Buck. Prison wine. Toilet wine. Pruno. These are all colloquial terms for homemade hooch. A practice that took off during Prohibition in the 1920s, homebrewing is still popular with DIY’ers today, and fermenting your hooch is one of the simplest projects you can do at home.
My favorite name for hooch is toilet wine, mostly because of its interesting, if inauspicious, history. Toilet wine was fermented in bags by prison inmates desperate to get a nip of the sauce. Prisoners typically hid the bags in toilet tanks during fermentation. Then the inmates would filter out the pulp through a sock, and voila! Hooch!
Next, the prisoners would enjoy, or rather, experience the results of their science project. The taste reportedly hit you like a mouthful of hand sanitizer and was hardly worth the buzz. According to the CDC, many state prisons have reported outbreaks of botulism from toilet hooch. People trying to get tipsy behind bars ended up on a ventilator or a slab in the morgue.
Needless to say, you shouldn’t use jail house hooch recipes. Botulism comes from unsanitary conditions and the amount of McGiver-ey inmates employ to make their hooch. The fermenting process itself does not cause botulism. You can ferment your hooch at home if you use a recipe from a reputable source, and your toilet doesn’t have to be involved.
What You’ll Need
Homemade hooch requires three simple ingredients: fruit juice, sugar, and a bit of yeast thrown in. In prison, you juice anything fruity you can get your hands on, such as oranges, fruit cocktails, and prunes, the reason this drink is sometimes called pruno. You can’t be too picky in an incarceration situation.
It’s also hard to acquire a packet of yeast in prison, so you’d have to make do with a few pieces of bread. Even though it’s baked, some bread yeast may survive. It’s the best you’ve got.
Sugar is also an important ingredient if you don’t want your flavorful hooch to taste like a Warhead. Prison inmates indiscriminately toss in anything sugary: Jolly Ranchers, packets of jelly, even ketchup. Once all of these ingredients are combined in a sealable bag, our homebrewing inmate stows their hooch in a toilet tank and hopes the guards don’t confiscate their science project.
You, however, have the luxury of not being in prison, so you can be a little more particular about your equipment and fresh ingredients:
- Fresh fruit, freshly squeezed bottled juice, or juice concentrate.
- Plastic bottle with a balloon if you’re a total newbie brewer. More experienced folks might have a special bottle designed for the fermentation process.
- A packet of baker’s yeast or a special brewers yeast.
- Sugar, honey, or syrup.
- Cheesecloth or some sort of filter.
Step 1: Selecting Your Equipment
When making homebrewed hooch, using a 2-liter bottle of your juice of choice may seem kind of sketchy, and to be honest, it is. That’s completely in the spirit of the thing if you’ll pardon the pun. We never claimed this was a classy operation. As long you thoroughly clean it, that old apple juice bottle will do the trick.
Your container should have ample space for the fermentation process. If you are going to make a gallon batch of hooch, use a 2-gallon container for fermentation. The carbon dioxide that rises from the concoction will have somewhere to go. The last thing you want is an exploding bottle of hooch, which is exactly what you’ll get if too much pressure builds up in there.
Make sure you sanitize your container. If you’ve heard stories of people getting sick from hooch in prison, that’s because the containers were dirty or the ingredients were subpar. Don’t skimp on using clean brewing equipment.
Step 2: Choose Juice for Your Base
Make sure your fruit is as fresh as possible. It’s also okay to use juice or fruit concentrate, as long as there aren’t too many preservatives to interfere with the fermentation. You can use pretty much any fruit to flavor your hooch: apples, oranges, berries, and peaches are only a handful of options.
Recipes vary on how to prepare your fruit. You can chop, mash, crush or heat your fruit until it becomes a pulpy mixture called a “must.” As in, you must have it in your hooch. In reality, the term comes from the Latin vinum mustum, or young wine, the grape pulp produced at the beginning of the winemaking process.
The pulped fruit is the base ingredient in your hooch in the same way that barley, wheat, or oats are the base in beer. Some recipes suggest putting the must into a nylon bag to keep bits of fruit flesh, seeds, and peels from spreading out into the container. Think of it as a tea bag for hooch. I consider this step optional, though. I like to let my must float free.
Additives can disrupt the fermenting process, so get fresh juice if possible. If you’re adding water, use distilled water rather than tap or mineralized water. Our hooch-brewers in prison don’t have the luxury of selecting quality additional ingredients, and they make do with old or discarded spoiled fruit. You don’t have to resort to digging through mess hall trash cans.
Step 3: Add The Sugar
The amount of sugar added to your brew increases the alcohol content of prison hooch. The yeast feeds off of the starch and carbs contained in the sugars. This keeps the yeast alive and busy fermenting. The sugar also makes the mixture sweet.
To sweeten your brew of hooch, you can use corn sugar, brown sugar, table sugar, honey, and even maple syrup. It depends on what kind of flavor you want.
There is such a thing as too much sugar, though. Alcohol By Volume (ABV) refers to the percentage of a beverage that contains alcohol. ABV can also come from fermented juice. Make sure that sugar contributes to no more than ⅓ of your concoction’s total ABV.
Step 4: Toss in The Yeast
The yeast is the ingredient that makes the hooch alcoholic by fermenting. Pour in your baker’s or brewer’s yeast, or bits of bread, if you’re going all-out prison style. The yeast in bread can survive the baking process, but your brew will take longer to ferment if you go this route. I’m not brave enough to try it, so I can only speak for the pure yeast method.
Step 5: Cover the Container and Wait
If your hooch bottle has a screw-on cap, don’t use it just yet. Remember what I said earlier about exploding bottles? You don’t want to be woken up in the night by the sound of your entire home brewing operation flying around the room.
Instead, place the balloon over the mouth of the bottle and prick a small hole into it. People have also used a condom for this purpose. I guess it depends on what stage you’re at in your life. Create a makeshift valve for releasing carbon dioxide. The balloon also helps you see how much gas has built up since the balloon will inflate a little.
Ferment your hooch for 5-7 days in a cool place at a temperature of 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not hide your hooch in a toilet tank or a hole in the wall behind a poster of Marylin Monroe. Just put it in a cupboard or a nice quiet corner of your basement.
If you decide to go all-out prison conditions on your fermenting process and use a sealable bag, you will need to release the carbon dioxide that builds up every day. If you’re using a bottle with a balloon, the hole you pricked into the balloon will do the trick for evacuating gases. If you chose to put your must into a nylon bag, squeeze the bag every day and stir the liquid.
Step 6: Bottling Your Hooch
After your hooch ferments for 5-7 days, strain out the remaining fruit pulp and yeast sediment by pouring the mixture through a cheesecloth. You may have to do this several times over the next few weeks. Yeast content that remains in the mix will continue to ferment the hooch as long as it has sugar to live off.
Put your homemade hooch in the fridge overnight so that any excess yeast sediments will settle on the bottom of the bottle. This process is called “cold crashing.”
The amount of time needed for a batch of hooch to ferment varies with the brewer. Some homebrewers choose to ferment their hooch for a couple of months. If you ferment for this long, make sure you check on your bottles often to make sure they haven’t cracked or exploded from carbon dioxide pressure.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are my bottles of hooch exploding?
When hooch and other fermented beverages release too much carbon dioxide into an enclosed space, the container can crack or explode from the pressure. This is known as a bottle bomb.
Bottles are more likely to crack or explode if you bottle the hooch before completing the fermentation process. Don’t be too eager to bottle your brew. It’s better to ferment it for a bit longer. When in doubt, leave it out.
Ensure that you strain off the yeast sediment thoroughly since this is the ingredient that continues the fermenting process. You may have to filter your hooch several times to get all of the yeast sediment out.
Higher temperatures raise the level of carbon dioxide in the beverage. To avoid bottle bombs, store your hooch in a cool, dark place.
Will hooch make me go blind?
Between 1920 and 1933, hundreds of thousands of intrepid rebel brewers suffered blindness and paralysis from drinking homemade hooch. You may remember this happening to a fellow in Water for Elephants. However, you are not likely to suffer permanent damage from homemade hooch these days. It might give you an instant splitting headache, but that will pass.
The blindness and paralysis that happened during prohibition were likely the results of methanol poisoning. Methanol is very similar to ethanol, non-toxic alcohol, with one crucial difference. As little as 100 milliliters of methanol can cause permanent blindness, and if you drink methanol in large quantities, you will certainly die.
When we drink ethanol, our body breaks it down into carbon dioxide and water, neither of which will kill us. Methanol, on the other hand, becomes formaldehyde. You may have seen formaldehyde among the ingredients in your cleaning supplies. Needless to say, you shouldn’t be drinking that stuff.
Formaldehyde is commonly used in industrial cleaners and as a preservative in the embalming process at funeral homes. Formaldehyde attacks the nervous system, and it goes for the optic nerve first. Hence the blindness.
When did people start making hooch?
Hooch gets its name from the Hoochinoo Indians of Alaska, known for their drunkenness and homebrewed beverages containing fermented fruits and molasses.
Hooch tends to show up in history when people are denied alcohol by higher powers, whether that be lawmakers, religious leaders, or corrections officers. It turns out we can get pretty ingenious when we’re sober and don’t want to be. One of the most famous examples of speaking hooch to power was in the wake of the Prohibition period of the 1920s.
During Prohibition, America saw a dramatic increase in homemade stills. People were so desperate for the sauce that they were willing to break the law and even suffer permanent damage to their health. The main beverage of the underground drinking scene during Prohibition was moonshine, which could be up to 75% alcohol and became methanol if distilled incorrectly.
During World War II, plenty of POWs tried their hand at turning juice into alcohol while in captivity. One such ingenious British man fermented turnip jam hooch in a stolen drainpipe. If you’ve seen The Great Escape, some of the POWs make an alcoholic drink out of potatoes and pass it out on the Fourth of July. Maybe that’s why their document forger went blind.