By Loni Klara

Gluten-Free Alcohol

Although the number of people searching for gluten-free products have reached record proportions for a multitude of reasons – sometimes unrelated to their ability to digest gluten – chances are, if you’re asking for gluten-free alcohol, you’re concerned about running into problems with your specific health condition. Thanks to recent advancements in the beer industry and an improved understanding of gluten in alcohol, there are many ways you can continue to drink even with your diagnosis.

What is Gluten-Free Alcohol?

Not all alcohol contains gluten. But to understand why some types of alcohol contain gluten and others don’t, even when they use some of the same ingredients, it’s important to learn a little bit about how alcohol gets made.

Do Spirits Have Gluten?

Spirits differ from beer because any gluten products, like barley and wheat, are distilled during the process and so removed them completely from the alcohol, contrary to previous thinking which suggested that trace elements of gluten could remain.

If you’re worried about drinking spirits made from grains, know that it’s impossible for distilled spirits to carry any trace of gluten, unless it’s subject tampering after the distillation process. The bottom line is, if you have a negative reaction after consuming spirits, the cause is not gluten.

Since alcohol can produce different effects for different people, it’s difficult to say why some people can consume spirits with no issues, while others might experience unpleasant reactions. We know now that the distillation process removes all traces of gluten, meaning that you can’t blame gluten for experiencing side effects from gluten-free spirits.

An old Bushmills pure malt whiskey ad
An old Bushmills pure malt whiskey ad

Can Beer Be Gluten-Free?

Beer is a whole different beast from spirits. As one of the oldest types of alcohol known to man, it was first brewed in the early Neolithic (the most ancient known brewery, at 13,000 years old, was recently discovered in the Carmel Mountains of Israel1) and was used to pay the pyramid builders of Egypt. For thousands of years, beer was brewed traditionally from barley, but also other ingredients such as rice and fruits.

Today, most beer labels we see in the marketplace are based on cereal grains, which means either barley or wheat, while some others are based on corn or rice. Other agents are added to these core ingredients to produce a wide variety of beers, ranging from fruits to chocolate.

It’s possible to find gluten-free beer that’s safe to drink. Beware the dangers in trusting certain labels like gluten removed and be vigilant about checking the manufacturing process of your beer of choice.

Is Gluten Removed Alcohol Safe?

The short answer is no. While gluten-removed alcohol may give you that original flavor, it can cause your symptoms to flare up. There’s no guarantee that all traces of gluten once present in the alcohol have disappeared. Still, it’s true that gluten-removed alcohol can reduce the effects of gluten consumption. For some people, it might even be enough to enjoy without causing a reaction. But there’s really no way of knowing until you try, and that involves a certain amount of risk.

Does Barley Include Gluten?

Yes. As a cereal grain, barley contains about 5-8% gluten. If you have health conditions such as celiac disease, barley isn’t safe for you, which includes most beer and malted drinks.

Other Names for Gluten

One of the problems with avoiding gluten is that it comes in many disguises, making it difficult to be certain that your food is completely free of it. The gluten protein2 can be found in any product that’s made of wheat, barley, and rye. It’s a naturally occurring nutrient that acts like as a binder.3

If you see any of the below ingredients, beware:

  • Barley
  • Binder
  • Brewer’s Yeast
  • Cereal
  • Flour
  • Malt
  • Rye
  • Starch
  • Vegetable and plant protein
  • Wheat
  • Wheat alternatives

How Alcohol Impacts IBS and IBD

If you’re suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or an inflammatory bowel disease, you might wonder if there’s some miraculous way you could get away with drinking alcohol. You probably already know that you should avoid alcohol as it may provoke an attack, but want to look for a loophole. Well, depending on your specific condition, there may be certain types of alcohol that are safe.

How Alcohol Effects the Digestive System

Though some studies cite moderate amounts of wine as being beneficial for the heart, more recent meta-analyses suggest that net, there is no amount of alcohol that’s good for you.4

Alcohol is one of the sources of a toxic molecule called acetaldehyde, which is a Group 1 carcinogen also found in cigarettes, polluted air and other types of fermented food. Talk about good company. Acetaldehyde is naturally produced in our bodies in low levels, but consuming alcohol can dramatically increase its level, causing what can be irreparable damage.

When you consume alcohol, the toxins irritate your stomach, causing it to produce more acid. This can lead to heartburn, gastritis and ulcers. Alcohol also makes it harder to digest food by reducing the enzymes that enable us to break down fat and carbohydrates. That being said, for some people, one or two drinks shouldn’t cause serious symptoms.5

The Best Alcohol for IBS

Stick to distilled beverages like wine, vodka, gin and whisky. None of these products contain gluten and are easier to digest. However, flavored liquor or sweet dessert wines that contain higher sugar contents may provoke irritation. To be safe: dry wine and unflavored liquor.

To note, some are sensitive to sulfites or pesticides in wine.6

Alcohol and Specific Conditions

Depending on your particular diagnosis, the type of alcohol or degree of consumption may vary. So let’s dive into the details to help you get a better understanding of the relationship between your condition and alcohol.

Crohn’s Disease and Alcohol

First of all, drinking enough fluids is essential if you have Crohn’s disease, so that you stay hydrated as you’re losing fluids from diarrhea. The good news is that alcohol is not completely off limits (though this may vary on an individual basis) and the diuretic effects of alcohol, especially of low-alcohol, non-distilled drinks, is often overstated.7

It’s important to monitor your condition, because for some people, any amount of alcohol can aggravate symptoms. Likewise, make sure any antibiotics or other medication you’re taking don’t clash with your alcohol consumption. As long as you limit drinks to one glass a day or less, and drink a glass of water for each glass of alcohol, you can enjoy your alcoholic beverages, even with Crohn’s.

Ulcerative Colitis and Alcohol

A lot of conflicting information exists concerning the relationship between ulceritive colitis and alcohol. While some studies claim alcohol can prevent a person from receiving a UC diagnosis, others point to worsening symptoms. On the whole, alcohol ought to be avoided for those with colitis, especially if you’re on medication that could interfere with alcohol consumption, or vice versa.

Leaky Gut and Alcohol

If you have leaky gut syndrome, chances are you developed it through either excessive or even moderate drinking. This is because the alcohol damages the intestines, making it weaker and looser – hence the name, leaky gut.

Therefore, if you have leaky gut syndrome, you should refrain from further alcohol consumption as it can cause to more extensive intestinal and liver damage, leading to serious health problems down the road.

Low FODMAP (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols) Alcohol

Alcohol that contains low FODMAP can be preferable to other types that are more difficult to digest. Most types of wine are low FODMAP, as are gin, whisky and vodka (straight, not mixed with other juices or tonic water). Though most beer should be avoided if you are sensitive to gluten, it is otherwise low FODMAP.

Best Alcoholic Drink for an Upset Stomach

In the old days, alcohol was used to pacify patients and reduce pain. Even now, there are certain types of alcohol that can help settle your stomach if tea is not your cup of tea. In fact, there’s an entire group of alcohol dubbed digestifs, which is borrowed from French, meaning digestive.

Traditionally, these drinks were consumed after a hearty meal to aid with digestion. You only need a little bit as these drinks are often very strong and potent with ingredients to help settle your stomach.

Brandy

You may be familiar with brandy as a kind of medicine in period movies about sailors. Indeed, brandy can act as a soothing agent for your upset stomach due to its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial qualities as well as its relaxing effect.

Chartreuse

This colorful drink originally made by monks in the 17th century is packed full of herbs – usually around 130 varieties. It’s a famous digestif in France, and comes in either yellow or green tints. As you might be able to tell from its distillation process, the multitude of herbs result in a drink that’s full of nutrients that can help your digestion.

FAQ: Types of Alcohol

The table below will help discern which types of alcohol are gluten-free. An asterisk indicates there may be exceptions to the rule. In all cases, we’re talking about the type of alcohol in its purest form, and not varieties that include external flavors.

Types of Alcohol and their Gluten Content
Alcohol Gluten-Free?
Whisky Yes*
Bourbon Yes*
Vodka Yes*
Gin Yes*
Wine Yes*
Rum Yes*
Tequila Yes*
Liqueur Yes
Cider Yes
Beer No*

Is Bourbon Gluten-Free?

Bourbon, by definition, is made of at least 51% corn, which is gluten-free. The rest of the alcohol is made of gluten-containing ingredients, but the distillation process removes all traces of gluten.

Any distilled drink, barring contamination, is inherently gluten-free.

Distillation isn’t analogous to filtering, which could leave traces of gluten behind.

Is Wine Gluten-Free?

Wine is made of grapes, which means most wine is gluten-free. However, some wines may use coloring, flavoring or fining agents8 which may contain very small amounts of gluten. For this reason, it’s best to avoid sweet dessert wines. Another way gluten can make its way into wine is through the barrels used to age the wine.

How does gluten get into oak barrels that then seeps into the wine? In theory, the wheat paste used to seal the inside of some barrels could tamper the wine with gluten. That’s a bit far fetched. But sometimes wheat gluten is used as a fining agent, to remove the cloudiness from wine, and it can leave trace bits of gluten behind. Here’s a detailed and geeky article on the subject.

Gluten-Free Beer

We’ll cover what’s available in gluten-free beer shortly.

What’s the Best Gluten-Free IPA?

…And gluten-free IPAs in particular.

Conclusion

We all know not to mess with alcohol, whether we have IBS or not. “Drink in moderation” is the battle cry these days, a progressive evolution from the days of Prohibition. But the truth is, as one of the largest and oldest industries in the world, the alcohol market is full of a myriad variety of options. Each contains different properties, ingredients and possible beneficial or harmful effects.

All this to say that alcohol is an interesting topic to study more in-depth so that you can find out which types are the best match your condition. One thing is clear: there are always options. As we become more and more aware of our health and our food, the alcohol we consume is also evolving and better examined.

Like any other food product, alcohol and its effects can be highly individualized. Your friend who has IBS may have no problem drinking a glass of sweet dessert wine, while you are seized with an acute attack of the bowels. So as you continue on this study of alcohol and IBS, keep monitoring your symptoms – at the end of the day, no one knows your body better than you do.

  1. “Ancient Natufians tamed seven species of wild grains for ancient ale, according to new Stanford University study”
  2. In fact, gluten refers to the collective range of storage proteins, prolamins and glutelins, present in cereals.
  3. Gluten is borrowed from Latin, where it means glue.
  4. Bloomberg reports on recent research, “Although the study found that alcohol offered some protection against coronary-artery disease in women, “the strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries and infectious diseases” offset that.” The study includes a meta-analysis. It can be found in The Lancet, Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. It’s findings are not as dire as the headlines make out, but make it difficult to dispute that drinking is healthier than not.
  5. Though keep the conclusions of the aforementioned study in mind, “Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss. We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimises health loss is zero. These results suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption.”
  6. Consider the example of my sister, who long thought she was allergic to wine. On being tested for a battery of allergens, she discovered it was a sensitivity to the residual pesticides. So, it’s a thing that I previously would have dismissed as hypochondria. -Ed
  7. Hydration status and the diuretic action of a small dose of alcohol, a study testing this question with beer.
  8. The removal of latent yeast and other contaminants that would make the wine cloudy.

Loni Klara