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One of the most common questions from adult patients newly diagnosed with celiac disease is about alcohol. Is liquor gluten-free? Can I drink wine? Beer? Mixed drinks?
Actually most alcoholic drinks, including wine, gluten-free beer and most spirits do not contain gluten. Alcoholic beverages are regulated by either the Food and Drug Administration or the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Unfortunately, neither organization makes their policies clear or easy to understand. The FDA’s guidelines for including the term “gluten-free” is available in several articles online and the TTB’s information is more ambiguous:
“Consistent with the new FDA regulations, TTB will continue to consider “gluten-free” label claims for alcohol beverages that are made from gluten-containing grains to be misleading to consumers who are seeking to avoid the consumption of gluten for health reasons. However, products made from gluten-containing grains may be labeled with a statement that the product was 'Processed,' 'Treated,' or 'Crafted' to remove gluten, if that claim is made together with a qualifying statement that warns the consumer that the gluten content of the product cannot be determined and that the product may contain gluten.”
What does this mean for you when you're picking out a cocktail? It means that the bottles that are marked “gluten-free” contain product that is made from ingredients that do not naturally have gluten in them, such as potatoes for vodka and grapes for wine.
However, liquors that are distilled from gluten-containing grains, such as rye or barley, are generally considered to be safe as well. The distillation process removes proteins, including gluten, from the liquor.
Flavored distilled liquor can be problematic, however, because the flavoring is added after the distillation process and therefore can introduce gluten back into the product. In the case of flavored distilled liquors, you should contact the manufacturer to learn the gluten-free status of the end product.
We know that beer made from non-gluten-containing ingredients is safe to consume. However, we do not recommend drinking gluten-removed beer, which is made from gluten-containing ingredients but processed to remove gluten. Its gluten-free status cannot be accurately confirmed by available testing options and it's best to avoid it. (Learn more about the different gluten-free beer options here)
And what about egg nog, that holiday party staple? The egg nog itself is very likely to be gluten-free. You just need to verify the liquor that has been added to it. Most bourbon is fine, but stay away from egg nog spiked with cinnamon-flavored whiskey, for example, which is most likely not gluten free.
Another resource you might consider is The Gluten Free Watchdog, a subscription service that has published an extensive report on “Gluten Content of Distilled Alcohol” reviewing brand name liquors by category, including rums, whiskey, gin, tequila and more.
Lori Rowell Welstead, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian in the Section of Gastroenterology and nutrition advisor for the UChicago Medicine Celiac Disease Center. She sees a variety of adult patients who have gastrointestinal conditions ranging from celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis to irritable bowel syndrome, fatty liver disease, and obesity.