The Best Yeast for Distilling Whiskey (Our 5 Top Picks!)


With more than 1500 varieties of yeast available to choose from, knowing the right type to use in distilling vodka can be baffling. And because any type of yeast can be used, there is no bad or good option. It all depends on your taste, preference, and budget.

However, some yeast types perform better than others. Whiskey (or whisky) is all about flavor, so we need to ensure that fermentation adds and enhances the right flavors in the wash. We want a yeast that results in the right phenolic compounds, aldehydes, and esters that give whiskey it’s quintessential taste.

We recommend the following yeasts when trying to make the perfect whiskey at home:

  1. Best cheap yeast #1 –  Bakers Yeast
  2. Best cheap yeast #2 –  Safale US-05 (Brewer’s Yeast)
  3. Best all-round #1 –  Distilamax MW (General Whiskey Yeast)
  4. Best all-round #2 –  Safspirit USW-6 (Dry American Whiskey Yeast)
  5. Best for flavor – DistilaMax XP (High-Temperature Whiskey Yeast)

Read on as we explain why we chose these, and what to look for when deciding for yourself what yeast to use.

Cheap But Good!
Bakers' Yeast
Safale US-05
Best All Round!
Distilamax MW
SafSpirit USW-6
Best Flavor!
Distilamax XP
Preview
Safale - 2353X6 US-05 (Six Packages, 11.5 g ea)
DistilaMax® MW Yeast for Grain Whiskies (Malted Barley)
Fermentis Safspirit Dry Whiskey Yeast American Whiskey (USW-6) 500 Gram (1.1 LB) Brick
DistilaMax® XP Yeast for Malted Grain Whisky
Title
Red Star Active Dry Yeast, Value Size 1 Pack (2 Pound Ea)
Safale - 2353X6 US-05 (Six Packages, 11.5 g ea)
DistilaMax® MW Yeast for Grain Whiskies (Malted Barley)
Fermentis Safspirit Dry Whiskey Yeast American Whiskey (USW-6) 500 Gram (1.1 LB) Brick
DistilaMax® XP Yeast for Malted Grain Whisky
Cheap But Good!
Bakers' Yeast
Preview
Title
Red Star Active Dry Yeast, Value Size 1 Pack (2 Pound Ea)
Details
Safale US-05
Preview
Safale - 2353X6 US-05 (Six Packages, 11.5 g ea)
Title
Safale - 2353X6 US-05 (Six Packages, 11.5 g ea)
Details
Best All Round!
Distilamax MW
Preview
DistilaMax® MW Yeast for Grain Whiskies (Malted Barley)
Title
DistilaMax® MW Yeast for Grain Whiskies (Malted Barley)
Details
SafSpirit USW-6
Preview
Fermentis Safspirit Dry Whiskey Yeast American Whiskey (USW-6) 500 Gram (1.1 LB) Brick
Title
Fermentis Safspirit Dry Whiskey Yeast American Whiskey (USW-6) 500 Gram (1.1 LB) Brick
Details
Best Flavor!
Distilamax XP
Preview
DistilaMax® XP Yeast for Malted Grain Whisky
Title
DistilaMax® XP Yeast for Malted Grain Whisky
Details

What is yeast?

Yeast is a single-celled organism used in baking and brewing because of its fermentation and leavening properties.

Yeast is tiny living fungi microorganisms that occur naturally, and it is common in soil, plants and sugary mediums like flower nectar and fruits. Yeast has been used in cooking and manufacturing for years.

It is one of the main ingredients in baking bread and manufacturing both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. There are various species, and the one you use depends on the final product that you want.


What to look for in Yeast?

In every distillation process, the yeast plays a fundamental role in bringing out the kind of product you want. Yeast is the one that is responsible for converting sugar into alcohol by allowing fermentation to take place.

#1. What content of alcohol are you aiming to get and what flavor?

#2. What sugar type are you using in the distillation process? i.e. Molasses, Dextrose, starch converted to grain, or Glucose Syrup.

#3. What temperature level are you using in the fermentation process?

That process is the one that determines the aroma and the color of the distilled product. It also affects the taste of your distilled spirit, and therefore you will have to choose the spirit depending on the kind of product you want. But your distilling yeast must have the following attributes:

  • High ethanol yield
  • Rapid fermentation of variable sugars
  • Able to produce the correct balance of flavor
  • Be tolerant to ethanol, heat and high sugar concentration
  • High storage viability
  • Non-flocculent chemicals

What about flavor compounds?

Whiskey is all about flavor, and some of these flavors are created during the fermentation phase of the process. The most important flavors introduced during fermentation are phenols and esters.

Phenols:

Phenol, cresols, xylenol, and guaiacol are amongst the most important phenolic compounds in whiskey

Esters:

These include isoamyl acetate, an ester with a banana-like aroma. The most abundant ester in the ‘heart’ is commonly ethyl hexanoate, which has an aroma described as apple-like.

What ABV and Attenuation to Aim for?

In brewing, attenuation is the conversion of sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which is the rough fermentation process. For example, if you have 50% attenuation, it means that out of the products you are using for the production of beer, 50% has been converted into alcohol. The greater the attenuation, the more the amount of sugar converted to alcohol. Also, the alcohol concentration in the final product is higher. Therefore, when you have a more attenuated beer, it will be drier than the others and have more alcohol concentration than the less attenuated beer made from the same wort.

Attenuation is much dependent on your yeast, your wort, the temperature of fermentation, and oxygenation of the wort. Ordinarily, you’ll measure original gravity (OG) and estimate a percentage of apparent attenuation, which allows for the estimation of Final Gravity (FG).

Typically for distilling we are only interested in high attenuation yeasts, as any residual sugars that are left in the fermentation won’t make it through the distillation.

Best Cheap Yeast #1: Bakers Yeast

Using bread yeast (or baker’s yeast) is a perfectly valid option for making whiskey washes.

It tends to produce a very dry finished ferment with quite pronounced esters. However, since baker’s yeast isn’t intended for whiskey making, there’s very little information available about the flavor profiles.

Generally, baker’s yeast won’t handle high alcohol concentrations, and to avoid stressing the yeast we recommend keeping your mash below ~10% ABV.

Pros:

  • Cheap: Bakers yeast can be bought in bulk. This means you can pitch large amounts without breaking the bank. We use this one from amazon which is only $7 for a 500gram pouch.

Cons:

  • Low alcohol tolerance. Generally it will be very hard to get a final ferment to above ~12% ABV as this type of yeast isn’t designed to handle high alcohol concentrations. I space is an issue, and you prefer higher ABV washes, then you may be better using one of the following yeasts.
  • Designed for wheat rather that barley.
  • Flavor congener profile is not studied/available. Trial and error required to know what you’ll get from each brand.
Red Star Active Dry Yeast, Value Size 1 Pack (2 Pound Ea)
  • This is active dry yeast, and is ideally used in temperatures between 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Active Dry Yeast is designed for yeast-leavened bread and dough
  • Active Dry Yeast from one of the most popular brands worldwide
  • Ingredients: yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae), sorbitan monostearate
  • Net weight: 32 oz (2 pounds), 908 grams

Best Cheap Yeast #2: Safale US-05 (Brewers Yeast)

Safale US-05 is an Ale yeast strain in America and is now the world’s most popular beer yeast. It is known for producing very well-balanced and very clean beers, quick fermentations, and attenuates well.

We recommend this yeast because you’ll find a convenient (and affordable) sachet in almost any brewing shop anywhere in the world.

No, it hasn’t been designed for distilling whiskey, but whiskey is pretty much just beer at the end of the day and this yeast does a fantastic job!

Safale - 2353X6 US-05 (Six Packages, 11.5 g ea)
  • Fresh, active ale yeast
  • Ready-to-pitch
  • 6 packages saves $$$
  • Excellent quality, used by many craft breweries
  • Fast priority mail shipping (2-3 business days)

Good All Round #1: Distilamax MW (General Whiskey Yeast)

This is probably the best all-round whiskey yeast we’ve found. It’s been designed for whiskey production but doesn’t lean too far in any style direction. If you are looking to make a variety of whiskey styles, then this is the yeast for you.

DistilaMax® MW is recommended for the production of malt whiskey and has been selected for its ability to ferment maltose, maltotriose and other starch-derived saccharides present in malted barley feedstock.  It produces a congener profile that will increase spirit complexity resulting in fruity and spicy notes.

It can withstand a wider temperature range between 25C and 33C. Better still, it is well known to have an alcohol tolerance of about 15%.

Pros:

  • Selected for its ability to ferment maltose, maltotriose & other sugars of malted barley feedstock.
  • Produces a spirit with a highly acceptable flavor profile, as adjudged by Malt Whisky Manufacturers.
  • Displays a good alcohol tolerance of up to 15% v/v.
  • Displays a congener profile suited to Malt Whiskys.

Cons:

  • Expensive.
  • Only available in 500gram pouches.
DistilaMax® MW Yeast for Grain Whiskies (Malted Barley)
  • Selected for its ability to ferment maltose, maltotriose & other sugars of malted barley feedstock.
  • Produces a spirit with a highly acceptable flavor profile, as adjudged by Malt Whisky Manufacturers.
  • Displays a good alcohol tolerance of up to 15% v/v.
  • Displays a congener profile suited to Malt Whiskys.

Good All Round #2? Safspirit USW-6 (Dry American Whiskey Yeast)

The most famous and best-performing strain for producing American Whiskey. The natural choice for the best Bourbons distillers and other American whiskey producers. Very good and delicate profile of congeners. Performs well in all kinds of grains or blends of grains. Despite its popularity for US whiskies, it is another good option for grain distilled beverages aged in barrels.

Although described as an ‘American whiskey’ yeast, its congener profile is very balanced and in fact is suitable for most whiskey styles.

It can withstand a wider temperature range between 20C and 32C. Better still, it has an alcohol tolerance of about 15%.

Pros:

  • The natural choice for the best Bourbon distillers and other American whiskey producers
  • Very good and delicate profile of congeners
  • Performs well in all kinds of grains or blends of grains
  • Despite its popularity for US whiskies, it is another good option for grain distilled beverages aged in barrels

Cons:

  • Expensive.
  • Only available in 500gram pouches..
Fermentis Safspirit Dry Whiskey Yeast American Whiskey (USW-6) 500 Gram (1.1 LB) Brick
  • The most famous and best performing strain for producing American Whiskey.
  • The natural choice for the best Bourbon distillers and other American whiskey producers
  • Very good and delicate profile of congeners
  • Performs well in all kinds of grains or blends of grains
  • Despite its popularity for US whiskies, it is another good option for grain distilled beverages aged in barrels

Good For Flavor? DistilaMax XP (High Temperature Whiskey Yeast)

DistilaMax XP is specially designed for grain whiskey production and has been selected for its ability to handle high temperatures. It produces a congener profile well suited to the flavorful malt whiskeys with higher ester production, generally resulting in increased complexity and fruity notes

It can withstand a wider temperature range between 25C and 36C and has an alcohol tolerance of about 15%, although you probably won’t need to take it that high.

Pros:

  • The natural choice for the best Bourbon distillers and other American whiskey producers
  • Very good and delicate profile of congeners
  • Performs well in all kinds of grains or blends of grains
  • Despite its popularity for US whiskies, it is another good option for grain distilled beverages aged in barrels

Cons:

  • Expensive.
  • Only available in 500gram pouches.
DistilaMax® XP Yeast for Malted Grain Whisky
  • DistilaMax XP is a Saccharomyces cerevisiae var.diastaticus.
  • Selected for its ability to ferment maltose, maltotriose & other sugars in malted barley feedstock.
  • Displays a good temperature tolerance and performs well at temperatures from 20°C up to 35°C.
  • Displays a fruity and complex congener profile suited to Malt Whiskys.

FAQs

We realize this is a complex topic, and one fraught with subjectivity and personal preference.

Here are some of the most common questions and answers we get, so you can decide for yourself which yeast is right for your needs.

#1. What temperature conditions do you use in fermenting Whiskey?

Depending on the type of yeast that you are using you will be required to do your fermentation in different temperatures to achieve the best results – so read the guidance from your yeast manufacturer.

As a rule of thumb, yeasts will best operate anywhere between 18 and 25 degrees Celsius. Running hotter than this may start producing off-flavors, and running too cold may slow down the fermentation to the point where it may stall or not reach the desired attenuation.

For whiskey, some of these ‘off-flavor’ esters and phenols may be desirable, so running hot may be a good way to add flavor to your product.

#2. What is a good level of yeast attenuation?

Attenuation means how much of the available sugar will the yeast successfully convert into alcohol.

A low attenuating yeast will leave behind residual sugar and sweetness in the final product, while a high attenuating yeast will make a dryer and higher alcohol ferment.

As a general rule for making whiskey, we would look for a high attenuating yeast as this means that we can use all the available sugar and improve the efficiency of our distillery.

#3. What is the speed of fermentation?

Different yeast has different speeds of fermentation. One with a higher speed will allow you to maximize the capacity of your distillery.

However, fermenting too fast can start to stress the yeast and introduce off flavors.

Generally, a healthy whiskey wash should take around a week to complete the majority of the fermentation and then another week to fully attenuate and clean up. Some commercial yeasts have been designed to operate quicker than this under controlled conditions, so read the manufactures guidance.

#4. What kind of flavor does it offer you?

Before settling on any yeast brand, we need to consider what flavors the yeast will introduce to our product. For example, the flavors made by a Belgian Ale yeast will be wildly different from a Champagne yeast.

This is a really important consideration for making rums and whiskeys. DistilaMax offer flavor profile diagrams to indicate the characteristics of the yeast, while other manufactures will have similar information written in the product datasheet.

Whiskey is high in phenolic compounds and esters, both of which are produced during fermentation, so pick a yeast that will enhance these if that’s the flavor you’re going for.

#5. What level of pH is required?

The level of pH will always limit the growth of microorganisms and lactic acid during fermentation. So you should always be aware of the level of pH required.

Your yeast manufacturer will specify the optimal pH range for that specific yeast strain, which is typically between 3.5 and 5.5.

A well-designed mash should hit this number without you having to do anything, but it always pay to check. You can lower the pH with citric acid or lactic acid if outside the range.

#6 Can I Use Turbo Yeast ?

You can use whatever yeast you like, but we’d recommend avoiding turbo yeast if you can.

Turbo yeast is just a regular yeast strain selected primarily for its high alcohol tolerance. It’s then packaged with a bunch of chemicals and nutrients (think yeast steroids) to make the yeast work as fast and as hard as possible.

Unfortunately, that means turbo yeast also produces:

  • More fusel oils
  • More ethyl acetate
  • More dead yeast cells
  • Many undesired flavor cognigers.

#7 What is the difference between liquid yeast and dried yeast? Which is better?

Dry yeast is cheap, convenient, and highly capable of producing great fermentations. It has a shelf life of up to 3 years and is more tolerant than liquid yeast of warm storage or shipping conditions. It also doesn’t need to be kept in the fridge until use.

However, not all yeast strains can be dried. This means that only a few of the most robust yeast varieties become dried and packaged for your use.

That’s why liquid yeast exists – to give us the choice between over a thousand successfully cultivated yeast varieties – all available on catalog order. Sure, the price is higher, shipping is a pain, and it needs to be refrigerated until use, but this might be worth it for that special flavor property you are after!

We recommend using dried yeast for distilling. Why? There is enough variety between dried yeast to offer you a good variety for most things you’ll want to make. Factor in the lower price, convenience, and ease of storage and we don’t think it’s worth paying the extra for a liquid variant.

#8 Is it Ok to store Yeast in the freezer?

Yes, freezing dried yeast is fine and will extent the shelf life somewhat. However, you can’t freeze liquid yeast as the freezing of water will rupture the yeast cells, effectively killing them.

Here a rough guide to shelf life’s for both dry and liquid yeast. In general, dried yeast will last the longest and ideally should be stored as cold as possible.

TypeUnrefrigeratedRefrigeratedFrozen
Dry12 months24 months2 years+
LiquidUse Immediately6 monthsNot Possible

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