Drinking Gluten Free: Which Alcoholic Beverages Are Safe to Sip? (Part 1)

Photo: Josh Staiger/Flickr

We spend most of our posts talking about beer (which makes sense, us being a brewery and all), but that’s not the only thing people are drinking. There are a lot of alcoholic options out there, from wine to whiskey, but it’s tough to determine what’s gluten-free, and what’s not. We’ll attempt to break down this question in our post this week and answer it in our follow-up post next week.

Before jumping in, let’s take a second and learn more about our old friend alcoholAlcohol, from a chemistry standpoint, is an organic compound that contains a hyrdroxyl functional group (-OH). For example, methanol is just methane (CH4, or natural gas) with one of the hydrogen atoms switched for an oxygen atom and a hydrogen atom.

Alcohol comes in a variety of forms depending on the precise makeup, from methanol to propylene glycol, but the alcohol we care most about is ethanol, because that’s the one that gets you buzzed. Ethanol, or grain alcohol, is formed by the fermentation of sugars. These sugars can come in the form of glucose from plants or from the breakdown of starches found in grains.

Depending on the source of these sugars and the process they go through, you can up with many different varieties of alcohol. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll break it down into four basic categories: Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Liqueurs. So how do you tell which are safe, and which are not? Well, there’s three main things to consider when evaluating your options:

  1. Is it made with ingredients that contain gluten?
  2. Is there a risk of cross-contamination?

If you can answer No to all of these questions, then the booze it likely safe to drink. If you answer Yesto all of them, then best to stay away. If you have a mix of Yes’s and No’s, the answer is less clear, as well see. This framework is true when evaluating the safety of any food, not just alcoholic beverages, as we’ve talked about before in regards to the TTB and the FDA.

Alright, let’s begin going through this checklist by examining how each type of alcoholic beverage is made.

  1. Beer: As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the process for brewing beer is fairly simple: first you mash malted grains, usually barley or wheat, in water in order to extract the sugars, then you separate the liquid from the grains and boil this liquid and add hops, then you let this sugary water ferment for a few weeks, after which you condition and bottle. And that’s beer!
  2. Wine: Winemaking is equally simple. Grapes are crushed, then fermented with yeast to form alcohol, then fermented again to decrease acidity, and then sometimes aged in oak barrels. Fortified wine, like vermouth, is made by mixing wine with spirits.
  3. Liquor: Spirits are taken just one step further using a combination of fermentation and distillation, which increases the alcohol content of the beverage. Similar to beer or wine, the ingredients are first fermented to convert the sugar into alcohol, after which this alcoholic mixture is distilled. During distillation, the mixture is heated to its boiling point. Because alcohol is more volatile than water, as well as the other substances in the mix, the vapor is made up of a greater proportion of alcohol than the liquid left behind. This concentrates the alcohol, making liquor.
  4. Liqueurs: Liqueurs are made by mixing distilled spirits with sugar and other ingredients, such as fruit, flowers, herbs, and spices. This gives it a syrupy texture and a sweeter, more unique flavors.

Alright, we have all the pieces, but we still haven’t answered the question: What’s gluten free? In our next post, we’ll take what we’ve discussed and use it to actually answer the question. We promise!