I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance in 2007, at the start of my formal wine and spirits education. Gluten is the name given to the composite proteins present in some of the world's most common grass-related grains—mainly wheat, rye and barley—and it's seemingly in everything. You develop it in bread to give it structure and spring, you suppress it in cakes to make them tender. And because of its elasticity, gluten is an especially pervasive ingredient in many processed foods and beverages. That got me thinking, if I gave up gluten what could I drink?
Whether you have a mild gluten allergy or live with the autoimmune disorder known as Celiac Disease, gluten-intolerance is a condition that can be managed but not cured with a gluten-free lifestyle. And there's a lot to give up when you're living gluten free. Fortunately, it turns out, you don't have to give up everything.
Naturally Gluten-Free Beverages
It was initially easy to identify the naturally gluten-free alcoholic beverages, which are those derived from sources other than grass grains. This group includes wine (made from fermented grape juice), cider (typically fermented apple or pear juice), sake (rice), rum (cane sugar), tequila (agave), etc.—the list goes on.
Beer is a different story. Most beer is produced from the brewing and fermenting of starches derived mainly from wheat and barley grains, and is therefore by definition not gluten-free. There are some exceptions, however. Beer can be produced from alternative grains like sorghum, corn and millet, and although the rise in demand for gluten-free products has resulted in a growing number of these beers, lets just say that on the merits of taste alone, they still have a way to go before making it to the beer section here at K&L. In Europe, there are a handful of brewers experimenting with and perfecting methods for making beer from de-glutenized barley, but these have yet to be imported to the western United States.
I had no idea how much I didn't know about the world of spirits until I began studying it, and moreso when I needed to learn what I could drink.
With some noteworthy outliers mentioned earlier in this article (tequila, rum, absinthe, etc) I was shocked to discover that the most widely produced and consumed spirits in the world are derived in part or entirely from a gluten-grain source (hence the term, "grain alcohol"). Vodka, so very un-glutenesque in its lightness and purity, typically starts out as mixture of gluten grains and other non-gluten starches, with only a handful of exceptions.* The whiskies of the world are distilled from fermented grain mash limited exclusively gluten-grains (barley, wheat, and rye) and corn. I was wrong about gin, too. It is not made from juniper berries, but rather is traditionally a neutral grain spirit infused with the flavor of juniper berries and other botanicals, depending on style. Like vodka, there are some exceptions, but these are rare and typically not available at the average bar or liquor store.**
Beer I could handle. But spirits? Cocktails?
With vigor fueled by desperation, I turned to the internet. I rembered Shauna James Ahern's award-winning blog, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, which I had discovered when looking for gluten-free recipes. Maybe Shauna knew something I didn't?
Fortunately, she did. Just typing the word "alcohol" in her blog search window took me directly to good news: the world's authorities on Celiac disease recently verifed that distillation removes the gluten protein—my elation mimicked hers: sheer celebration.
Life with booze, as it was, resumed.
Summing It Up: Anything Alcoholic but Beer
In short, that's what you can drink if you're gluten-free: Anything alcoholic but beer. This includes, but is not limited to, wine and all its derivatives (sweet wines, fortified wines, grappa, cognac, and other eau de vie), ciders (made from apple, pear, and other fruits), all-natural fruit-based liqueurs, rice-based spirits like sake and soju, and any distilled spirit, be it from a grass-grain or other source, such as whisk(e)y, vodka, gin, rum, and tequila. The only big exlusion is beer, followed by generally low-quality caramel or chocolate-infused dessert drinks where gluten may be added as a part of a thickening or sweetening agent.
Disclaimers, Links and References
While any product labelled as gluten-free must be certified according to strict health standards, not all gluten-free products are certified or labelled as such, especially in the category of alcoholic beverages, where ingredients are not as yet required by law to be listed on packaging. As with any food or beverage, it is ulitmately your responsibility as a consumer to determine if the product you intend to consume carries any risk to your health.
Safe Gluten-Free Food List on Celiac.com
American Dietetic Association standards for gluten-free foods (as reported on celiac.com, 12/10/2000)
*Exceptions include Karlsson's Gold Vodka (100% potato), Blue Ice Idaho Potato Vodka (100% potato) and local SF Bay Area's Treasure Island Distillery's China Beach Vodka (100% grape) and Baker Beach Vodka (100% corn)
**Treasure Island Distillery's Ocean Beach Gin is a worthy exception to grain-based gin, made from 100% sugar cane.
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