Many myths and misconceptions exist when it comes to alcohol and gluten. Some sources say all alcohol is gluten-free, while others claim variation among varieties.
Let’s set the record straight with science-based facts, logical explanations and links to resources to help you decide which, if any, alcoholic beverages you will consume.
Keep in mind, this information applies to anyone on a gluten-free diet, but is of greatest importance (and is primarily written to help) individuals who must live gluten-free due to a medical condition like celiac disease (like me!).
Distilled spirits (“liquor” or “hard liquor”) are beverages such as vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, brandy and other fruit brandies (like schnapps, kirsch, calvados, etc.) that are produced by fermentation and distillation.
Spirits can be produced from a single grain or a combination of grains, such as wheat, corn, rye and barley. Some distilled spirits are made from ingredients like potatoes, sugar cane, grapes and a variety of fruits and plants.
Here are a few examples of the base products that can be used to create certain distilled spirits:
Note: brands vary, these are merely reference points and examples.
- Jack Daniels whiskey is made from a mash of corn, rye and malted barley.
- Gin (like Tanqueray) is made from a variety of base grains similar to whiskey, then infused with botanicals like juniper, coriander, angelica root and licorice.
- Vodka is traditionally made from grains like wheat, barley and rye, but many brands are made from corn (Smirnoff), potatoes (Chopin) and several are produced from grapes (DiVine).
- Rum (Bacardi) is made from sugar cane byproducts like molasses and cane juice.
- Tequila (Patrόn) is made from the agave plant.
Fermentation is the process in which yeast breaks down sugar (from base ingredients, as noted above) into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gas leaves the fermenting mixture, no outside air is allowed in, and a mixture of ethanol and water results.
Distillation is necessary for producing alcoholic beverages with a higher alcohol content because yeast cannot survive in high alcohol concentrations. Distillation relies on ethanol having a lower boiling point than water. In this process, the fermented mixture of ethanol and water is heated. Ethanol vaporizes first (remember, it has a lower boiling point than water), and the water is left behind. The vaporizing ethanol gas is captured and cooled, causing it to condense back to ethanol liquid that is much more concentrated because the water has been left behind.
According to 13th generation distiller, Marko Karakasevic of Charbay in Napa Valley, CA, “Anything distilled cannot possibly contain gluten. Distillation is the process of separating alcohol from everything else in the mash, and unless gluten can travel with vapor, there’s no physical way that it could be found in the distillate.”
The popular website, Celiac.com echoes Karakasevic’s statement that, “All distilled alcohols are gluten-free.”
Further, the National Institutes of Health Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign states all distilled spirits are gluten-free. Most experts in the gluten-free world agree, even for spirits made from gluten-containing ingredients. That is because, as seasoned distiller, Karakasevic points out, the distillation process removes gluten proteins.
However, the Celiac Support Association recommends individuals with celiac disease only consume spirits derived from gluten-free sources (like potato vodka, tequila, rum, wine and brandy with no additives, and gluten-free beer) in the foundation stage (beginner stage) of the gluten-free diet.
Anecdotally, many individuals with celiac disease claim to react to distilled spirits made with gluten grains. If that applies to you, steer clear of those beverages.
The bottom line on distilled spirits: Consume these at your discretion and personal comfort level. Always err on the side of caution if you are uncertain about whether or not a distilled beverage is causing issues for you.
Also keep in mind, it may be other ingredients, not the distilled spirit, causing negative symptoms. Some spirits contain glycerin (for “mouth feel”), casein (Devotion Vodka), citric acid and other additives that could lead to gastrointestinal issues, so be aware of those as well.
Wine is generally gluten-free (hallelujah!), as it is made from grapes.
However, in the event you’ve heard or read about (1) wheat paste being used to seal the inside of oak barrels for wine storage or (2) winemakers using wheat gluten for fining wines (fining is the process where wines are clarified and unwanted ingredients are filtered out), let’s briefly address these issues:
First, sealing barrels with wheat paste is something you will find with wines aged in oak barrels (and honestly, this is relatively rare these days). You can usually do a quick web search about the wine you need info on to learn how it is aged. If that information isn’t readily available online, you can always contact the producer – most have forms on their website so that it’s easy to do.
Even in cases where wine barrels are sealed with wheat paste, testing reveals wine aged in those barrels contains less gluten than current tests are able to detect (very very low levels!). Read this article for details and research.
On a personal note, we travel to Europe each year to procure our wines. We buy mostly artisan wines from France and Germany, so we deal with the “how are your barrels sealed” issue often. And obviously, we taste a lot of wine. In years of doing this, we have never run into a gluten issue and I’ve never experienced gluten-related symptoms from consuming wine. (As a reference point, I do have celiac disease and I react severely and quickly if I accidentally consume even a very small amount of gluten.)
Second, everything from a substance called bentonite (an impure clay) to fish bladders (yes, I’m serious!) are used to fine, or clarify, wine. Although research is limited, that which does exist indicates wine fined with wheat gluten remains gluten-free (again, this is rarely the case).
The bottom line on wine: If you drink wine and have no issues, carry on (in moderation, of course!). If you drink wine and have unexplained symptoms of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you may want to consider eliminating the wine, at least for a time, to determine if that relieves your symptoms. It could be something non-celiac related that is causing your symptoms, so you will need to do some digging to figure this out.
Beer is made from a variety of ingredients like hops, barley and often other grains. While hops are gluten-free, barley is not, thus mainstream beer is not safe for celiac patients. Of course, these days gluten-free beers made with non-gluten grains are cropping up all over, so it is not difficult to find a gluten-free beer if that’s your poison.
Some gluten-free beers are: St. Peter’s Sorghum Beer (an English beer), Red Bridge (this one is made by Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser), New Planet (a Boulder-based company that produces several pale ales). There are many others, too numerous to name, but you can do a quick Google search for “gluten free beer” and retrieve many options.
We must also mention gluten-removed beers, which are (controversial) beers made in the traditional method with barley but that undergo a proprietary process (such as using enzymes) to degrade (break down) gluten. Gluten-free beer manufacturers such as Omission and Estrella Damm Daura, claim their gluten-removed beers test well below the widely accepted 20 parts per million gluten.
The controversy with these beers stems from how gluten-removed beers are tested. Some say the gluten particles that are broken down may remain and be too small to be detected by available tests for gluten. With different testing methods available, and beer being a fermented product, the process of testing these gluten-removed beers is not exactly straightforward.
Further, while the United States Food and Drug Administration Gluten-Free Food Labeling Final Rule goversn gluten-free food labeling, the rule excludes food products regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Beer falls under TTB regulation and currently, the bureau states that they “are not aware of any scientifically valid way to evaluate” claims of gluten being removed from fermented foods such as beer.
Additionally, gluten-free food labeling regulations set by the FDA disqualify foods from being labeled as “gluten-free” if they contain an ingredient that is a gluten-containing grain, such as wheat, rye, barley, or a cross-bred hybrid of those grains. This applies regardless of the gluten content of the finished product.
Based on these points, the TTB asserts that labeling alcoholic beverages made from gluten-containing grains as “gluten-free” is misleading.
You can read the Celiac Support Association’s summary of this information as well as their statement regarding the CSA-endorsed Omission beer, here.
The category of gluten-removed beer is definitely one open to debate. Many individuals with celiac disease have weighed in on the topic with reports of reacting to these beers, while others have consumed them with no obvious ill effects.
The bottom line on gluten-free beer: If a beer is made with non-gluten ingredients, it is gluten-free. Gluten-removed beers that are made with gluten ingredients and then treated to degrade or remove those ingredients remain in question. This remains an open topic and certainly one where more research and investigation are needed.
Cider (Hard Cider)
Cider is an alcoholic beverage produced from fermented apple (or other fruit) juice. For how cider is made, there is a great breakdown and explanation of the process here on Woodchuck Cider’s website.
Crispin and Angry Orchard are two other popular ciders, which are gluten-free. You can find others with a Google search.
The bottom line on cider: Basically, cider is gluten-free, unless a gluten ingredient is added back to the finished product. I have not found an instance of this occurring.
If you consume mixed cocktails, be sure the mixer used is gluten-free. This should be determined by carefully reading any label of a mixer you plan to consume. The best bet is to consume cocktails made with all-natural mixers (i.e., fresh fruit juice). I love the site Beautiful Booze for great cocktail recipes. Note: ALL recipes there are NOT gluten-free, so obviously avoid the ones that are not.
As with any food or drink, use caution and get the facts before you nibble or sip so that you are certain you remain gluten-free. When in doubt, go without. And always consume alcohol responsibly. Never drink and drive.