Is whiskey gluten free? This is a common question in my practice as people begin to review the list of foods that are and are not gluten free. It is understandable— I can remember the overwhelm when I first had to go gluten free as I tried to navigate the grocery store (It's why I created this Gluten Free Guide).
The intention of this blog has always been to educate and empower. I try to publish articles on my blog that answer common questions I hear from people. Not being a liquor expert, I asked Cassandra to write an answer to this common question for me. Cassandra has years of training and experience in the food industry and is a restaurant consultant. During a recent discussion with her that she enlightened me on the entire process of making whiskey. I immediately asked her if she would share that information with you.
Even if you do not drink alcohol, there is a lot of interesting information here regarding the process and the laws that apply to labeling (in your favor).
Dr. Jolene Brighten
Is Whiskey Gluten Free?
Despite whiskey stemming from wheat, barley, or rye, the distilling process is actually able to eradicate the proteins of gluten.
While it remains true that alcohol is not a health food, social drinking is something that many of us choose to keep in our lives. Whiskey is one of my favorite spirits, and after years in the restaurant and bar industry, I’ve learned that every bottle, label, and distillery is unique and having more information about each type could save from feeling terrible the next day. Being conscious about the products you are putting into your body is the first step to mindful eating, and in this case, drinking!
A few weeks ago while I was at a meeting with a client at his bar, we got to chatting about his weekend and how he had the worst hangover ever. Among non-industry folks, recounting your laundry list of last night’s bad decisions is all about the numbers: 1 shot of whiskey, 2 beers, 3 glasses of champagne, etc. etc.
Being spirit-savvy, he described the types of drinks and whiskeys— a Sazarac, a Manhattan. He only had a couple drinks, with food, over many hours, so why was his hangover so bad? One thing was clear: sugar. While these drinks are pretty boozy, they all have sweeteners in the form of simple sugar or sweet vermouth, in some cases an entire cube (or three) of sugar. (Let’s not forget, alcohol itself has a lot of sugar.)
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Also, I saw a big red flag when all the cocktails he was telling me about had one thing in common: RYE. Unless you specify a particular whiskey, these classic cocktails are made with Rye. If you have celiac disease, or if you are gluten intolerant or sensitive, this could cause you a whole lot of problems.
Working in a whiskey bar, my customers would frequently order trendy brand name whiskeys thinking they had it all figured out. Most bars or restaurants serve only one kind of whiskey from that brand, but when I would respond by asking, “Which one? Bourbon, rye, barrel proof, single barrel, small batch, reserve?” reactions were always of surprise, shock, or confusion. How are there so many types of whiskey? What’s the difference?
For people with gluten sensitivity, the biggest question is “Which whiskey has the least amount of wheat?”
Top 3 Factors that Determine Gluten Content
- Type of grain
- Number of distillations
- Shape of the vessel
Knowing the basics about how whiskey is made, will help you understand how each of these 3 variables plays a role in the amount of gluten that may be present.
First, a combination of wheat, corn, rye, and barley is ground and mixed with high quality water to make a mash. Sometimes these grains are allowed to sprout, then dried, which is part of the malting process. These grains contain starches which need to be converted into soluble sugars to make alcohol.
The mash is mixed and sifted to make a type of slurry called wort. The wort is then mixed with strains of yeast specifically chosen for the distillery’s desired flavor profile, which convert the sugars to alcohol. The fermented mixture, called wash, is much like beer (around 5-10% alcohol) but instead of being brewed it is distilled.
The distillation process heats the wash to the point of vapor, which rises, hits the neck of the pot-still, which condenses the liquid as it cools, leaving the impurities at the bottom of the copper container.
Believe it or not, the height and shape of each pot-still can change the final product. Taller stills with longer necks will give finer, lighter spirits while shorter, fatter stills will produce a fuller, richer spirit.
The result of the first distillation is clear, and strong, and it will be re-distilled one or two more times to filter out more impurities. The peak of distillation produces an alcohol with a strength of about 65-70% ABV. This is what will be barreled and aged to make the final product.
Bourbon vs Rye
The great part about alcohol being so highly regulated is that branding your label with certain words means that you must abide by the regulations for that type of liquor.
Bourbon is made from 51% corn, whereas the American Rye must be made from a mash containing a minimum of 51% rye grain. Legally.
Bourbon standards insist all coloring and flavors come from the charred American oak barrels, and artificial ingredients are strictly prohibited. Lower quality and blended whiskeys can contain these additives, even if it is sold at a premium price!
If you’re avoiding gluten you’ll want to steer clear of lower quality products will pour back some of the wash or blend with other whiskeys to get a more consistent color or flavor from batch to batch.
In theory, the distillation process removes a majority, if not all, of the gluten, but if you are highly sensitive it is best to steer clear of most brown spirits. There are plenty of agave, potato, or grape based spirits that won’t leave you guessing about what’s in the bottle.
Decoding Label Key Words:
On American labels: Bourbon, Rye, and Blended are keywords to look for! (Truth: In Canada you can put Rye on the label without ever having rye in the recipe.)
Malted: Grains were germinated/sprouting when mash was made. The germination has to be stopped by drying it in a kiln either with heat, smoke, or in Scotch, peat smoke, which can impact the flavor of the final product.
Blended: The product of blending different types of whiskeys and sometimes neutral grain spirits, coloring, and flavorings.
Rye: At least 51% rye grain.
Bourbon: At least 51% corn based, high quality standards, no added colors or flavors.
Here’s a few things to consider before purchasing whiskey:
- Before investing on a nice bottle, try a drink at the bar and see how you feel.
- Choose the highest quality spirit; it doesn’t always mean the most expensive or the most trendy.
- Look for keywords on labels and read the fine print to see if it contains any additives or is blended with grain spirits.
- Lighter golden brown whiskeys tend to be younger with brighter flavors, while dark colored whiskey could mean it’s aged longer, has a richer flavor from the charred barrels, or that there is added caramel coloring.
Remember these 5 when choosing cocktails:
CLASSIC: Request that classic whiskey cocktails be made with the whiskey of your choice. Remember, “well” will be the lowest quality whiskey (read: high probability of gluten contamination).
SUGAR: Ask if it is possible to have half the amount of sugar/simple syrup added or substitute honey. It is possible in most instances and your server should you know if that's not the case.
SIMPLE: Choose drinks with the fewest ingredients, ask if they use bottled or fresh juices and sour mix. You can always opt for just some soda water (aka whiskey soda).
NEAT: Drink it on the rocks.
PERFECT: If you like Manhattans, ask for a “perfect,” mixed with half sweet and half dry vermouth.
In the interest of being completely responsible: Alcohol isn’t a big contributor to your health, but we live in a world where it can be found at nearly every gathering or celebration. If you have health issues or have trouble controlling your intake when you drink, you should probably stick to the sparkling apple cider. If you do partake in the occasional drink and you like whiskey, or are tempted to learn more about it, this article is for you!
About the Author:
Cassandra has a diverse professional background ranging from Certified Massage Therapist to Jazz Club Manager. The California native has a passion for food, cocktails (especially whiskey!) , and loves to explore other cultures through food and music. She has traveled to 4 continents, lived in France for 3 years, and South America is next on her travel list. She studied massage at Hirudaya Holistic Life Center in San Luis Obispo, CA and finished her B.A. At San Francisco State University. Currently grounded in Portland, Oregon with her husband she rounds out her days by cooking and developing recipes. She also works consulting for bars and restaurants, selecting wines and developing training materials. You can find some of her recipes on her blog or Instagram
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