There are plenty of places to find gluten at a bar — it’s in most beers, bowls of snack mix and even your Bloody Mary, depending on which brand of Worcestershire sauce is used. Where won’t you find it? In distilled spirits. Probably.
For those of you seeking a definitive answer because you — like me — are gluten-free, I apologize for waffling. For the skeptics out there rolling their eyes because of course distilled spirits are gluten-free, bear with me.
Here’s the deal. For those with celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine) or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (a condition that triggers a long list of ailments), gluten is scary. Avoiding it is the only treatment.
That means giving up foods like bread and pasta that are obviously made from wheat, rye, barley and other gluten-containing grains. But highly sensitive people also worry about gluten in unexpected places, like processed meats, licorice and French fries dunked in the same oil as a restaurant’s breaded appetizers. Not because they’re trying to be trendy, but because, for some folks, even a scrap of gluten causes gut-twisting symptoms.
So it makes sense that those consigned to gluten-free living might worry that it’s lurking in their favorite cocktail. Rye, wheat and barley are all essential ingredients in most whiskeys, as well as gin, vodka and other spirits. Because those grains all contain gluten, couldn’t drinking spirits made from them be risky?
No, industry experts say. After all, distilling is simple science. Water, grain and yeast are combined and allowed to ferment. The mixture is strained, the solids discarded and the liquid fed into a still. The still is heated, causing alcohol and aromatics (both of which are more volatile than water) to vaporize. The vapor travels through the still, eventually cooling and condensing into alcohol.
There’s more to distilling than that, but you get the idea — alcohol vaporizes, solids like gluten proteins do not. Therefore, distilled spirits can’t contain gluten.
“Am I going to get in trouble for being absolutist?” replied Adam Rogers, the author of “Proof: the Science of Booze,” when I emailed to ask his opinion. “No, gluten doesn't make it over the top of the still. No gluten in spirits. Period.”
The Celiac Disease Foundation (celiac.org) concurs. “Research indicates that the gluten peptide (protein) is too large to carry over in the distillation process, leaving the resulting liquid gluten-free. Wines and hard liquor/distilled beverages are gluten-free,” the organization said in a statement.
The Mayo Clinic’s “Guide to Eating Gluten-Free” labels distilled spirits including brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey as gluten-free, and the National Institutes of Health Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign made clear its position in its “Staying Gluten-free This Holiday Season” web post (celiac.nih.gov/GlutenFreeHoliday.aspx). “When it comes to holiday cheer, a cocktail made with distilled alcohol is safe,” it says.
So why do so many other sources, including the American Celiac Society (americanceliacsociety.org) and Celiac Support Association (csaceliacs.org), disagree? Because the sheer number of people who experience adverse reactions to distilled spirits made from gluten-containing grains casts doubt on the issue, says Jane Anderson, a medical journalist who writes about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity for About.com.
“There is a substantial minority in the gluten-free community that does react,” says Anderson. “You can’t deny their reactions, so clearly something is going on.”
That something could be cross-contamination from grain dust or residues in the distillery, or from caramel coloring, flavorings or other substances added after distillation.
There’s also the psychological factor — consuming something made from an ingredient that in other forms makes you sick can be understandably off-putting.
So, where do you start when deciding what to drink? If you’re up for some trial and error, begin with high-quality distilled spirits and see what agrees with your system. If you can’t stomach that idea, then pick a bottle derived from naturally gluten-free ingredients.
Olathe-based Good Spirits Distilling’s Clear 10 Vodka and Tito’s Handmade Vodka are both made from corn. Chopin uses potatoes, while Chiroc and Bombora are distilled from grapes.
Look for 100 percent agave tequilas (always a better choice anyway) like Tequila Ocho and Herradura and artisanal mezcals such as Del Maguey’s line. Choose rums made only with fresh sugar cane juice or molasses — Appleton Estate, Angostura, Flor de Cana, Plantation and Rhum Clement are all brands worth trying. For something darker, give Pyrat Rum XO or Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaican Rum a taste.
Even whiskey isn’t entirely out of bounds — the all-corn Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey is aged just long enough in oak to give it a bit of bourbon-y sweetness and vanilla. Harder to find are the millet and oat whiskeys by Koval Distillery, although Harry’s Country Club and Julep Cocktail Club both have bottles behind the bar.
Because distilled spirits don’t carry ingredient labels, finding out exactly what’s in the bottle (and where it came from) can be a challenge. Some brands, like Tito’s, are labeled gluten-free and local retailers, including Lukas Liquor, are beginning to identify gluten-free products with shelf tags. Bartenders are a good source of information, too, but contacting distilleries directly is your best bet if you need precise details.
In the end, what you drink simply comes down to preference. If you feel better drinking one product and not another, regardless of the reason, then go with it.
“When you’re drinking, you want to be able to totally enjoy yourself,” says Koval co-owner Sonat Birnecker. “You don’t want a nagging worry at the back of your mind. It should be a celebration.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer who lives on a farm on the outskirts of Kansas City. Email her at email@example.com.