You have celiac disease and you want to know what you can drink.
It's a question that comes up a lot and there are some simple answers and some very complicated ones. Let's explore.
Yes, we're starting with the hardest, and most controversial one first.
Most whiskey is made from barley, which is a gluten grain. Scotch and Irish whiskeys are two examples.
Most Canadian whiskeys are made from rye, which is a gluten grain, or a blend of rye, barley and corn. Canadian Club and Crown Royal are examples.1
Bourbon must be at least 51% corn but may contain rye, wheat or barley. A few bourbons like Hudson Baby and Yellow Rose are made from 100% corn mash.2
So is whiskey gluten free?
The Canadian Celiac Association (Celiac Canada) and most every other expert resource says that all distilled spirits are gluten free, even if made from gluten containing grains.3
This is because the gluten molecule cannot vaporize, so it cannot be carried forward in the distillation process. For this reason, most people with celiac can safely drink distilled alcohol.
Before you try a new brand, always double check.
The internet will tell you that some manufacturers add undistilled mash back into the product or they'll add other flavorings that may not be gluten free. This may be true, and "always check" is good advice, but I decided to go looking for a whiskey manufacturer that does this.
I looked at many whiskeys including: Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Jim Beam, Bird Dog, Kings County, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey and a few others. I didn't find a single one that states they add mash back into the product.
All of the above brands have flavored offerings but I couldn't find any gluten containing flavorings. I saw lots of fruits, botanicals, spices and citrus flavorings but nothing with gluten.
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A cautionary note I often see is that whiskey manufacturers add caramel to the finished product for color and flavor and it may contain gluten. In North America caramel is usually made with corn and is safe for celiacs. If a gluten grain is used it must be on the label.4
Whiskeys that are made with gluten grains are obviously made in a facility where gluten may be present. This does create the possibility of cross contamination but I would say it's pretty low. These are huge facilities and follow very stringent hygiene practices. Considering so many celiacs safely consume whiskey, I would not worry too much about this.
So is it a myth that distillers add contaminants after distillation? I wouldn't go that far. It's always wise to check. But I do think it's a risk that's overstated since I could not find one example.
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 with a splitting headache, stiff neck, lethargy, brain fog, sore back and feeling like my insides were swollen and trying to escape my body. These for me are the typical symptoms of a glutening.
This particular gluten disaster had to do with gin. Dillon’s Rose Gin specifically. It’s a lovely aromatic sipping liqueur with the smell of rose petals and a bit of a peppery finish. Most gin is vodka infused with juniper berries, but this one uses rye whiskey as it's base.
This mini disaster caused me to do some more research. Turns out it's common for people with celiac to react to spirits distilled from gluten grains.5 I've not found a good explanation as to why. Some sources point to cross contamination, some to flavors or mash added back to the product. Some suggest that fragments of gluten peptides may in fact carry over causing some very sensitive people to react.
My best advice is listen to your body.
The experts all say it's fine, with the possible exception of flavored whiskeys. Your experience may tell you differently and lot's of people will agree with you. If you take a few sips of something and it doesn't feel right, set it aside.
If you're new to gluten free, perhaps take it slow. If you have no reaction then you're good to go. If you don't feel great then opt for spirits made with non-gluten grains.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you a few to try.
The answer is the same for vodka as for whiskey. Vodka is a distilled spirit and gluten does not come across in the distillation process. Yet many people, myself included, react to vodka made from gluten grains.
Wait, isn't vodka made from potatoes?
I thought so too, until I started looking into it. Some vodkas, especially Russian vodkas are made from potatoes, but many are made from wheat and corn.6
I've seen this all over the internet. Choose a triple distilled vodka to ensure that it's pure and there is no cross contamination. You can try this, but it doesn't work for me. Grey Goose for example is made from wheat, triple distilled, and I react.
If you're avoiding vodka made from wheat then look for varieties made from corn or potatoes. This is not an exhaustive list but will give you a few for you to try. Most are Canadian. I included Smirnoff, not because it's particularly great tasting or Canadian, but because it's very common, inexpensive, and safe for celiacs.
Gin is made from a neutral alcohol spirit that is infused with juniper berries and often other botanicals.7 This means that all gin, since it's distilled, is gluten free.
However, if you find you react to spirits made from gluten grains like whiskey's made from barley or rye, or vodka made from wheat, then you may want to choose a gin made from a corn base.
The following gins are made from corn. Most are American as corn is abundant in America. The last one on the list is Canadian.
Rum is made from sugar cane and is naturally gluten free.8
Tequila is made from agave and is naturally gluten free.9
Some whiskeys, vodkas and gins are made from gluten free grains or potatoes and are naturally gluten free. Those are discussed above.
Brandy is made from grapes and is naturally gluten free.11
Beer is usually made from barley and is NOT gluten free but there are some beers made from other grains like sorghum and millet.13 Those are naturally gluten free. For more on gluten free beer go here.
The pressure is on when the server is standing there asking for your order and you're not sure what you can have. You'll get familiar with what's available and this will get easier. In the meantime here are a few suggestions:
Be as vigilant with your drinks as you are with your food. Ask questions about the brands. Once your drink is delivered, double check that it's right. I've had rye and coke delivered to me many times when I ordered rum and coke.
1. Leigh, E. (2019, December 10). What is whisky made from? the three main ingredients. TopWhiskies. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://topwhiskies.com/blogs/whisky-blog/whiskey-made-from-three-ingredients#:~:text=Whiskey%20is%20made%20of%20a,steps%20are%20generally%20the%20same.
2. SEO, H. (2023, February 28). What makes bourbon, bourbon? New Riff. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.newriffdistilling.com/what-makes-bourbon-bourbon/#:~:text=For%20a%20whiskey%20to%20be,or%20wheat%2C%20and%20malted%20barley.
3. Canadian Celiac Association. (2021, December 22). Alcohol labelling in Canada. Canadian Celiac Association. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.celiac.ca/food-labelling/alcohol-labelling-in-canada/
4, Is caramel color gluten-free? Beyond Celiac. (2020, August 17). Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.beyondceliac.org/gluten-free-diet/is-it-gluten-free/caramel-color/#:~:text=Yes%2C%20caramel%20color%20in%20North,labels%20just%20to%20be%20sure.
5. Anderson, J. (2020, July 9). What you should know about whiskey if you're gluten free. Verywell Fit. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.verywellfit.com/will-whiskey-make-me-sick-if-im-gluten-free-562778
6, Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 28). Vodka. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vodka
7, What spirit is gin made from? Exeter Gin. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://exetergin.com/blogs/news/what-spirit-is-gin-made-from#:~:text=As%20well%20as%20grain%20based,taste%20of%20the%20overall%20Gin.
8. All about scotch. All About Rum. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.abcfws.com/about-rum#:~:text=How%20is%20rum%20made%3F,casks%20or%20stainless%20steel%20tanks.
9. Industry, Overproof, & Business. (2023, February 21). Tequila production: Step by step guide. Overproof. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://overproof.com/2022/06/07/tequila-production-process/#:~:text=What%20are%20the%20steps%20to,at%20least%2014%2D21%20days.
10, Wine making process: How to make wine: Wine of the month club. The International Wine of the Month Club. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.winemonthclub.com/the-wine-making-process#:~:text=There%20are%20five%20basic%20stages,and%20variations%20along%20the%20way.
11. How brandy is made: Ingredients & production. ARK Behavioral Health. (2022, August 22). Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.arkbh.com/alcohol/types/liquor/brandy/#:~:text=Brandy%20can%20be%20produced%20in,several%20years%20before%20being%20bottled.
12. Kelly, J. S., & May 4, 2017. (2017, May 4). Course teaches hard cider production, from fruit to fermentation. Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2017/05/course-teaches-hard-cider-production-fruit-fermentation#:~:text=Like%20wine%2C%20cider%20is%20made,ignored%20as%20a%20serious%20beverage.
13. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2023, February 22). Beer. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/beer
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