The word “fermented” has seen a startling rise in popularity since the early 2000s. While to some it’s still nothing more than a bulging box of month-old orange juice at the back of the fridge, many people have begun worshipping at the altar of microbes.
By basic definition, fermentation is the chemical breakdown and transformation of organic matter by microorganisms and other microbiological factors, such as yeast, bacteria and enzymes. The list of commonly consumed foods and drinks that undergo fermentation is endless: chocolate, coffee, anchovies, soy sauce, vinegar (two separate steps!), salami, cheese, sauerkraut—basically all the good stuff, and that doesn’t account for beer, wine, spirits or, in our case, cocktails.
One of the wonderful things about this topic is the almost inexhaustible list of things you can play with and the variety of results they produce. Over the last decade, Team Lyan have used koji to create heaps of miso for use in cocktails, fermented finished cocktails in bottle to give them sparkle, made vermouth from scratch by fermenting our own wine base—and more. Our most ambitious fermentation project to date, however, was an entire menu of “wines” made from jams and teas to replicate the flavor and texture of classic wines.
While we‘ve had plenty of delicious results, there have also been numerous experiments that confused, delighted or wrinkled our noses in equal measures, but this is all part of the fun. Ultimately fermenting is a lot simpler than it sounds, provided you diligently follow some general rules and are extra careful about cleanliness. We suggest starting with making “wines,” which offer a number of possibilities when it comes to cocktails: The final “wine” can be treated as a finished cocktail, used as part of a cocktail or it can be fortified with your spirit of choice and sugar to make a “port” or “vermouth.”
Here is our quick guide to making ferments at home, and how to use them in drinks.
- Two fermenting tubs or carboys with an airlock [Buy]
- A food-safe siphon [Buy]
- Champagne or sparkling wine yeast [Buy]
- Bottles to store your final product in
Make sure you’ve got enough sugar. Alcohol is the byproduct of the yeast eating up all the sugar and burping out a whole load of CO2 and ethanol. What you taste at first might seem super sweet, but you should be aiming for around 170 grams of sugar per liter of base liquid.
Make it taste good to start with. Yeast surely has magical powers, but turning crud into deliciousness is not one of them. The fermentation process will add a layer of complex and unique flavors, but if you’re fermenting something with off flavors, those will likely carry through.
Keep oxygen away. The air lock on your carboy or fermenting tub allows gas to escape without letting any oxygen back in, hence stopping any explosions. This only works as long as you don’t fiddle with the container and/or the liquid while it’s fermenting. You’ll be able to tell that it’s finished fermenting once there are no more bubbles being produced.
Use wine yeast. Wine yeast has a really high tolerance to both acidity and alcohol, which makes it quite versatile when using any sort of sour fruit, as is likely when cocktails are involved. Buy dried packets, store them in the fridge, follow the instructions and experiment with different strains (the Champagne yeast mentioned above is a great all-arounder).
Remember to bottle condition.* If you’re looking for a fizzy ferment, “conditioning” the ferment by adding a second fermentation step inside a closed container is easy to do. Add 10 grams of regular sugar per liter of finished liquid, combine and stir to dissolve. Add the liquid to a beer bottle or Champagne bottle right to the top (you must be using crown caps or a Champagne cage for this to work), leave it for a week or more at room temperature and et voila—fizz!
The Step by Step
- Wash your equipment in hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly. There’s no need to sterilize unless you’re super into making sure it tastes exactly like last time.
- Prepare your base liquid. You can think of this almost like making a non-alcoholic cocktail. Don’t be scared to mix fermentable items that will add flavor, like jam and fruit juice. You can also add tea in place of water, which will offer a tannic element similar to how grape skins add textural complexity to wine. Remember the golden 170 grams of sugar per liter ratio. An easy way to keep track of the amount of sugar is to use the labeled nutritional facts: Tally up the grams of sugar and keep track as you add them to the mixture; then, add sugar, water and/or tea to adjust the numbers as necessary.
- Add this base liquid to your clean carboy or fermenting container, leaving six inches of space at the top for the yeast and the foam that will form.
- Create your yeast starter. Add lukewarm water to a large glass with a decent whack of sugar (20g sugar per 200mL of water) and stir to dissolve. The water should be about body temperature. Add your yeast, stir briefly and leave it to hydrate until it begins to foam. Add this to your fermenting container.
- Prepare your airlock with some vodka rather than water to keep it sterile. Each make is different, so follow the instructions included. Insert into your carboy and store at room temperature or somewhere a bit warmer. Check in on it every few days. If you can see bubbles and movement in the liquid, then it’s happy and you can leave it to it’s own devices. Once there’s no more movement, it’s almost ready. Leave it for a couple more days.
- Siphon it off into a new, clean container by inserting one end of the tube into the liquid and sucking on the other end until liquid comes out. Keep this end lower than the end in the liquid and siphon off until there is one inch left in the container to avoid introducing the spent yeast to the finished ferment.
- At this point you can do one of two things: You can close it up and leave it overnight somewhere cold to allow the yeast to settle out before siphoning it again into bottles to store and drink at your leisure. Or, you can bottle condition by adding sugar as described above (10 grams per liter) and siphoning it into suitable bottles.
- You can now leave some to age, drink or you can fortify it to make a proprietary “vermouth.” We follow a rough ratio of two parts “wine” ferment to one part of your chosen spirit. This can then be sweetened to your liking without fear of further fermentation.
*Warning: If you are bottling in glass, be careful—there is always a chance that bottles may break in the process. And while you can vary the amount of total sugar in the liquid, do not stray too far from the number above or you’ll end up with an explosion.