For those who want to know everything.

How is alcohol made?

What is alcohol made of?


Short answer: plants. If you want the coolest book ever on all the different types of plants that make up all the different alcohols, from obscure to mainstream, I can not recommend The Drunken Botanist enough. You’ll love it!


Long answer:

In order to really understand how alcohol is made, we must understand what alcohol is made of, and how.

Every alcohol is created by a fermentation process.

Every single one.

Any plant material can be fermented to be made into alcohol.  Look at these popular examples:

  • Grapes ↔ wine and brandy
  • Apple ↔ cider
  • Barley ↔ beer
  • Agave ↔ tequila
  • Potato ↔ vodka
  • Rye ↔ whiskey
  • Sugarcane ↔ rum
  • Rice ↔ sake
  • Corn ↔ whiskey

All of the previous examples either naturally contain sugar, or they contain starches or complex carbohydrates that can be converted into sugar.

Why does sugar matter???

Because without sugar, alcohol can not be made.

Yeast converts sugar into alcohol through a process called fermentation.

As long as there is sugar in the plant, either naturally present or converted from starch, the yeast can convert it into alcohol. Therefor, every single plant can be made into alcohol. Some are just more popular than others!

Natural or converted.  Either or.  It doesn’t matter to the hungry yeast.

Take a look at the list above and guess which plants contain sugar naturally and which ones have starches that must be converted into sugar.


From the list above, grapes, apples, agave and sugarcane all have sugar in the plant that is naturally occurring. If you bite into any of those plants, you’ll say, “Mmmm, this is sweet!” But, rye, wheat, barley, potato, rice and corn contain starch, not sugar, so their starches must be converted into sugar in order to go through fermentation.

More about converting starch in a bit. But first…


What is fermentation?

For the grapes, apple, agave and sugarcane to begin the fermentation process, they need yeast. In fact, the equation to create alcohol is

Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol.

That is all fermentation is.

The hungry yeast eats the yummy sugar. The yeast poops and sweats out alcohol.  Kind of. I mean, every living thing needs energy to continue being alive. That energy comes from consuming. As far as the yeast is concerned, it’s just eatin’ food and enjoying life. Us humans are the ones drumming our fingers waiting for the good stuff (alcohol), but to the yeast, the sugar is the good stuff!

In really, really, for-real, technical, sciencey terms, fermentation is a metabolic process in which an organism (yeast) converts sugar, into an alcohol or an acid.


How fermentation begins

Fermentation can happen naturally in nature. There is yeast in the air and it can easily stumble upon some over ripe fruit, where the juice is readily accessible.

Since the alcohol producers don’t want to rely on natural luck, they will add a yeast strain to their fruit juice to guarantee that fermentation begins.


As you can see, the grapes are ripe and ready, so they have been harvested and put into a crushing machine.

Once the grapes are crushed, the soupy concoction is sent into a vat where the yeast will be added. This will begin the fermentation process.

Yeast converts sugar into alcohol, but fermentation alone can only bring the alcohol potency up to about 16% max.


For wine production, it looks something like this:

    • Pick (red/purple/dark skinned) grapes at harvest
      • Throw the entire grape bunch into a pressing machine to release the juice and break up the
        • grape meat
        • stems
        • seeds
        • skins
      • Add the entire concoction to a vat or barrel
      • Let yeast (natural or intentionally added) convert sugar into alcohol through fermentation
      • Wait until the alcohol content reaches 11% to 14%
      • Filter/remove
        • skins
        • meat
        • stems
        • seeds
      • Age the wine in oak barrels or steel vats (depending on the grape and the desired flavor of the wine)
      • Bottle the wine
      • Label it
The process sounds pretty straight forward, but within every step is man power, time, patience and science.

You can see from this video that the fermentation process for grapes takes a lot of effort. Granted, most large wine production companies will have machines that do this job, but it is pretty cool to see the artisanal approach.


The death of the yeast

As I mentioned earlier, fermenting alone can only bring the alcohol content to 16%-ish. Why is that though?

There comes a point in the fermentation process where the yeast will stop working. When the yeasts stop working, they stop converting sugar into alcohol. When the yeast stops converting sugar, no more alcohol can be created.  You see the conundrum.

There are three reasons why yeast will stop working:

      1. They poison themselves.  Yeasts are alive and just like every living thing, they must have a suitable environment to continue living. Oddly enough, the alcohol they are responsible for producing, in high amounts, is toxic to yeast.  If there is too much sugar for the yeast to eat, they will eat the sugar and convert it into alcohol until they die from the high alcohol environment they’ve created.
      2. They starve.  Some plants don’t contain that much sugar, and once the yeast has converted all the available sugar into alcohol, the yeast dies…of starvation.
      3. It gets too hot!  This doesn’t happen organically, but it is a method used by some alcohol producers to end the conversion.  Think about making homemade bread.  The yeast will help the dough rise, but once the bread is put in the oven to cook, the yeast dies from the intense heat.


That’s the end of the line for those apples, agave, sugarcane and grapes. But what about the potatoes, rye, corn, rice and barley? How do they even begin the fermentation process? They don’t contain sugar naturally, they contain starch. So we need to unlock the starch and set the sugar free. But how do we do that?


Go to the next lesson: “What is malt?” and learn about converting starch into sugar.

Spirits and Wine Series

  1. How is alcohol made? (You are here now.)
  2. What is malt?
  3. What is mash?
  4. What is distillation?
  5. What is Vodka made from?

Or quench your knowledge about Popular Bar Drinks

  Learn everything about production, alcohol and wine in small, bite size nuggets through the Spirits and Wine Class. It uses fill in the blanks, multiple choice and matching to teach you in a fun, engaging way. Learn more >>


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