Synthetic mixtures of predominant lignocellulosic hexose sugars were supplemented with separate aliquots of three inhibitory compounds (furfural, hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), and acetic acid) in a series of concentrations and fermented by the spent sulfite liquor (SSL)-adapted yeast strain Tembec T1 and the natural isolate Saccharomyces cerevisiae (S. cerevisiae) Y-1528 to compare tolerance and assess fermentative efficacy. The performance of Y-1528 exceeded that of Tembec T1 by a significant margin, with faster hexose sugar consumption, higher ethanol productivity, and in the case of furfural and HMF, faster inhibitor consumption. Nevertheless, furfural had a dose-proportionate effect on sugar consumption rate and ethanol productivity in both strains, but did not substantially affect ethanol yield. HMF had a similar effect on sugar consumption rate and ethanol productivity, and also lowered ethanol yield. Surprisingly, acetic acid had the least impact on sugar consumption rate and ethanol productivity, and stimulated ethanol yield at moderate concentrations. Sequential iterations of softwood (SW) and hardwood (HW) SSL were subsequently inoculated with the two yeast strains in order to compare adaptation to, and performance in lignocellulosic substrates in a cell recycle batch fermentation (CRBF) regime. Both strains were severely affected by the HW SSL, which was attributed to specific syringyl lignin-derived degradation products and synergistic interactions between inhibitors. Though ethanologenic capacity was preserved, a net loss of performance was evident from both strains, indicating the absence of adaptation to the substrates, regardless of the sequence in which the SSL types were employed. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.