Is whisky gluten free?
I should probably start by pointing out that I am not a doctor. I don’t even play one on television. So, if you’re considering putting your life on the line by having a whisky; perhaps you should also talk to a trained medical professional, rather than just some guy who loves whisky. That said, if you’re going to put yourself through terrible discomfort; it might well be worth it for the right whisky.
Let’s get started and answer the question: is whisky gluten free? This is a very interesting question because there is actually a bit of debate out there. I’ll start by saying that most experts in celiac disease have said that distilled alcoholic beverages, even those like whisky that are made from grains, are gluten free. At least according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standard of being less than 20 parts per million. However, The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates alcoholic beverages in the U.S., does not allow the use of the term "gluten-free" on alcohol products originally derived from gluten grains, even if they're distilled. That rules out "gluten-free" claims on whiskey produced from barley.
So, whisky doesn’t have gluten, but it isn’t gluten-free. Confused yet? Let’s discuss:
- What is gluten
- How come whiskey doesn’t have gluten, even though it’s made from grains
- Why it isn’t labelled as being gluten free in the US
- And finally, I’ll give you some examples of whisky that are safe for people with gluten allergies
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat, barley and rye. It's common in foods such as bread, pasta, pizza and cereal. And, of course, whisky! Gluten provides no essential nutrients. People with celiac disease have an immune reaction that is triggered by eating gluten. They develop inflammation and damage in their intestinal tracts and other parts of the body when they eat foods containing gluten. Current estimates suggest that up to 1% of the population has this condition. A gluten-free diet is necessary to eliminate the inflammation, as well as the symptoms.
According to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Centre, 63% of Americans believe that a gluten-free diet could improve their mental or physical health. And up to a third of Americans are cutting back on it in the hope that it will improve their health or prevent disease.
So, this matters. If people want to avoid gluten, they might not drink whiskey. And you should be fully informed before making such a dramatic decision!
Why doesn’t whisky have gluten in it?
Cereal grains are the staple ingredients of whisky, because they provide the starch which becomes alcohol. Scotch can be made from wheat, oat, rye, maize or corn, but to be a Single Malt Scotch Whisky the grain must be barley. Barley, wheat and rye all contain glutens, but the process of producing the spirit remove them from the whisky. When whisky is made, the grains go through mashing and fermentation. During mashing, the grains are put in hot water where enzymes from malting dissolve starch into sugar. This results in a liquid called wort. The wort goes into vessels and yeast is added. The yeast multiply and turn the liquid into a mixture of alcohol and carbon dioxide. The liquid is about 8-9% alcohol by volume and is basically beer.
Now, beer has gluten in it and this brewing beer would definitely but a problem for someone who is gluten free.
However, when you make whiskey you distil the beer. Distillation is the ancient technique of heating a liquid to separate its component parts. Your beer, which is called wash, gets heated until it reaches 78°C. At this point, the alcohol boils and vapour rises into a condenser. The result is a liquid known as ‘low wines,’ with a much higher alcohol content – around 23% ABV. For scotch whisky, this is transferred to a second still called the ‘low wines’ or ‘spirit’ still where the process is repeated to yield a liquid that is around 70% ABV.
This is the liquid that goes into barrel to mature and after a few years (3 in Scotland) it will be whisky.
The process of distillation removes the protein from the grain, so all you’re left is alcohol, water and a few congeners that contribute flavour. That’s all you’re drinking and this is why whisky is ‘gluten free’. And why organisations like the National Institutes for Health in the US and Coeliac UK say that there isn’t gluten in whisky.
Why do some people still say that whisky isn’t gluten free?
Some people with particularly sensitive gluten allergies can still have negative reactions to whisky because the distillation process isn’t perfect. Distillation is just separation based on boiling point. When trying to separate a mixture of two substances, like ethanol and water, you add heat which makes the substance with the lower boiling point evaporate first, this will rise in the still and be separated from the other substance. However, when most of the first substance has evaporated, some of the second will evaporate before all of the first has; so you don’t have 100% pure distillate.
The more you distil, and the more plates you have in your distillation, the more likely you are to remove the gluten proteins. So something distilled with a Coffey still, which can have 20+ plates, or an Irish whiskey which is typically distilled 3 times is less likely to have gluten in it. But it might still impact people with very severe gluten allergies.
Which whiskies are 100% gluten free?
Corn does not have any gluten, so whiskies that are made from corn don’t have any gluten in them. So whiskies like Mellow Corn from Heaven Hill or some of the Balcones whiskies shouldn’t have any gluten in them. You can also have Sorghum-Based Whiskies like, Queen Jennie Whiskey, which is made entirely from sorghum in a facility that does not use wheat, barley or rye.
So, there you go. On balance, whisky does not have gluten, but people with severe allergies might still have problems.
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Anderson, Jane. ‘What You Should Know About Whiskey If You’re Gluten Free’. Verywell Fit, https://www.verywellfit.com/will-whiskey-make-me-sick-if-im-gluten-free-562778. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019.
‘Gluten Free Whiskey - Is It Real?’ The Whiskey Wash, 10 May 2016, https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/american-whiskey/gluten-free-whiskey-2/.
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