Gluten Free Alcoholic Beverages

The internet is a great source of information and you can quickly look up any brand on your phone.  By all means do that.  I'm going to try not to duplicate here what you can easily find elsewhere and I see no need to try to make an exhaustive list of gluten free alcoholic beverages.  Instead let's have a discussion about approach and I'll provide some links to material that's already out there.


"I've recently been diagnosed with celiac disease, I'm going out with friends, what can I drink?"

On every gluten free forum I've visited over the years, someone eventually asks this question.  And every time I visit someone's house for the first time I hear "what can you drink?"  After all, we all still want to have a good time and share a beverage or two with our pals, but we need to be smart and safe.  The good news is, there is lots to choose from and most of what you can have is readily available.  The bad news is, depending on what you like, you may have to give up some favourites.  The other bad news is, like everything else in our celiac world, the gluten hides where you might least expect it and mistakes can make you wish you were only hung over like the rest of the people from last nights party.

So let's treat this like an adventure. 
Get educated and set off in search of new favourites... 

The very first and most important piece of advice I want to give you is one that I've had to learn the hard way.  Listen to your body.  There is a lot of conflicting information out there about celiac disease and what's safe and the world of gluten free alcoholic beverages is no exception.  Do your research, but if you have a few sips and something seems off, just set it aside and try something else.

The second key piece of advice is; be as vigilant about your drinks as you are about your food.  If you're out at a bar or restaurant and order a mixed drink try to watch them make if you can.  If that's not possible then be clear about your needs and ask again when your drink is delivered.  "This is rum, not rye correct?"  "This is the Polar Ice vodka not the Grey Goose right?"  "You remembered to leave the Worcestershire out of my Caesar yes?"  Mistakes happen and in the busy atmosphere of a bar or night club it can be even more hazardous. I don't know how many times I've had to send a drink back because I got the wrong thing.  And after you've had a few yourself it can be harder to taste the difference.

Gluten Free Beer

Safe / Not Safe

Not Safe! (Mainstream Brands)

First up, all mainstream beers are simply off the table. Period. Beer is made from barley, barley is a gluten grain and it is not safe.

I've had people try to convince me that certain brands like Bud Light are safe because they are made from rice.  This is simply nonsense.  The manufacturer Anheuser-Busch has confirmed that rice is one of the ingredients in Bud Light along with barley.  It's not safe.

I've also had people try to convince me that Light Beers in general are safe.  This is also not true.  Beer, unless it's specifically a gluten free beer made from a gluten free grain, is made from barley.  Light beers are diluted and some will argue that they are less than the 20ppm that's considered safe for a celiac sufferer.  Some people with celiac will report not reacting to some light beers. I'll leave it up to you, but this is not even a matter of cross contamination.   This product is made with a gluten containing grain. It does not go through any gluten removal process and is not certified gluten free.  If you are following a gluten-free diet for another reason you may wish to try light beer, but if you have celiac disease I really don't think it's wise.  Is it worth the damage you may be doing to yourself?

I'm sorry, that all sounded a bit preachy.  I'll get off the soapbox now and we'll look at gluten free beer.

Safe 

There are basically two ways to make a gluten free beer.  Either make it with a gluten free grain such as sorghum or rice, or make it with a gluten grain like barley then put it through a complex process to remove the gluten or reduce it to less than 20 ppm. It's up to you to decide how you feel about the gluten removal idea.  To be honest I'm not really sure how I feel about it.

Regarding beer made with gluten free grains, I've sampled a number of them and unfortunately the ones I've tried are just a bit too bitter for my taste.  I invite you to experiment on your own and see if there is something out there that appeals to you and if you find something I'd love to hear about it.  Just leave a comment below.  To get you started, here is a list of the five most popular gluten free beers available in North America and another more extensive list that includes craft beers.  Some are made with gluten free grains and some are "gluten removed".  I notice Coors has one so if you are a Coors fan you might like to check that out. Enjoy your trip through the list and let me know how you make out.  In fact, after perusing the list I may give gluten free beer another chance and try a few more myself.  For folks in Ontario, here's a link to the Beer Store's gluten free beer list and here is the one for the LCBO.

I like to travel and check out the gluten free fare in the various places I visit.  I found a gluten free beer in Ireland that I quite liked.  It's called Hufi and it's made by Molloy's in Dublin.  Ireland is a bit of a celiac's paradise as they have the highest number of people with celiac disease per capita in the world.  Hufi's is a gluten removed beer.  I tried it before I was aware of the different processes.  The taste is quite good and I felt fine afterward.  I looked it up when I got home but alas, you can't get it here. Here's a link to the Molloy's site.  It talks a bit about the background of how they got into gluten free beer and if you're interested in the process, it's outlined there as well.  

Gluten Free Cider

A little nugget I discovered in an Irish pub in Bordeaux, France (I know right) and I have to admit it's become a bit of a habit, is cider.  It started one evening in said Irish Pub when I was lamenting the absence of beer in my life that the bartender, in his adorable Irish lilt recommended a Magners.  It was on tap and had that slightly dry, slightly bitter, kind of yeasty snap similar to beer.  I was hooked.  Since coming home I've tried several others and cider has become my go to drink when I'm looking for something not too sweet.

Gluten free cider is a great alternative to beer. It's refreshing as is or over ice.  Some are a little dry and slightly bitter giving you that "beery" taste and others are sweeter, more like a cooler.  The rising popularity of ciders has inspired some the of major beer companies to add gluten free cider to their repertoires.  If it's a beer substitute you're looking for you may want to check out the offerings from Molson/Coors, or Alexander Keith's.  I've not personally tried the Molson one.  I've emailed them to confirm if it is gluten free and will update this post if and when I get an answer.  Keith's cider is gluten free but I've found it quite acidic and it gives me heartburn.  

Cider in general is made with apples, or other fruits and that makes them naturally gluten free.  In fact most ciders on the market today are certified gluten free.  There are however a few exceptions so I suggest a quick google search any time you encounter a new brand just to be sure.  The exception comes from the yeast that's used to ferment the fruit may not always be gluten free.


If you like to eat and drink local and you live in Ontario you're in luck.  Ontario is home to a wide variety of cider suitable apples and other fruits.  Here are a couple of my fav's that I highly recommend you give a shot:

The first and most commercial is Grower's Cider.  It's available at the LCBO and some wine stores and is actually my current fav.  They have a traditional apple cider plus pear and stone fruit options.  The real diamond though, at least IMO is the Grower's Rose Cider.  It's cider with a splash of wine.  A little lighter than a plain cider and makes a lovely thirst-quenching summer drink.


The second is a relatively  recent find.  I've long been a fan of Kawartha Winery.  Right in the heart of the Kawartha's near Buckhorn, this quaint little shop / winery has been making fun and innovative fruit wines for quite some time.  It's a go to stop whenever we make the trek up to cottage country.  Recently they've climbed onto the cider bandwagon and have come up with quite an impressive array. Drop in if you're in the neighbourhood and they'll treat you to a tasting.  I'll just warn you that you might find a few bottles follow you home, or even a case.  Although that's never happened to me ;)

Gluten Free Wine

“If we sip the wine, we find dreams coming upon us out of the imminent night”
D. H. Lawrence

Wine is made from grapes and grapes are gluten free.  Simple right?

Well yes... and no... but mostly yes

The Facts:

There are two potential places in the wine making process for gluten to sneek in: fining and aging.

Fining:  Fining is the process of adding a fining agent to the wine to bind to larger unwanted particles and help them to precipitate to the bottom and be filtered out.  Most common fining agents are isinglass (obtained from fish), bentonite clay or egg whites.  Some years ago, gluten was investigated as a fining agent.  I've not been able to find any examples of it actually being used in the fining process.I've seen a number of sources and caution about fining agents, but I suspect that it's a case of broken telephone.  Someone found out that gluten was being studied, assumed it was being used and then multiple sources started quoting that as fact.

Aging:  Some wines, mostly reds but also chardonnay, are aged in oak barrels.  Sometimes wheat paste is used as a sealer for the barrels although most use waxes and paraffins.  If a wheat paste is used, the barrel is washed, scrapped and sanitized so that it's unlikely any traceable amounts of gluten would come through to the final product. 2

Bottom Line:  Wine in general is safe.  The exceptions are few and far between.  I rarely even check specific brands anymore and I'm pretty diligent about my gluten sleuthing.  

Personal Experience:

I noticed a long time ago that red wine causes me trouble.  I get terrible headaches that mimic a collosal hangover after just one or two glasses.  As a result I tend to avoid red wine, which is really kind of tragic.  I get a similar reaction to Chardonnay with the additional pleasure of severe acid reflux. 

The common denominator between many red wines and Chardonnay is the oak.  That leads me back to wondering if the gluten in the oak barrel concern might be work taking seriously.  Yet I'm fairly certain it's not a gluten reaction as I know what that feels like and this is quite different.

It's been suggested to me that tannins in wine may be the culprit.  Tannins come from contact with the skin so are more prevalent in red wine.  They also come from contact with oak, which may explain the Chardonnay affect. However I have no issue with tea or coffee and they both contain tannins.  So it's a bit of a mystery.  If you have any ideas or a similar experience I'd love to hear from you.  

Gluten Free Spirits

The Facts:

The Canadian Celiac Association lists distilled alcoholic beverages on it's list of allowed items.  The protein is too large to make it through the distillation process.

Personal Experience:

A couple of Christmas's ago I had an experience of getting educated, the hard way.


I’d been living gluten free for about six years and had done tons of research. The last thing I expected was to spend the day after Christmas in bed having been flattened by my own ignorance. On top of the splitting headache, the stiff neck, lethargy, brain fog, sore back and feeling like my insides are swollen and trying to escape my body, I was embarrassed and angry... at myself.


I’ve been asked many times if I can have hard liquor or spirits and the short answer is yes. Gluten is not carried over in the distillation process. That said, I knew I had some issues with rye whiskey so I just avoid it. The Christmas hard knock I got had to do with gin. Dillon’s rose gin specifically. It’s a lovely aromatic sipping liqueur with the smell of rose petals and just a bit of a peppery finish. I’d had gin before. The white kind that makes a refreshing summer cocktail mixed with tonic or lemonade, and was just fine. And I had thought that gin was vodka based, infused with juniper berries. Vodka is safe so why not. Well, turns out that gin has a much broader pedigree and can be made with any spirit as it’s base. This particular one is rye. I’d had it a couple of times before, and thinking back, didn’t feel great at the end of those evenings, but I never connected it to the gin. It was at the end of a night with food and several drinks so I just thought I was feeling crappy from drinking too much. Well this time there is no mistake. I felt fine until I had a few sips from the bottle of a thoughtful and generous Christmas gift from a friend and just got slammed. 

This mini disaster caused me to do some more research.  I don't think I can put it better than this article from VeryWellFit.

So the moral of the story is you can always learn something new. 

Gluten Free Cocktails and Coolers

Here's where things get a little complicated as the number of cocktails availble are about equal to the stars in the sky.  Like any food you consume, you need to know what's in it.  Coolers are in effect, premade cocktails or mixed drinks, so you need to know what's in them too.

I don't think it's helpful to try to give you an exhaustive list of gluten free coolers as new ones are coming out all the time so it would be impossible to keep current.  Also, like with any other product, ingredients can change without notice so you should always check.  But I can give you some things to watch for and a few examples. 

Things to watch for:

Beer - Shandy's and Red Eyes are the classic example.  While researching for this article I came across several new beer cocktails that sound refreshing and delightful.  I'm a bit jealous that I can't have these.  Maybe it's another excuse to give gluten free beer another try. For more on gluten free beer click here.

Worcestershire Sauce in a Caesar - this takes premade, or bar made Caesar's off the list, but if you make your own you can use gluten free Worcestershire.

Malt which is made from barley - this applies to premade cocktails or coolers.  Many do contain malt so check out the ingredients. In Canada Smirnoff Ice is gluten free.  Mike's Hard Lemonade is a bit controversial as it contains malt but their special filtration process takes the finished product to below 5ppm which is considered safe.  I drink Mike's with no issue. 

Cider has it's own post here -  Growers has a Rose cooler made from cider and wine which is a new favourite for me. 

Spirits that cause you issues - although distilled spirits are considered gluten free, that too is a bit controversial.  Click here for more. 

Sources:

1 Wheat Gluten Used As a Clarifying Agent Of Red Wines

Richard Marchal-L Marchal-Delahaut-A Lallement-P Jeandet - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11754564

2 Gluten (from Wheat Paste) in Oak Barrels

https://www.guildsomm.com/4cb697f52c/discussion_forums/f/general-discussion/13329/gluten-from-wheat-paste-in-oak-barrels

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