing thoroughly to remove any residue after sterilizing.

Fill both pails with the packing (oak, stems, beech, etc.). See an example below with two small 8 oz jars.

Packed 8 oz jars for vinegar making

Pour in enough raw vinegar in one pail to fill 1/4th of one of the pails. Continue filling the same pail with water until the dilute raw vinegar covers the packing. Let it sit for an hour and then pour the dilute raw vinegar in the other pail and allow it to sit for an hour. This colonizes the packing with vinegar bacteria. You can store the dilute raw vinegar in another container until the process works the first time and then dump it. You should only need it once.

Dilute the cheap distilled alcohol with the correct amount of tap water down to about 6-7% ABV. For 80 proof vodka or gin this would be roughly 5 parts water, 1 part vodka/gin. Mix in the correct amount of nutrients stated above per the volume of dilute alcohol.

Pour this into one of the pails, filling it if possible. It doesn’t have to be completely full so don’t sweat it if you are short. Let it sit for 30 minutes and then pour it into the other pail.

From here on out, it is simple. At least once a day, or better every morning and evening, pour all the liquid from one pail intto the other. One pail should be empty at all times. The full pail can be covered with a lid, the empty pail should have a cloth tightly fitted over it to allow air in for fermentation but keep pests like fruit flies out. Repeat this and after a week the vinegar smell should start and you can be done in 2-3 weeks. Some can get it finished in as quick as 10 days.

Like all vinegar fermentation, warmer temperatures up to 85 F are better. Higher and lower temperatures result in slower fermentations.

After the vinegar seems done–and it is best to measure acidity to make sure you are at least 4% or better 5% using titration–you can pour the vinegar in a jug and use it. If you don’t have titration equipment, a pH below 2.5 is usually a good indicator for white vinegar but pH is unreliable to exactly determine acidity. You must determine if you have at least 5% acidity for use in canning.

You can use the packing indefinitely, just don’t let it dry out and seal it airtight with each pail at least 1/4 full of vinegar if you won’t use it for a while.

This same process can be used to make any type of vinegar with the exception that only with distilled white vinegar are the nutrients necessary. Wine, cider, ale (malt vinegar), all have enough nutrients on their own.

Happy fermenting!

24 Comments on “Making white distilled (spirit/alcohol) vinegar at home”

  1. So I make rum at home at I want to try this with my rum. But the rum isn’t distilled as high a percentage as Neutral Grain Spirit or vodka. I’m wondering if the lower proof rum might have enough other compounds in it for the vinegar bacteria to be supported?

    Some of the rum waste/stillage (“dunder”) is high in phosphates and good for yeast nutrient so that might be a good solution.

    1. It could, I really don’t know since I haven’t done distilling myself. The dunder, if it has residual salts and minerals from the molasses, could definitely work and may be a great solution, especially if it works for yeast nutrients.

      1. I have made a (Stout “n” Rum) vinegar using dark Rum and Guinness. The Rum is 40% ABV and the Guinness is 4.2% ABV. Blending the two for a workable ethanol value was the trick and I assume, the Guinness added enough of the required nutrients.
        Roger Lambert (aka Mr. Vinegar)

  2. I’m wanting to start, and keep going, a batch of white vinegar at home for preparedness purposes (staying home is no problem with my work, but darned if I can find decent cleansers at the store). I managed to buy a 16 oz. bottle of unfiltered, unpasteurized white vinegar, with mother, online. I’ve read a number of blogs, but none seem to address my particular situation – can I just use distilled water and vodka in the proper proportions from your earlier posts? It looks like I would need to find some sorghum beer to add as a nutrient source, since I have Celiacs and won’t be able to do the beer. Does it look like I’m missing anything? I don’t need quick, and really don’t want to have to source oak chips, etc. I’ve got cheesecloth and a sturdy, wide-mouth, 1 gallon glass jar…?

    1. Hi, you can definitely dilute the vodka down per the post. Sorghum beer (or even yeast extract) can be a nutrient source. If you can’t find yeast extract you can heat some baking or brewing yeast in about 10x volume of water in the microwave until it boils (but don’t let it boil over!) to make cheap yeast nutrient.

      However, using the “slow” method of putting it in a jar covered with cheese cloth won’t work. Per the post, this almost always ends up with a moldy mess. This was the first method I tried and I settled on the semi-quick process since it produced the right results without mold issues. You don’t have to use oak chips. You can use corn cobs or other safe woods (but they may add a flavor) to use as a fermentation substrate for the bacteria.

  3. I’m doing my first batch and have a question – one has a lid on, the other just cheesecloth held tight with a rubber band…..but it says the full one (the one with the liquid in it) should have the lid…shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    1. Hi, the relatively emptier vessel should have cheesecloth. You need airflow in the packed material to have vinegar fermentation. The vessel full of liquid is mostly for holding liquid between cycles and re-colonizing the packing with bacteria. The vessel full of liquid can have a lid.

  4. Is there a way of doing this without using the grape stems or the wood chips and with only one jar?

    1. Not easily unfortunately. You need a second vessel since the stems/chips need time to allow the oxygen to be used by the bacteria to make vinegar. They can’t be submerged in alcohol mash during this time.

  5. I think I need a little more description on how to determine when the vinegar is “finished” and what to do when it is finished. I understand (or misunderstand) that “finished” is when all of the alcohol has been converted to acetic acid. It seems that the acidity will be higher at the time it finishes if the alcohol content was higher before the acetobacter is added than if the alcohol content was lower. Consequently, one cannot know when the bacteria has consumed all of the alcohol unless one does repeated titrations of the acidity and determines that it is no longer increasing. I also understand that after the bacteria have consumed all of the alcohol that they will begin to consume the acetic acid and thus lower the acidity. After the bacteria have consumed the alcohol, I should dilute the vinegar to 5% acidity if it is higher than this when it is finished. Finally, I don’t understand how to stop the bacteria from continuing to reduce the acidity of the vinegar by simply pouring the vinegar off of the mother. Certainly the finished vinegar still has lots of living bacteria in it that would be expected to consume the acetic acid unless I pasteurize the vinegar. I know this is very long, but please correct any of my misunderstandings.

    1. Hi, thanks for your post. You are correct, the only way to measure acidity is by titration. Also, after titration we typically measure the alcohol by distillation to get an accurate gauge of how much residual alcohol remains. Typically, in manufacturing we leave 0.2-0.5% residual alcohol since the alcohol can react with acetic acid to produce flavor compounds.

      When the vinegar is done, you stop fermentation by either placing it in an airtight jar/vessel which limits oxygen and stops fermentation or pasteurize it at 140 F for at least 15 minutes in a stainless steel pot on a stove. Both methods stop fermentation but only the latter eliminates the bacteria.

  6. Thanks for this information. Is there any way to stop the mother from growing in raw vinegar? When I buy a bottle of commercial acv with the mother, it does not have any mother growing in it even if I constantly open the bottle and use it for months. How do they keep the mother bacteria alive in there but prevent the jelly stuff from growing?

    1. Hi, to keep the mother from growing, seal the vinegar in an airtight bottle or pasteurize it in a steel pot on a stove at 140F for 15 minutes. Store bought raw vinegar often has bacteria more evolved for industrial production that produce very low cellulose and thus little mother. Also residual alcohol is usually low and this also prevents a mother from forming.

  7. If I were to make a white vinegar from gin, would it maintain any of the aromatics that are contained in the alcohol, or would the dilution and fermentation drown out any of the flavor?

    1. Yes, it could but the dilution of the gin to the needed ABV (6-7%) would weaken the aromatics substantially so it would probably taste like slightly more flavorful white vinegar.

  8. I love this post.
    I was wondering if I could just turn the vodka/alcohol into vinegar using the recipe for a high acid vinegar to use on weeds. Instead of purchasing a 20% commercial vinegar? Or does it need to be watered down to complete the process?

    1. Hi, with fermentation the best acidity you can hope for is about 10% and reaching that can still take effort. The 20-30% vinegar for weed killer is made by concentrating vinegar by freezing it and putting it in a centrifuge. You have to water it down, best to between 5-7% ABV to ferment to vinegar.

  9. Hi
    I am familiar with distillation methods. I have read this and did not notice any distillation method. Then why is it called so?
    Thanks and God bless.

    1. Hi, the distilled term in the name comes from back in the day when the first step was to make a low wine from watered down molasses and then distill that to a week spirit to produce the alcohol to make vinegar. Vinegar itself is never distilled since the distillation does not concentrate acetic acid efficiently like alcohol. Vinegar is concentrated with centrifugation of frozen vinegar crystals. Vinegar these days is made from sugar cane alcohol (which itself is made by distillation) or any other ethanol source which may or may not have used distillation.

      More on the history of distilled white vinegar is at this blog post.

  10. I was reading this and had some concerns:

    1. Acetobacter, the bacteria that converts ethanol to acetic acid, will be killed with the chlorine that is in most, if not all, municipal water system (including chloramine). You need to either aerate the water (let it sit for at least 24 hours or oxygenate it – which will also help the conversion later) or use distilled/RO water.

    2. Acetobacter only eays/uses ethanol. Why would you add any type of yeast nutrient or sugar (that is what it is basically). While the distillation process, with the alcohol, will kill off any lingering yeast, there is yeats in the atmosphere and at the dillusion level you could actually start a new alcohol fermentation. You don’t want this.

    3. The only thing you need to make vinegar is ethanol (diluted to about no more than 12%) whether a spirit, wine or beer, a starter, which could be a mother from a previous batch of vinegar or from the environment (best to use a mother which you can also get from unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar from the store) and finally oxygen. This is it. If you are going to do a ethanol fermentation, first (not using already fermented/distilled ethanol) than you will need yeast, a sugar, whatever it may be, and a yeast nutrient would also help.

    If you want to make some good vinegar, take some wine, beer or apple cider (the kind with alcohol) pour it into a mason jar, cover it with cheese cloth with a rubber band, put it outside (not in the sun) for 12 hours and stick it in a cupboard for a few weeks. Easy-peesy

    1. Hi, thanks for your comments. I understand your concerns so let me address each one:

      #1 – You are right that in large amounts chlorine can inhibit bacteria but I have typically not found that my municipal water has these high levels. It will depend on the levels of chlorine in the municipal water in a given area but I have made thousands of gallons of vinegar successfully using municipal water. I haven’t heard customer complaints in this regard either but if someone’s municipal water has high chlorine content, it could definitely happen. If that is the case, bottled water should work fine.

      #2 – Acetobacter need accessory nutrients for any fermentation. Most vinegars from wine, etc. already have this in abundance. In all commercial white/distilled vinegar manufacturing where distilled ethanol is the main ingredient, nutrient blends are added to the ethanol to ensure fermentation. These blends typically do not contain much sugar. The biggest ingredients are vitamins, amino acids, and salts. Ethanol is the carbon source for the bacteria but to process it they need the other nutrients. The amount of nutrients is not large though, around 1-2% if that. Beer or malt extract is recommended for homebrewers who don’t have the time/effort to combine the other ingredients. In the ratios given in the article, the final sugar should be quite small. Additional alcohol fermentation isn’t likely a big problem as well due to the low sugar but also once the mother gets going the acidity will kill off the residual yeasts.

      #3 – We agree that to make most other vinegars only the starter alcohol and mother is necessary. The extra steps and addition work in this blog post are for white distilled vinegar made from distilled alcohol only which has its own issues that make it different from most vinegar fermentations since it contains no additional nutrients like wine, hard cider, or mead. I agree with you on the ethanol fermentation steps as well if you are starting from raw juice.

  11. This is cool cooking, smart science, with exciting expert input. Just loved to learn…, and concise to-boot.
    Ur great!

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