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DIY Series: Making Sanitizer From Scratch, Part 1: Sugar Wash to Distill to Ethanol, Recipe + DIY Fermentation Container

** IMPORTANT: Distilling spirits is illegal in many states and countries! Check with your local regulations and stay within the law!

** PSA: This tutorial and recipe are NOT to make alcohol for consumption and are not for you to sell. The materials used in this are not food-grade, are not sanitized as they would be for alcohol to consume, and it is most definitely NOT FOR CONSUMPTION! DO NOT DRINK ANYTHING MADE WITH THIS TUTORIAL!

I can tell you that I have checked the state where I live and there is a little restriction on distilling spirits. It is not illegal for a regular citizen to distill spirits, but we are not allowed to sell it without having the distillery inspected and certified, and then getting a permit to sell alcohol. While I’m not making this to sell in any way, it is always good to know the laws of your home state or country, and to comply with local and national laws. I’m not running a distillery, nor am I making anything for consumption or sale, so I should be safe to make my home brewed sanitizer.

I normally make a spray sanitizer that my family and friends use. It is a simple recipe that I use and I love that it is easy to change the scent to suit the person who is receiving it (I always gift it, and see it as giving a gift of health). But then we entered into this COVID-19 nightmare. A little bit into the coronavirus crisis, I started to run dangerously low on the isopropyl alcohol that I normally use as the active ingredient of my sanitizing spray. I went to grab a bottle from the store and then it hit me: there is no alcohol available for purchase within at least 100 miles of my home. Even online, it is sold out. I figured it would be ok, I’ll wait and just check every time we stop for groceries or anything else. It never came back into stock. It’s been over a month and a half now. The COVID-19 crisis has unfolded to the point that we go through more sanitizer now than we ever have before, and I’m running out of the active ingredient to make more! Both me and my son are at-risk for serious COVID-19 illness if we contracted the illness and are voluntarily quarantining ourselves as a protective measure. We sanitize everything that comes into the house from the outside world, even our groceries. Running out of alcohol is a health emergency for us!

So, I started researching. A friend told me earlier today that he admires my can-do attitude, and he is confidant that I can do anything that needs to be done and if I don’t know how to do it, I will learn how. It was very flattering, but once I thought it out, he is right. We can do anything! We just need to learn how to do what we need to do. So I learned the amount of alcohol that needs to be in the base active ingredient of sanitizer. I learned how to measure ABV (Alcohol By Volume). I learned how to make a basic “sugar wash”, which is a basic sugar-water mixture with yeast added that is commonly used to make moonshine. I learned how to distill spirits safely to get the alcohol turned into ethanol of at least 80-90% ABV. My target is 90% Alcohol By Volume, which would be equal to about 158-proof alcohol. Nothing that you would ever want to drink, but you could easily use it as an antiseptic… or lamp fuel… The ABV content is high enough that even mixed with glycerine and essential oils (to moisturize hands because this level of alcohol will be very drying!) and a little water added, it will still be well in excess of the CDC recommended 60-70% alcohol in a sanitizer. A good, strong spirit is something that I can dilute a little bit while still keeping the end product at safe alcohol content, so it will last longer and I won’t need to go through the process as often. That works for me! It’s a learning process, and my soon-to-be 11 year-old son is totally into learning how to make it, as well… he is fascinated with our DIY stuff anyway, he honestly thinks it is silly that we buy stuff from stores when we could make it all ourselves.

In this post, I will go over your “shopping list” for the sugar wash recipe, as well as the fermentation container. We will discuss making the sugar wash and container and I will leave you to get started. The sugar wash should be allowed to ferment for 3-4 weeks, so that is plenty of time for us to go over creating the still using stuff most of us have around the house in Part 2 (because, let’s face it: most everything is sold out from almost everywhere… we need to work with things we can easily get our hands on), and for us to go over the actual sanitizer recipe in Part 3.

Sugar Wash

Sugar wash is the liquid that ferments into alcohol. For beer and whiskey, it is often called “Mash” and contains grains, sugars, and yeast. Different grains lend different flavor profiles in the finished product. We don’t care about a flavor profile because this isn’t being brewed to be consumed and we want a MUCH higher alcohol percentage than any beer, whiskey or other standard alcohol beverage. We just need sugar and yeast for ours, and this is a recipe that moonshine distillers often use, called a Sugar Wash. The sugar you use doesn’t need to be any fancy, expensive, organic or anything else sugar. I used the cheapest granulated sugar I could find. It just needs to be sugar that dissolves in warm water. Not too tough to find, since they all do! When the sugar dissolves completely into warm water, the glucose molecules in the sugar are open to being digested by yeast that we add to the mix. The yeast eats the sugar and the waste product it produces is alcohol. Different yeast strains can handle different alcohol content before it kills them. For this reason, yeast was one of the only two products I actually purchased for this project (the other was a proof hydrometer for measuring alcohol by volume, which will be used in the second post, so if you can get one ahead of time, that would be great!). I got Red Star DADY (Distiller’s Active Dry Yeast). That is a good yeast for its tolerance of alcohol content, but it is slow-working. There are some turbo yeasts out there, but they costed a fortune and I didn’t want to invest a lot into it. If you want to fork over the extra bucks for Turbo Yeast, make sure it is a Distiller’s Yeast and not one made for wine, champagne, ale, beer or mead. Those are all lower alcohol brews and your final product won’t be as strong and will need significantly more distilling. Baker’s yeast or bread yeast won’t work for this at all, which bummed me out a bit because I always have a ton of baker’s yeast on hand (I bake all of our bread now, we haven’t bought commercially made bread in at least a year!). Also, brewer’s yeast used in food preparations, nutritional yeasts and the like are all unusable for brewing spirits.

Read this entire tutorial before you start so you can determine your rhythm for the project. You’ll want to make the fermentation container before the sugar wash, or while the wash is cooling.

You will need:

  • a kitchen scale or fine measuring spoons
  • a candy thermometer or meat thermometer. This is essential! You must be able to know the temperatures of your liquids during this process!
  • a stockpot with a lid
  • a large plastic or glass bowl for preparing the yeast mixture
  • sugar (4 lbs + 2 Tablespoons for each gallon of wash)
  • Distiller’s Yeast (4 grams per gallon of wash, approx. 1 teaspoon)
  • filtered water (i used city water from a friend’s house that I ran through a zero water filter)
  • a long spoon to reach the bottom of the stockpot, preferably with some length left!

Sugar Wash Recipe:

  • Start with making the sugar water mixture:
    • pour your water into a clean stockpot
    • add your sugar, 4 lbs per gallon of water
    • heat the water to the temperature specified as optimal for your yeast, stirring frequently to help the sugar dissolve. For Red Star DADY, it is 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • While the wash is warming, prepare your yeast:
    • in your large plastic or glass bowl:
      • 2 Tablespoons of sugar per gallon of water
      • 4 grams of yeast per gallon of water (or approx. 1 teaspoon, more doesn’t hurt!)
      • 1.5 – 2 cups of warm water at the optimal temperature for your yeast (this smaller amount is easier to warm in the microwave)
    • Stir everything together in the yeast bowl until the sugar is dissolved and set aside.
    • After a few minutes, you should see the yeast start to engorge with the liquid (see photos below).
    • After a few more minutes, your yeast should start to foam. In breadmaking, we call this “proofing” because it shows proof that your yeast is good and ready to use.
  • While this is going on, your sugar should be melting completely into the water. Your sugar water should become transparent and no longer cloudy. If it needs additional heat to accomplish this beyond your optimal temperature, you can cool it down again by placing it into a sink of cold water, or place it into the sink and wash the sides of the pot down with cold water while you stir the water.
  • When your yeast has proofed and your sugar water is at the optimal temperature, it is time to combine into the fermentation container.

Fermentation Container

This mixture will need a place where it can sit and ferment for a little while: 3-4 weeks at least. The spot needs to be warm and kinda dark… most definitely not in direct sunlight. Yeast thrives best when it is warm and moist and we want very happy yeast! The simple sugars in the granulated sugar mixture should feed it effectively, but if you really want to be sure you can also get a yeast booster or yeast nutritional mixture from brewer’s supply stores. I used a simple 5-gallon bucket with a tight lid for my container. You will want to get your hands on some materials to make an airlock if you aren’t planning to buy a brewer’s airlock. To make a homemade airlock, you will need to get your hands on some plastic tubing. I used some old tubing from my aquarium supplies that I haven’t had fish in for a few years now. Drill a hole in the lid of your container and secure the plastic tube so it is just inside. I secured mine with silicone caulking and topped it off with a little duct tape. Then, attach a small container to the side of your fermentation container. Put the tube into the smaller container, and submerge it with water when the container set is ready to sit and ferment. This will allow bubbles out (to prevent a buildup of gasses inside the container, causing it to burst), without allowing air inside. This will create a more natural environment for the yeast to grow and be happy.

The last steps are here!

Pour your sugar water into the fermentation container. Pour your proofed yeast into the container with the water. Stir it up nicely. Attach the lid firmly and as air-tight as you can. I used extra duct tape to secure the lid down and prevent air escape. It probably isn’t completely air tight but it’s darn close! Leave it in a fairly dark and warm place for 3-4 weeks to do it’s thing. I grabbed an index card and wrote the date it was made, and the date it should be distilled, then taped it to the lid. Just as a reminder because memory isn’t my strong point these days.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! Stay tuned for parts two and three for the final steps, including making a DIY still out of kitchen pots and aquarium tubing! How about subscribing to the site so you get an email notification when my new posts are published! That way you won’t miss out on the next steps! Plus, you’ll get first call on all of my new articles and posts! Just enter your email in the form below and submit, then confirm your subscription when you get the confirmation email. Talk to you soon!