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Uncle Jesse’s Simple Sour Mash Recipe

This simple sour mash recipe is perfect for beginners because it does not rely on skill for mashing and does not require any cooking which greatly reduces the hassles and expenses. Recipe adapted from

(20L wash) Ingredients:

  • 20L filtered water.
  • 3kg cracked corn. 6-8 pieces/kernel is the proper crack. If using bird feed, make sure it is perishable, or in other words is free of preservatives.
  • 3kg of granulated sugar.
  • 1 tbsp yeast (distillers yeast if available.)

Sour Mash Theory

Unlike a cooked mash, a simple mash does not rely on grains for starch. The corn is included for a bit of alcohol, but mainly for flavor while the sugar provides the alcohol. The conversion of starches to sugars is a natural process, accelerated by cooking. An uncooked mash will convert starches to sugars but much more slowly and less efficiently. Your added sugar will ferment rather easily and will provide most of the alcohol in your beer.

Your first distillation run will be a “sweet” run since you will not have any backset to use for sour mashing. I recommend using the spirits you collect in your first run as feints for the next run. Yes, all of them. Your second run will produce your first batch of sour mash, which will be good, but in truth the flavour and consistency will not start to reach their peak until the third or fourth run in my experience.

Practice, practice, practice!

First Fermentation

Put your ingredients into the fermenter in the order listed and close it. You should start to see fermentation of the sugar within 12 hours. It should take 3 or 4 days for the ebullition to end. Siphon your beer out of the fermenter with a racking cane and charge your still.

Siphoning is the best method because it allows you to pull the beer off the top of your lees, leaving them undisturbed. You do not want suspended solids in your still and this method works quite well in keeping the lees at the bottom of your fermenter.

At this point you need to make your first decision. How much backset will you use in your subsequent mashes? The legal minimum for a sour mash is 25%. I do not like to go above 50% in my experience. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you will start with a 25% backset. This means that for a 20 Litre mash you will use 5 liters of backset and 15 liters of water.

Since you will be running your still for hours, you do not want to leave the fermenter empty. Put your 15L of water back into the fermenter so your yeast won’t die while you distill. While you’re at it, this is a perfect time to scoop the spent corn off the top and replace it with an equal volume of newly cracked corn. Later we’ll add 5L of backset and 3kg of granulated sugar.

Basics of Pot Distillation

There are two basic types of pot distillation:

The first involves a traditional pot still, which has no cooling in the neck or column. The distillate produced is lower in proof than that produced by a reflux still with a fractionating or splitting column. This is the traditional method of distillation and requires multiple runs. The distiller will save up enough low wines from the first runs or stripping runs to fill the still for a second run. If a triple distillation is desired, the product from second distillations are collected until enough spirit is saved to fill the still for the third spirit run, and so on.

The second type of pot distillation is performed in a reflux still equipped such that the column can be cooled during distillation. This type of still is far more efficient and can produce a high proof, high quality spirit in a single run.

First Run

Pot distill your wash, being careful to keep things running slowly. For beginners, 2-3 drops of distillate exiting the worm or condenser every second is just about the perfect speed. As you collect, periodically put 4-5 drops of distillate into a spoon with an equal amount of water and sip it. You will learn to identify the off-taste of the heads very quickly.

For your first run it is best to take very conservative cuts. I recommend very generic whiskey cuts, say 80% down to 70%. As your skills improve you will be able to go deeper into your cuts, tasting periodically for the off-taste of the tails. Once you learn to identify the off-tastes of the heads and tails you will be able to make proper cuts without the use of a hydrometer, a big step toward becoming a competent distiller.

By law any spirits collected above 80% cannot be called whiskey because they are considered too “light” or neutral. In other words, they are too high in proof and thus do not properly imbue the spirit with the flavour of the grain mash. I use anything collected above 80% as feints for the next run. 

Remember to discard the first 150ml collected so you don’t get any methanol build up over time and batches.

Second Fermentation

Your fermenter should now contain 15L of water, your old yeast (barm) and your old corn.

Take 5L of backset from your previous distillation and add to it another 3kgs of granulated sugar. This will dissolve the sugar rather easily. Hot backset directly from the still works better at dissolving sugar, but adding hot backset to your fermenter will kill your yeast, so allow the backset to cool if you use this method.

Next, add this mixture of sugar and cooled backset to your fermenter, which already contains 15L of water. This will bring your total beer volume back to 20L.

Now is the time to make sure you have removed and replaced any spent corn kernels, which float to the top of the fermenter. You only need to do this if you plan on a continual ferment, that is, past 7 or 8 fermentations at which point your corn would otherwise be expended.

Cover the fermenter and let it ferment for another 3-4 days or until the ebullition ends.

Congratulations, if you have done everything properly you are now ready to run your first sour mash!

Second Run

Siphon off your beer and charge your still. Again, replace 15L of water into your fermenter so your yeast doesn’t die while you distill.

Distill your whiskey in the same manner you did during your first run, being conservative with your cuts until you gain more skill. Anything collected under 80% ABV on this run is considered a Sour Mash whiskey. Congratulations! This spirit is a palatable moonshine when collected directly out of the still.

Collect your run down to your stopping point. Again, I recommend 70% ABV for beginners, perhaps a few degrees into the 60’s if you are bold. Save all of the spirit run as good sippin’ whiskey.

Most moonshiners keep running their stills long after they are finished with the spirit run, collecting down to about 20% ABV before stopping. Together, the heads and tails are reused as feints. I do not normally go as low as 20%, you’ll have to find your comfort zone. If you start to get blue or green flecks in your spirit, you’ve gone too far or run things too hot.

Repeat the Process

After your run, collect 5L of backset to return to the fermenter for your next batch. Repeat the process starting at the Second Fermentation.

You are now producing a simple sour mash whiskey and with practice you will be able to produce a very high quality moonshine. Age this whiskey in a charred oak barrel to produce a traditional Tennessee-style whiskey.

Safety first, Duke boys. Have fun!

So, for 40l wash. Recipe goes like this.

7kg cracked feed corn,

7kg raw or white sugar.

Dissolve sugar in hot water, then add enough cold water to make 40 l total.

Strip in potstill discarding 100ml of foreshots down to 20%. Save the strip. While the drum is empty, scrape off 1/3rd of a bucket of corn and add 1/3rd of a bucket of new corn.

Add some water (20l or so) to the yeast bed so you don’t burn the yeast next step.

Use 10l of hot slops (backset from the still run) to dissolve 7 more kg of sugar, stir it up and add to the drum. Add water to bring it up to the level it was before.

Watch it ferment and strip again and again.

When you have 40l of strip saved up, do a slow spirit run in the potstill making careful cuts. Age it on toasted oak sticks.