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  • Megan Tichy Ph.D.
    Megan Tichy Ph.D.

    Distilled Spirits (Grain Alcohols) and Vinegar: Are they Gluten-Free?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    What is Gluten?

    Gluten is a huge molecule held together by smaller molecules linked together called amino acids. A very tiny part of the gluten molecule can initiate a response. If each amino acid that makes up gluten is represented as a single letter that very tiny part would be: SGQGSFQPSQQ. There are other sequences of amino acids that cause a reaction in gluten sensitive individuals, but the point is, as tiny as this fragment is with respect to the entire gluten protein, it is still HUGE with respect to the size of ethanol (the stuff you are drinking).

    What is Alcohol?

    The alcohol you drink is ethanol. Ethanol is smaller than the size of the smallest amino acid in the smallest fragment of gluten that has been shown to initiate an autoimmune reaction. More specifically, ethanol is about 10 atomic mass units smaller than just the G in the sequence shown above.

    What are Amino Acids?

    The G is glycine, and by the way, each of these amino acids (represented by letters) by themselves is safe, and sold at most health food stores. For example Q = glutamine (yes, “L-glutamine,” the same amino acid mentioned in a recent post and used to heal intestinal damage). If the protein is viewed as beads on a string, then one of those beads might be good for you, but certain sequences strung together can initiate an allergic reaction of many types from acute peanut allergy to less-than-obvious gluten sensitivity.

    What is Distillation?

    When a distillation is performed, pure ethanol is separated away from all of the other “stuff” that forms as a result of fermentation. This is because ethanol is volatile (meaning it becomes a gas in the distillation process). Imagine a vat of fermentation products, you heat it, and only the volatile molecules like ethanol enter a tube attached to the vat. This tube is not just any tube - it is a curved condensation tube! Here is what it does: While the heated gas form of ethanol floats into it (because that is what gases do), the molecules are cooled and condense back into a liquid, and fall into a new sparkling clean vessel containing the stuff that intoxicates you and any other volatiles. So the fancier distillation columns that are actually used industrially also purify the ethanol away from other volatiles. Gluten does not stand a chance of “crossing over” because it is not volatile.

    Here is a simplified analogy. Let's say you put some sand in the bottom of your tea kettle. If you take the spout off your tea kettle, and attach a condensing tube to the opening (a curved tube would be the simplest type of condensing tube but there are many elaborate types), you could distill your water away from the sand. The condensing tube would be curved so as to open into a new clean pot. Let us pretend that the sand is gluten and the water is ethanol. When you heat to the boiling point, the liquid becomes gas so it travels into the condenser, cools and becomes liquid, then falls into the clean pot.

    Now having read that, is there any way that the new clean pot would contain any sand? No, and distilled alcohol (ethanol) does not contain any gluten. Remember, gluten is not volatile. Another non-volatile compound is table salt. So you could perform a distillation at home, with salt water. Has anyone ever inadvertently done this? Boiled a pot of salt water, perhaps to make some Tinkyada pasta, and walked away to do something else. You came back to find your pot almost empty with white crusty stuff (salt) all inside the pot.

    So the gluten is left behind in a distillation process. If malt is added to the distilled product it will be disclosed on the ingredients label.

    What is Vinegar?

    Vinegar is formed by fermentation in a similar way that ethanol is formed by fermentation. The process is to take ethanol and ferment it with bacteria. Later, there is a filtration to remove the bacteria. Rarely, vinegar is fermented from wheat-based alcohol. “Distilled vinegar,” gets its name from the fact that it was fermented from distilled alcohol.

    Why is Vinegar Still Questioned?

    The answer could be, perhaps, because so many people report a reaction to it and vinegar-based products. The never-ending fear is that cross-contamination during the fermentation process is leading to barely detectable amounts of gluten in the finished product (by barely detectable, I mean in terms of commercially available tests). Since the vinegar is rarely distilled post fermentation from the ethanol, the “messy” nature of the second fermentation step could pose a problem, especially for highly sensitive individuals. If the alcohol gets all used up by the bacteria, the bacteria go on to form carbon dioxide and water from the vinegar. So alcohol is periodically added in the fermentation process. Conceivably, one “shortcut” would be to just add beer at this juncture. Adding beer or some other form of cheap malted alcohol would keep the culture alive, and increase the “quality” and yield of the vinegar. Another fear is that the bacterial “mother” as it is called, contains trace gluten through cross-contamination. Claims that these practices actually take place are unsubstantiated by evidence.

    Why are Distilled Spirits Still Questioned?

    That is a good question, I do not know.

    Take a Short Quiz on this Topic:

    1. You bought mustard and pickles at the grocery store. These products contain “distilled vinegar” according to the ingredients labels, and the label does NOT say “contains: wheat.” Are the mustard and pickles gluten-free?
    2. Rum, gin, whiskey, and vodka are distilled beverages. If they are not flavored with something that contains wheat (would be declared on the label), rye, or barley (usually in the form of “malt”), are they gluten-free? 
    3. What is wrong with the following statements (they have all been cut and pasted from various blogs and forums on the topic of celiac disease)?a. “Most alcohols are distilled in such a way that any wheat gluten is no longer present.”b. “Even trace amounts of gluten that make it past the filter system can be harmful.”c. “It seems improbable to me, too, that gliadin could survive the distillation process.”

    Answers:
    1. Yes, unless you have reason to believe otherwise, in which case you should simply avoid them.
    2. Yes.
    3. 3a. All alcohols, if distilled, have been removed from any type of gluten.
      3b. Distillation is nothing like a filtration. We are not separating small from large, there is no filter. Filtration would be like how your coffee pot separates water from the coffee grains. A tear in the filter would result in a big problem, right? Filtration is a separation based on size, distillation is a separation based on volatility.
      3c. Do we care whether gliadin (a name given to part of wheat gluten) “survives” the process or not? No, because it has been left behind to stew in its own juices in the distillation pot. Your stuff (the ethanol) has floated away, and entered a new, clean pot. Some people have this idea that we heat the fermented mixture to smithereens and it somehow decomposes the molecules of gluten. Clearly, such a process would be ineffective or else we could simply “cook,” “roast,” “fry,” or “burn” the gluten out of our foods, and we know that we cannot do that.

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    Posted

    All grains contain gluten! Please do your research as it may be more than just wheat gluten causing your symptoms. Corn is a huge culprit and can cause similar symptoms (if not worse) than wheat. You can find out more on Dr. Osborne's website Towne Center Wellness Clinic. It has been life-changing for our family and extended family.

    It is true that some celiacs are also allergic to gluten from corn and other grains, but those conditions are separate. Furthermore, this article is about distilled spirits. The distillation process removes all traces of gluten, for any grain. This is a well-established fact.

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    Sadly, the use of the caramel additive does not need to be disclosed when the whisky is sold in some jurisdictions including Scotland. In places like the US, where gluten less than 20 parts per million does not need to be on the label, you are less likely to find caramel in the ingredients list on the label for Scottish Whisky. I believe Duty Free Whisky has the original Scottish label, which is unlikely to have caramel labelled. So I would say, that unless you know otherwise, you should assume your favorite dram does have caramel coloring in it.

     

    Here's a good source of info, though, that appears to know a bit about this topic ... I quote William (administrator) from a forum on scotch malt whiskey:

     

    Here is a list of some Whisky distillers/bottlers that does not add E150a caramel colouring to their whisky. This is by no means a complete list.

     

    Arran

    Balblair

    Benriach

    Benromach

    Bladnoch

    Bruichladdich

    Bunnahabhain

    Deanston

    Edradour

    English Whisky Co

    Glencadam

    Glendronach

    Glenfarclas

    Glengoyne

    Glenglassaugh

    Glenrothes

    Hazelburn

    Highland Park

    Kilchoman

    Kilkerran

    Longrow

    Port Charlotte

    Macallan

    Octomore

    Springbank

    Tullibardine

     

    I know Tobermory and Ledaig are now un-chillfiltered not sure about colouring, anyone know?

     

    In general most single malts from independents are normally natural colour and mostly un-chillfiltered when bottled at 46% plus. Some independents have different ranges, some of which are not coloured and un-chillfiltered some are.

     

    Here are some which i believe bottle their whisky with no added colouring or chillfiltering.

     

    Adelphi

    Compass Box

    Douglas Laing

    Duncan Taylor

    Mackillop's Choice

    The Whisky Exchange. (All TWEs independent bottlings Single Malts of Scotland, Element of Islay and Port Askaig are all natural colour and un-chillfiltered.)

     

    There are probably loads more independents who bottle their whisky without colouring and chillfiltration.

     

    To my knowledge the above list is accurate but if you see an error or know of any that should be on the list just post it here and I will edit the list.

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    Sarah, I have had the same experience and I don't believe that distillation means gluten free. I, as you started looking at distilled alcohol AFTER I had a reaction. Before that I hadn't even thought alcohol could be a culprit. Those who are very sensitive should just stick to things like rum, sake and wine. All the ingredients are gluten free and I have never had a problem with any of these.

    You still need to be careful with wine if you are really sensitive. The fining agents in wine are sometimes gluten-based, and the trace 20ppm can be present. Also, wines aged in wooden barrels are sometimes contaminated by the wheat that seals the barrels. To be safe, check with the winery about the fining agent, and go with brands that use steel casks.

     

    For more info, check out this article: rachelbegun.com/ask-the-gluten-free-rd-is-there-gluten-in-wine

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    Diane, you just described what I suspect is the primary reason why distilled spirits have gotten this inaccurate rap for gluten content: Gluten solubility.

     

    The majority of these anecdotal stories involve people who were *not* drinking at home, of drinks they'd prepared themselves. It's folks who are out, either at a party, a bar, a restaurant, etc.

     

    You then point out that gluten is highly soluble in alcohol, which means that if you've been exposed to contamination, the alcohol is going to ensure that you absorb that contamination and disseminate it throughout your system. Further, as we're all well aware, *any* time you eat or drink away from your own home, you are at risk for exposure, because non-celiacs simply don't understand how we're affected. Every single one of us has been poisoned by cross-contamination, most of us multiple times. Blaming the alcohol for facilitating the exposure is like blaming the full moon for an uptick in emergency room visits simply because any uptick which occurs during a full moon gets noted, while any uptick on any other night is simply ignored for what it is: Random chance . It's caused by selective observation, not an underlying truth. I'm sure plenty of celiacs have had reactions after drinking tequila or other non-grain-sourced liquors and either correctly assumed they were poisoned by some other contamination, or incorrectly assumed that the liquor must've had some grain portion. (Mexican distillers find sugar a much cheaper starting point than imported wheat, and even cheap tequila is highly unlikely to have been borne of any gluten-containing source). Adulterated spirits, like gin, are certainly suspect. I'm completely puzzled by mention of caramel colorings or flavorings as a source of gluten -- both are made from carbohydrates, not proteins. Why would you make them from a starchy source that would require enzymatic action to convert it into a sugar prior to the caramelization process? To me, the moral of all these anecdotal stories is simple: Don't drink when you're away from home unless you're eating food which is virtually impossible to cross-contaminate. I don't know much about how industrial tests for gluten work, but I would be very surprised if well-made whiskies or vodkas were found to contain gluten, assuming those tests ever become accurate or sensitive enough to give a reliable result. Anecdotal evidence is always a dangerous thing to rely on. It's why we can't turn on our ipods on an airplane unless it's at cruising altitude, why many gas stations have warning signs telling you that using a cell phone while pumping gas could cause an explosion, and why many parents insist on refusing to vaccinate their children. If we're to rely on anecdotal evidence, can we at least rely on *good* anecdotal evidence? Let's have some of our brave celiac brethren enlist the aid of their spouses, and engage in blind booze exposures at home, where contamination can be controlled. Some nights mix the drinks with a "suspect" alcohol, like scotch. Other nights, use a "safe" alcohol, like potato vodka. If you get several reactions to the suspect, but none to the safe, you'll have an anecdote we can sink our teeth into. Otherwise, I suspect these reports prove what we already know: The outside world is littered heavily with gluten, and we eat in public (sadly) often at our own risk.

    Jed- Your base assumption is a poor one. If you are celiac, you understand the importance of experimenting with brands and types of food at home. If you asked all of the people posting if they had tried grain alcohol at home in a controlled way, I bet they would answer in the affirmative. I'm a sensitive celiac (PhD in science) who has tried many controlled at-home drinks. Wheat based alcohols cause strong reactions every time. Distillation process or not, there are always other links before it gets to the shelf that could contribute to cause cross-contamination. Wine, for example, may be gluten-free unless it's been aged in wooden casks that use wheat-based sealant. Unless you can track every stage of production, you cannot deductively determine that the alcohol is gluten free. Accusing people with sensitive systems of being sloppy in the bar does not help address the issue of reactions to alcohol.

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    Wondering about Woodchuck cider's small batch flavor private reserve aged in bourbon barrels, yet claims to be gluten-free. I drink woodchuck all the time but having this variety has left me feeling strange...

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    You still need to be careful with wine if you are really sensitive. The fining agents in wine are sometimes gluten-based, and the trace 20ppm can be present. Also, wines aged in wooden barrels are sometimes contaminated by the wheat that seals the barrels. To be safe, check with the winery about the fining agent, and go with brands that use steel casks.

     

    For more info, check out this article: rachelbegun.com/ask-the-gluten-free-rd-is-there-gluten-in-wine

    The wheat paste is a bit of an unfounded concern: http://www.glutenfreedietitian.com/newsletter/2012/10/10/gluten-content-of-wine-aged-in-oak-barrels-sealed-with-wheat-paste/

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    Jed- Your base assumption is a poor one. If you are celiac, you understand the importance of experimenting with brands and types of food at home. If you asked all of the people posting if they had tried grain alcohol at home in a controlled way, I bet they would answer in the affirmative. I'm a sensitive celiac (PhD in science) who has tried many controlled at-home drinks. Wheat based alcohols cause strong reactions every time. Distillation process or not, there are always other links before it gets to the shelf that could contribute to cause cross-contamination. Wine, for example, may be gluten-free unless it's been aged in wooden casks that use wheat-based sealant. Unless you can track every stage of production, you cannot deductively determine that the alcohol is gluten free. Accusing people with sensitive systems of being sloppy in the bar does not help address the issue of reactions to alcohol.

    The wheat paste is a bit of an unfounded concern: http://www.glutenfreedietitian.com/newsletter/2012/10/10/gluten-content-of-wine-aged-in-oak-barrels-sealed-with-wheat-paste/

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    Clearly, more than just ethanol makes it through the distillation process, otherwise all distilled alcohols would just be Everclear--and indistinguishable from one another in taste or appearance. I think the fear was/is that, because more than Ethanol makes it through, could gluten be one of the "other" things that gets carried along?

    Justin. All distilled spirits start off as basically "everclear", which will get you drunk, but is horrible tasting. People have been figuring out ways to make it taste better for a very, very long time. Aging it in a charred oak barrel gives you a lovely amber color and adds certain flavors. This is basically whiskey. Taking alcohol and steeping with Juniper berries and other botanicals is the basic process of creating Gin. Etc. The point is that alcohol (as a substance) has no gluten. What happens after it is distilled is what keeps it from being "indistinguishable" from any other product.

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    I've had reactions to whiskey and other malt ingredient drinks, but vodka for example made with 100% potatoes and rum doesn't bother me. I have to agree with you thinking more than just ethanol makes it through the distillation process, my body tells me so.

    Sorry, it's a bit of a myth that potatoes are used for vodka. Modern vodka uses grain. "Absolut Vodka, is made solely from grain." Take a look for yourself.

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    Susie, Sarah, Elle -

     

    Same boat here guys, same boat. What is odd is, I can tolerate trace amounts of gluten in other products, but not alcohol. There is a very definitive outcome that results from drinking wheat based boozes, and it is unmistakably celiac (though I wish I could chalk it up to something else I ate, as I do enjoy a cocktail).

    Maybe you are just drunk? That can cause GI symptoms... just saying

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    Sorry, it's a bit of a myth that potatoes are used for vodka. Modern vodka uses grain. "Absolut Vodka, is made solely from grain." Take a look for yourself.

    I've been done by a few vodkas with that, so I just stick to Smirnoff its been good every time and I have a very sensitive gut.

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  • About Me

    Megan Tichy, Ph.D. holds a doctorate in Chemistry from Texas A&M University. She, her husband (Shane), and son (Nathan) moved to the Bay area from Texas in 2009. Megan was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003. As a support group leader in Bryan, TX she began many fruitful efforts in the realm of educating non-scientists about the science behind celiac disease. In 2008 she gave a talk at the annual GlG conference entitled, Making Sense of Science." She is currently seeking a Masters in Teaching.

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