Is Distilled Alcohol Safe for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle
Following a gluten-free lifestyle can be super confusing. Currently, there is a debate on whether or not Distilled Alcohol is safe for a gluten-free Lifestyle. The answer? It’s complicated. To put it simply, your body knows best so no matter what, if you respond poorly, then avoid it.
I’m writing this post because I personally, could not figure out why, despite my caution, I kept getting sick when going out with friends. I’ve read countless articles and websites saying distilled alcohol was safe, yet my body was suggesting otherwise. With my own personal background in nutrition, food service, and fermentation, I decided to dig deeper to see what was really going on.
What is Distilled Alcohol?
As so eloquently put by the Encyclopedia of Britannica
“Distilled spirit, also called distilled liquor, [is an] alcoholic beverage (such as brandy, whisky, rum, or arrack) that is obtained by distillation from wine or other fermented fruit or plant juice or from a starchy material (such as various grains) that has first been brewed.”– Encyclopedia Britannica
Because distilled alcohols are removed from the fermentation components, they are gluten-free. Essentially, because proteins usually don’t make it through distillation, people living gluten-free don’t need to worry about them, unless of course, they bother you anyways (again, your body knows best!).
Distilled alcohols include:
The Alcohol Distillation Process
Distilling basically is the process of separating alcohol from other substances (like water). Alcohols that are distilled start off as diluted versions of themselves and then through distillation become more concentrated.
Again, the Encyclopedia of Britannica breaks down the general summary of the process so eloquently as:
“The principle of alcoholic distillation is based upon the different boiling points of alcohol (78.5 °C, or 173.3 °F) and water (100 °C, or 212 °F). If a liquid containing ethyl alcohol is heated to a temperature above 78.5 °C but below 100 °C and the vapour coming off the liquid is condensed, the condensate will have a higher alcohol concentration, or strength.”– Encyclopedia Britannica
Meaning, alcohol is concentrated through the removal of other substances that aren’t alcohol found in the ferment. This removal of substances relies on the different boiling points of the fermentation components (think water and alcohol). Because the boiling point of alcohol is lower than water, you can bring alcohol to a boil and remove it through vaporization while leaving the water behind.
Here’s where things get tricky, depending on the type of distillation process used, the distillation process doesn’t 100% distillate. When alcohol doesn’t 100% distillate, the original components of the ferment (what is being brewed and then distilled into alcohol) can still be found in the distilled alcohol. This is why you can’t say that all distilled alcohols are gluten-free alcohols but often most are.
Types of Distillation
Like I mentioned before, there are many types of distillation processes available to use when distilling alcohol. Depending on the distillation process used, the alcohol may not be 100% distilled and thus, may have components of the original ferment (some of which may be gluten) in the alcohol.
Pot Still Distillation
Some argue that triple distillation in a pot still provides safe alcohol but even so there is still a chance of some remnants from the original ferment being present. If this ferment has gluten grains, this means gluten can be left over. Thus, depending on how sensitive to gluten you are, you may still react.
Additionally, if the alcohol is only distilled once or twice in a pot still, it will not have been distilled 100%. Therefore, there will be leftover matter from the fermentation process so if gluten was involved in the fermentation, then there will still be some left in the distilled alcohol. However, it’s arguable if it’s enough to trigger a reaction. (Learn about gluten-thresholds here and support)
Often single malt whisky and scotch are only distilled in pot stills and are often only distilled twice. Meaning depending on your sensitivity to gluten, you may react to these kinds of distilled alcohols too.
As someone with Celiac Disease who is very sensitive to gluten, this explains why I’ve gotten so sick after drinking these supposedly safe alcohols. However, just because I react doesn’t mean you will. People with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance all have different gluten exposure thresholds they react to. If you drink these alcohols and feel fine, obviously you’re not sensitive enough for them to trigger you. If you do however react, trust your body.
It is important to note, often when trialing these alcohols they are consumed with other additives. When trying to determine if these alcohols trigger you it’s first important to try them with safe add-in/mixes. This is to make sure you aren’t reacting to unsafe cocktail ingredients. Additionally, you should already be aware of how alcohol impacts you to make sure you don’t just have an intolerance to alcohol.
Continuous Still Distillation
Through the use of a variety of techniques, this process allows for a pure alcohol to be produced. This happens because the alcohol evaporates up through many (we’re talking way more than 3) pot still like plates/columns. These pot still like plates help purify the alcohol.
Arguably a lot more reliable at distilling alcohols, continuous stills should remove all gluten and triggering particles from grain alcohols. This type of distillation is the industry standard which is why most people say distilled alcohols are safe and that gluten doesn’t make it through the distillation process.
Rectification Still Distillation
“Rectification is the process of purifying alcohol by repeatedly or fractionally distilling it to remove water and undesirable compounds… Water vaporizes very easily, however, and, unless care is taken, the distillate of a fermentation mixture will contain unacceptably large quantities of water. The fermentation mixture furthermore contains small quantities of complex constituents that can contribute to the flavour of the product even if they are present only in parts per million. It is important to retain those components that make a positive contribution to the product and to remove those that are unwanted, primarily some organic aldehydes, acids, esters, and higher alcohols. The ones that remain in the product are called congeners, and the congener level is controlled by the particular rectification system and by the system’s method of operation.”– Encyclopedia Britannica
Basically, just like in pot still distillation, Distilling using a rectification still doesn’t remove all fermentation components. This means alcohols processed this way might trigger someone sensitive to gluten.
Why Distilled Alcohols Aren’t ALL Safe
Because of the different distillation processes equating to different levels of contamination, just because alcohol is distilled doesn’t mean it’s safe. It depends on how it was distilled and how your body reacts. So just because whiskey, an alcohol derived from wheat, is distilled, doesn’t mean it is automatically safe. You should check in with the manufacturer to see what their distillation process is. Alternatively, if you’re adventurous, though not recommended, you might just go for it and see how you feel).
Additionally, distilled alcohols aren’t all safe because of other additives. Some distilled alcohols add back in the mash after distillation to add a distinct taste. Mash is a mixture of ingredients used to start and flavor the alcohol in fermentation. When it comes to grain-based alcohols, this mash has gluten in it. Meaning, when you add it back in, it will reintroduce gluten after distillation.
Some Distilled Alcohols that aren’t safe: (not an all inclusive list)
- Bacardi Rum Silver (noted to add mash back in)
- Jefferson’s Very Small Batch
Distilled Alcohols that might cause a reaction depending on sensitivity: (not an all inclusive list)
- Single Malt Scotch (typically pot distilled only twice)
- Single Malt Whisky ((typically pot distilled only twice)
Additionally, it’s important to be careful of flavored distilled alcohols. Often flavorings can have gluten (for example, sometimes malt or other derivatives are added).
So is distilled alcohol safe for a gluten-free lifestyle? Most science and celiac organizations say it’s celiac safe. Me? I say that it depends on how it was distilled, how your body reacts, and what ingredients were added back in after distillation. But ultimately, your body has the final say. If you react poorly to alcohols distilled from gluten-containing products, then they obviously aren’t safe for you.
And as always, check the ingredients or with the manufacturer to make sure nothing was added in after distillation. Often now some alcohols have gluten-free labels on them to indicate their safety. Click here for my tips for ordering drinks at bars.
Personally, I won’t touch alcohols brewed from gluten grains with a 10-ft pole…
Comment below your reactions with Distilled Alcohols!