An Overview of Gluten-Free Alcohol

Many different types of alcohol are actually made with gluten grains, including most beers and many types of liquor. If you're following a gluten-free diet, be sure to drink only gluten-free alcoholic beverages. This is more difficult than it probably sounds, but don't despair—you actually have plenty of choices 

A Blueprint for Alcohol You Can Drink

  • Avoid beer unless it's specifically labeled "gluten-free."
  • Wine and brandy are almost always gluten-free, but double check ingredients on fruit-flavored wine and wine cocktails since those may contain gluten. When in doubt, stick with plain wine.
  • Some people who can't consume gluten react to liquor that's made with gluten grains, including vodka, whiskey, bourbon, and gin. Look for liquor that is distilled from something other than wheat, barley, or rye.
  • Most plain rum and tequilas are gluten-free. Top-shelf brands are more likely to be safe than cheaper options.
  • Hard cider is usually (but not always) gluten-free. Choose gluten-free-labeled ciders to be safe.
  • Mixed drinks are especially problematic because they often include gluten-containing ingredients. When in doubt, stick with mixers you know are gluten-free, such as gluten-free soda or fruit juice

Beer, Wine, Cider, and Sake

As someone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or as someone who's following a gluten-free diet for other health reasons), you need to steer clear of gluten in all forms.

Often, the first time this issue comes up is when someone offers you a beer. You may not be aware that the vast majority of beer is made from gluten grains—mainly barley but sometimes wheat and rye. Therefore, all conventional beer is off-limits.

Manufacturers in recent years have begun producing a wide variety of gluten-free beer.

These beers are made from gluten-free grains such as sorghum, millet, and rice. It's often possible to find Redbridge, a gluten-free beer made by top beer manufacturer Anheuser-Busch, in restaurants and bars (especially those that also feature a gluten-free menu). Other popular gluten-free beers include Bard's, New Grist, New Planet, and Greens.

So-called "gluten-removed" beers also are being marketed to those who are gluten-free and include brands such as Omission and Estrella Damm Daura. However, people following a gluten-free diet for health reasons should be wary of these "gluten-removed" beers. These are made from barley that's specially treated with an enzyme that breaks down—but does not actually remove—the gluten protein. Experts have questioned whether gluten testing on these beers is accurate and many people report bad reactions to them.

Beyond beer, plain wine is safe on a gluten-free diet. But if the wine you're considering drinking contains added flavorings, such as the fruit flavors and spices sometimes added to sweet dessert wines, you should be cautious and double-check the ingredients.

In addition, wine coolers often contain barley malt and are most definitely not gluten-free.

Hard ciders, such as ACE Cider, Crispin Cider, and Woodchuck Cider, are gluten-free. However, other beer alternatives, including malt beverages, hard lemonade, and energy drinks, contain barley malt and are not gluten-free.

Sake can be problematic. Even though it's made from rice (a gluten-free grain), it can contain traces of barley. Additionally, some manufacturers add a small amount of alcohol distilled from gluten grains to their sake recipes. If you want to try sake, go slowly, and look for one that's labeled junmai or junmai-shu, which means it's made from pure rice.

Rum and Tequila

Generally speaking, you can consume rum safely if you're following a gluten-free diet. In almost every instance, rum is gluten-free. The few exceptions to this rule include some flavored and spiced rums. If you enjoy flavored rums, you'll need to contact the manufacturer to determine if a particular product is gluten-free.

While pure rum is gluten-free, beware of pre-made mixes meant to be used with rum, such as those intended for piña coladas. Some of these contain gluten ingredients as flavoring. Again, contact the manufacturer if you're in doubt or make your own piña coladas from scratch using coconut cream and pineapple.

Tequila made in the traditional way, entirely from the blue agave plant, is naturally gluten-free. However, some cheaper brands are considered "mixto" or not entirely from the blue agave plant. There's a small possibility that these could contain gluten. You'll need to contact the manufacturer to ask.  "Mixto" tequila obtains at least 51 percent of its sugar from the blue agave plant, but can get the other 49 percent from other fructose and glucose sources. Whenever there are other sources involved, gluten can sometimes enter the picture.

Now, to be fair, it's very unlikely that a tequila manufacturer would use a gluten ingredient. But if you want to exercise an abundance of caution, stick with traditional, 100 percent blue agave tequila. Yes, it's more expensive, but it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your health. If the tequila bottle does not state "100 percent agave," then it's mixto. Mixto tequilas won't be labeled "mixto," they'll just say "tequila." There are many more mixto tequila brands on the shelves than 100 percent blue agave ones, so you should begin your search by looking at top-shelf tequilas.

Grain Alcohol

Lots of different types of hard liquor, including vodka, bourbon, gin, and whiskey, are made by distilling gluten grains.  Although many authorities contend that alcoholic beverage distillation removes all of the gluten protein molecules that are responsible for bad gluten reactions, you should be aware that some people do get sick from distilled gluten grain-based alcohol. Therefore, you should proceed with caution until you know whether or not you're among those who react.

Here's what the experts have to say about drinking alcohol distilled from gluten grains when you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity:

  • The National Institutes of Health's Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign makes a point of saying all distilled alcohol is gluten-free, regardless of its original source.
  • The Canadian Celiac Association concurs saying, in part, "distilled alcoholic beverages such as gin, vodka, scotch whisky, and rye whiskey are made from the fermentation of wheat, barley or rye. Since they are distilled, they do not contain prolamins [i.e., gluten proteins] and are allowed unless otherwise contraindicated."
  • The Celiac Sprue Association, meanwhile, recommends only potato-based vodka, rum, and tequila (all made from non-gluten grain sources) along with preservative- and dye-free wines and brandies and gluten-free beer.

Distilled Alcohol

In truth, no study has actually considered whether people with celiac and gluten sensitivity can safely enjoy alcoholic beverages distilled from gluten grains without damage. A few researchers have tested gin, whiskey, and gluten grain-based vodkas for gluten content with mixed results—some have found gluten in them, while some have not.

Theoretically, distillation (if it's done properly) should remove all gluten. But not all makers of alcoholic beverages distil enough times to purify their beverages completely. In addition, some add a little of the grain "mash" (which does contain gluten) after distillation to improve color and flavor. And there's always the possibility of cross contamination from gluten grains in the manufacturing facility.

Some experts also have speculated that tiny fragments of the gluten protein survive distillation—even when it's done properly—and that the immune systems of those who are especially sensitive to gluten can detect those fragments and react. It's also possible that there's something else in the grain—beyond the gluten protein—that survives distillation and causes a reaction in sensitive people.

Regardless of the expert opinions on the safety of gluten-grain-based alcohol products, many people have reported getting serious gluten symptoms after drinking them. Therefore, if you're newly diagnosed, you should proceed cautiously to determine if you can tolerate alcoholic drinks distilled from gluten grains. Don't drink very much initially and watch carefully for symptoms.

One symptom reported frequently is extremely fast intoxication and then a hangover that seems wildly out-of-proportion to the amount of alcohol you've consumed. In other words, if you get roaring drunk from one gluten grain-based drink and the next day have the worst hangover you can remember, you may not be able to tolerate gluten grain-based alcohol.

Alternatives to Gluten Grain-Based Alcohol

Again, gluten grains are most often used to produce vodka, whiskey, bourbon, rye, and gin. So you'll need to avoid drinks made with all of these liquors unless you know the liquor in question wasn't made from wheat, barley, or rye.  Fortunately, manufacturers have stepped up in recent years to offer a wide variety of alcohol—including vodka, whiskey, and gin—that isn't made from gluten grains:

  • Gluten-free vodka options made from potatoes, grapes, sugarcane, and corn. Popular brands include Chopin, Tito's, and Luksusowa.
  • Gin most often is made from a combination of ingredients, including gluten grains. Gluten-free options are difficult to find. Try searching for Cold River Gin, Monopolowa Dry Gin, or Schramm Organic Gin, all of which are made solely from potatoes.
  • Almost all whiskey is made from barley, but there is one brand that's made from sorghum in a gluten-free facility—Queen Jennie Whiskey from Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, Wis.
  • Bourbon is equally problematic for those who react to alcohol distilled from gluten grains. If you can find it, try Hudson Baby Bourbon which is made from 100 percent corn.

Mixed Drinks and Liqueurs

Unfortunately, many types of liqueur contain gluten grain-based alcohol, which means that many mixed drinks are off-limits unless you can find gluten-free alternatives.  In fact, most popular cordials and liqueurs, such as Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, are made with gluten ingredients and distilled grain alcohol made from wheat or barley. Coffee-flavored liqueur Kahlua contains grain-based alcohol, for example, and Baileys Original Irish Cream is made with Irish whiskey  which is distilled from barley and corn.

B&B liqueur is made from a combination of brandy and benedictine, which is barley-based whiskey with a blend of herbs and spices. Drambuie is made from gluten grain-based scotch whiskey plus honey. Even fruit-flavored liqueurs and other products often include "neutral" alcohol distilled from gluten grains (generally wheat).

Cointreau, an orange liqueur, is an exception to this rule. It's made by distilling orange peels. Grand Marnier, another orange-flavored liqueur that's crafted from brandy and cognac, is also a gluten-free liqueur alternative. Vodka-based cocktails may also be a safe bet since most bars feature at least one potato-based vodka. Just make sure that any mixers used are also gluten-free.

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