Ethanol, commonly referred to as alcohol, can be made from liquids and fruits that all contain one key ingredient: sugar. Sugar cane juice is derived from the sugar cane plant, a tall perennial grass that is native to Southeast Asia as well as to some South Pacific regions. Sugar cane thrives in tropical climates where the temperature is warm and often humid. The stalks of sugar cane are very rich in sugars, which are extracted mainly as sugar cane juice. Sugar cane juice can be enjoyed as is, or if you add yeast to the liquid, it can be turned into sugar cane alcohol or wine by the simple process of fermentation.

What Is Ethanol?

Ethanol is the chemical name for what we know in layman’s terms as alcohol or liquor. When it comes to making your favorite wine, rum, whiskey or vodka, a chemical reaction has to take place for ethanol production to occur. Ethanol is one of the byproducts of that chemical reaction; the other is carbon dioxide.

What Is Sugar Cane Alcohol?

Ethanol from sugarcane can be made by using either fresh sugar cane juice or by the fermentation of cane sugar, which is comprised of sugar granules made from sugar cane. Ethanol production at home using the fermentation of cane sugar will result in a homemade sugar cane wine. If distilled, it will turn into rum, which has a higher alcohol by volume (ABV) content. Rum is distilled to a 95 percent alcohol by volume and then bottled for consumption at around 40 percent ABV content.

Other types of sugar cane alcohols include c__achaça, the national liquor of Brazil known for its distinct sugar cane flavor. Cachaça is the main liquor used to make Brazil’s famous caipirinha cocktail. The other ethanol from sugar cane is Mekong whiskey, which unlike its name, is more of a rum-type liquor than a whiskey. This sugar cane alcohol originated in Thailand and is made by fermenting sugar cane juice and rice, along with the addition of local herbs. Guaro, is made by the fermentation of cane sugar juice and is popular in Costa Rica. Distilled to a high alcohol by volume content, guaro is a clear, flavorless liquor that is thought to resemble the taste of vodka, as opposed to rum.

How Is Ethanol Made?

Ethanol production occurs by the process of fermentation. This chemical process is the blueprint for making any type of liquor and occurs when sugar comes in contact with yeast. Yeast, which are single-celled microorganisms that belong to the fungus family, eat the sugar and digest it anaerobically. This means that digestion occurs in the absence of oxygen and results in the production of two products: ethanol and bubbles, which are made of carbon dioxide.

Different sources of sugar are used in the production of alcohol. Fresh fruit, fruit juices, honey, molasses and even plain sugar are all ingredients that can be used in ethanol production. Fresh fruit like grapes are what’s most commonly used in the winemaking fermentation process.

To make hard liquors like vodka, potatoes are the source of sugar. Whiskey is made by the fermentation of mashed grains like corn, wheat, barley or rye. For rum, the ethanol from sugar comes by the fermentation of cane sugar or ethanol from sugarcane juice, resulting in sugar cane alcohol.

Making Ethanol From Sugar Cane

Just like in the winemaking or beer-making process, making ethanol from sugar cane requires the process of fermentation to occur before sugar cane alcohol can be made. The two main ingredients in the ethanol production process for sugar cane alcohol include a source for the sugar and the ingredient to act upon the sugar, yeast.

The sugar source in the production of sugar cane alcohol can either come from fresh sugar cane juice or if that’s hard to find, cane sugar dissolved in water is an appropriate substitute. Fermentation of cane sugar and the fermentation of fresh sugar cane juice both result in the production of ethanol.

Fresh sugar cane juice is made by crushing the cane stalks that are rich in sugar and extracting a cane juice that is rich in sugars like sucrose. The freshly made sugar cane juice is then fermented in a fermentation vessel where yeast are added to work on the juice. By the process of fermentation, the yeast digest the sucrose and produce ethanol from the sugar cane juice, as well as another byproduct, carbon dioxide. This fermentation broth, normally called sugar cane wine or sugar cane beer has a low ethanol content – ranging from 5 to 12 percent.

Equipment Required for Making Sugar Cane Wine

Making ethanol from sugar cane can be done at home with a little effort, especially if you have the necessary equipment and ingredients. For the fermentation of cane sugar, you'll need a large container like a 5-gallon water cooler or bucket. Make sure that the container comes with a lid. You’re also going to need an airlock which you can easily buy online or make yourself using DIY instructions also available online.

Additional equipment necessary for ethanol production includes a stockpot, hydrometer and if you’re interested in taking the sugar cane alcohol process one step further by making rum, a distiller. During the fermentation process you will need to store the container with the fermenting liquid in a dark, cool place that’s not humid and away from any direct sunlight. Basements work well for fermenting alcohol, but if you don’t have one, you can always ferment in a closet or kitchen cabinet.

How to Make Sugar Cane Alcohol Wine

The fermentation of cane sugar or sugar cane juice will result in a sugar cane alcohol wine, which consists of a 6 to 11 percent alcohol by volume content. If you want to make rum, you’ll have to distill the fermented mixture, removing its impurities and resulting in a clear ethanol with a higher alcohol by volume content.

An important thing to do before you begin any fermentation is to fully sterilize the equipment you are going to use in the fermentation of cane sugar or sugar cane juice. You can sterilize by dipping your fermentation bucket into boiling water, cleaning it thoroughly with soap or wiping it down with isopropyl alcohol. A sterile container prevents other bacteria from contaminating the fermenting liquid, affecting both its quality and overall taste.

Sugar Cane Wine Recipe

Total Time: 1 week | Prep Time: 1 hour | Serves: 1 gallon

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon sugar cane juice
  • 1 tablespoon distiller's yeast 

Directions:

  1. In a large, stainless steel saucepan, add the sugar cane juice and stir using a wooden, nonreactive spoon to mix.

  2. Add the distiller's yeast and stir well to combine.

  3. Transfer to a sterilized water cooler with a cover and an airlock. Fill only up to 3/4 of the container’s entire volume, enough to leave space for carbon dioxide, one of the byproducts of fermentation, to effervesce. As soon as the mixture starts to bubble, the yeast are acting on the sugars and the process of fermentation has begun.

  4. Cover with the lid and attached airlock. Store the container in a dark room for the duration of the fermentation process.

  5. Shake to give off excess carbon dioxide for 45 to 60 seconds twice a day without removing the airlock.

  6. The homemade sugar cane alcohol will take anywhere from three to 10 days to be ready. Signs that your sugar cane alcohol is ready: There’s no more carbon dioxide fizz, you can smell the alcohol, and sediment has settled to the bottom of the jug. 

  7. Use a hydrometer to test the liquid – a 990 reading means that the alcohol by volume content is at 16 to 18 percent.

  8. Let stand for 24 hours in a cool room so the yeast sediment settles to the bottom.

  9. Strain the mixture and transfer to bottles to store or to drink. Use cheese cloth to strain the fermented sugar cane alcohol. 

Sugar cane wine can be consumed immediately or left to age for up to a year.

Distill the Wine to Make Rum

Increase the alcohol content of sugar cane wine by distilling it. Distilling the wine results in a liquid that’s free of impurities and has a higher alcohol by volume content. This liquor is most commonly referred to as rum, and can be enjoyed on the rocks or in a mixed cocktail like a mojito, rum swizzle or the tropical favorite, piña colada.

Tip

Always use nonreactive containers and utensils so as not to affect the quality of the mixtures during the fermentation process.

Variations on Sugar Cane Alcohol

Depending on the country you’re in, the type of sugar cane alcohol varies. The process of creating ethanol from sugar cane varies depending on the sugar source – some start with sugar cane juice, others are made using raw cane sugar. Cane sugar is made from the sugar cane plant and is created as a result of harvesting and processing.

Sugar cane alcohol can also be made by using a combination of molasses and brown sugar cane. Dissolve 2 pounds of sugar and 3 quarts of unsulphered molasses in 3 1/2 gallons of water to make a sugar syrup. Once cooled to room temperature, add in 1 tablespoon of distiller's yeast and transfer to a sterile, nonreactive fermentation container. Follow the same procedure in the recipe for sugar cane wine above to make sugar cane alcohol from brown sugar cane crystals or molasses.

Some types of ethanol production even use molasses as a main sugar ingredient, which results in a different color of liquor depending on the kind of molasses used. In many countries in the Caribbean, molasses is the main sugar ingredient used in the fermentation process to make rum.

While you can immediately drink the fermented sugar cane wine or further distilled rum, to get a dark, heavy flavoring you will need to age the rum for a considerable period of time. Rum that has been aged for over a year will develop complex flavors and tastes that are otherwise absent in newly made batches of sugar cane alcohol. The flavor profile can be enhanced even further by aging the liquor in an oak barrel or using oak chips.

About the Author

Christabel Lobo

Christabel Lobo is a freelance writer focusing on all-things food, travel, and wellness. Her writing has appeared in Tenderly, SilverKris, Byrdie, Trivago, Open Skies, Fodor’s, London’s Evening Standard, Silkwinds, HuffPost, Barclays Travel, Pint Size Gourmets, and on her personal yoga & travel blog, Where’s Bel. Feel free to check out her design and writing portfolio: christabel.co