Celiac’s Guide to Gluten-Free Alcoholic Beverages
Whether you have celiac disease or other form of gluten intolerance or you are on a gluten-free diet for any other reason, you may sometimes want to have a social drink but feel uncertain about potential traces of gluten in some alcoholic beverages. Although the occasional drink will not worsen your gluten sensitivity, you still need to know exactly which alcoholic beverages are gluten-free and, therefore, safe for you to drink.
In general, most spirits (especially white distilled alcohol) and wines are safe because they are not made from either barley, wheat or rye (i.e., grains that contain gluten). However, it is obvious that beer, which is usually made from barley, is a bad choice for somebody on a gluten-free diet. But there are exceptions to this general rule. For example, some beers are also made from grains that naturally do not contain gluten whereas some brown spirits, such as whiskey, do contain traces of gluten from syrup that is added after distillation for color and flavoring.
Which Beers Are Gluten Free?
All regular beers, including ales, lagers, stouts, porters, malts and bitters, are made from grains, typically barley. Some beers, however, such as Weizenbier, are made from wheat whereas some others also use rye, rice, corn, sorghum, millet or buckwheat. Out of these cereals, rice, corn, sorghum, millet and buckwheat are naturally free of gluten but they are in a small minority when it comes to total volumes of the beer produced. Therefore, most beers you find on supermarket shelves or in a pub are not gluten-free.
For a beer to be gluten-free, it either has to be made from gluten-free grains such as corn, rice, sorghum, millet or buckwheat, which alter its taste, or, if made from barley, wheat or rye, it has to be designed specifically to be gluten-free (contain less than 20ppm of gluten, meaning 20 molecules of gluten per one million molecules of drink). This can only be achieved through special extraction and filtering processes and should not affect the taste of the beer. Good examples of barley-based beers for celiacs are Omission and Greens. However, these beers may still contain tiny traces of gluten (but in non-detectable amounts), which might be potentially harmful to very sensitive people (though this is not actually known as current studies are inconclusive). At the end of the day, it is up to the patient to decide whether beers made from barley labelled “processed to remove gluten” are safe for them to drink.
Hence, the only bullet-proof method of producing absolutely gluten-free beers is to use gluten-free cereals. Those who have been living with gluten intolerance throughout their entire lives will not know they taste a little bit different than regular beers. However, make sure that these beers are labeled “gluten-free”. Remember that for a beer to be truly gluten-free, it must be produced from gluten-free grains in a dedicated facility, i.e., in a brewery that does not produce standard beers to prevent cross-contamination.
However, the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law first adopted in 1516, defines beer as an alcoholic drink made of barley, water and hops (it does not even mention brewers yeast). Hence, orthodox beer drinkers will object that beer made from grass or grains other than barley is not a beer and should not be marketed as such. But, if you really want to give gluten-free beer a try, here is a good review.
Is Cider Gluten Free?
Cider is brewed from fruits (e.g., apples, pears) which do not contain gluten and is, therefore, considered gluten-free. Although there are some brands that are specifically labeled “gluten-free”, most are not, but still, hard ciders offer a great alternative to beer for patients with gluten sensitivity. The only possible risk of cider being contaminated with gluten is for brands with added barley or those that are produced in the same facility as regular beers.
Which Spirits Are Gluten Free?
Distilled beverages, such as calvados, brandy, grappa, rum or tequila, are made from ingredients that naturally do not contain gluten. Thus, they are considered safe for people with celiac disease. However, vodka, bourbon and whiskey are distilled from fermented grain mash containing gluten. It is debatable whether tiny traces of gluten are remaining in these beverages after distillation. Technically, there should not be any because gluten has a much higher boiling point than alcohol or water, so it is left behind. But, there still is a small risk of cross-contamination after distillation. When it comes to bourbon and whiskey, however, gluten can be introduced after the distillation process (e.g., as a barley malt) to improve taste, color and flavor. Therefore, bourbon and whiskey are generally not considered to be gluten-free. As for vodka, it can be regarded as a gluten-free alcoholic beverage but with a certain degree of risk of cross-contamination from grains stored in the same facility. Hence, if you want to play it safe, better avoid vodka.
Some spirits, such as gin or absinthe, are made from distilled alcohol and herbal additives. Whether they can contain traces of gluten depends on the type of alcohol used. Like vodka, they are in principle gluten-free but can be cross-contaminated if grain-based alcohol was used.
Are All Wines Gluten Free?
Like cider, wine is a gluten-free alcoholic drink because it is made from fruit – grapes – which are naturally free of gluten. However, in very rare instances, some wines can contain tiny traces of gluten. Wines that age in oak barrels can be contaminated with gluten from flour paste used to seal the barrels. In addition, gluten can be added as a fining agent to clarify wines, though it rarely is. In both instances, the amount of gluten is likely to stay below the allowable threshold of 20ppm. In general, the risk of gluten contamination is higher for traditionally produced European wines than wines from the US, Australia or South America. Therefore, although most wines are not labeled “gluten-free”, they can be regarded as a safe alcoholic beverage for people with gluten sensitivity.
Fortified wines, such as port, sherry or vermouth (martini), are also gluten-free because distilled alcohol that is added to fortify them is made from grapes.
Are Liqueurs Gluten Free?
Liqueurs (flavored spirits) are generally not considered to be suitable for people with gluten intolerance. They are typically a mix of many different ingredients – distilled alcohol and sweeteners, colorants and flavorings. Since it is impossible to determine the origins of these ingredients (some of them are proprietary and, therefore, difficult to identify clearly), you are advised to avoid drinking liqueurs.
Summary: The Worst and the Best Alcoholic Drinks for Celiacs
So, if you are a celiac standing at a bar not sure what to order, avoid beer, bourbon, whiskey and sweet liqueurs and rather have a glass of wine or cider (one that does not contain barley), or a shot of brandy, ouzo, rum, tequila or any white spirit other than vodka and gin. This advice is consistent with the recommendation of the Celiac Support Association to only drink alcoholic beverages that are made from gluten-free ingredients. If you like mixing alcohol with carbonated beverages, here is a review of gluten-free soft-drinks. Also, remember that heavy alcohol consumption can, just like celiac disease, cause damage to the lining of the small intestine and thus add to the gluten intolerance problem.