Are spirits gluten-free or not?

My previous posting about a new New York State distillery preparing a gluten-free vodka prompted one reader to say he had heard that all distilled grain spirits are gluten free. Knowing that proper distillation can remove the glutens in such common ingredients as barley, rye, wheat and spelt would seem to support his observation. However, the matter remains in dispute. Probably the most succinct explanation of the pros and cons was posted on Ask.com earlier this year by writer Jane Anderson, whose work was reviewed by Ask.com's Medical Review Board.


Most authorities say that people with celiac disease can safely drink distilled alcoholic beverages, even those that are made with gluten grains. That's because distillation supposedly removes all of the gluten protein molecules responsible for our reactions, rendering the drinks gluten-free.

The National Institutes of Health's Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign makes a point of saying all distilled alcohol is gluten-free, regardless of its original source.

The Canadian Celiac Association concurs, saying in part, "Distilled alcoholic beverages such as gin, vodka, scotch whisky and rye whiskey are made from the fermentation of wheat, barley or rye. Since they are distilled, they do not contain prolamins [i.e., gluten proteins] and are allowed unless otherwise contraindicated."

However, the Celiac Sprue Association does not necessarily agree. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, the association recommends celiacs consume tequila, rum and potato-based vodka -- all made from non-gluten grain sources -- along with preservative- and dye-free wines and brandies and gluten-free beer.

Why such a difference in opinion between celiac experts on distilled alcohol?

In truth, no study has actually considered whether people with celiac and gluten intolerance can safely enjoy alcoholic beverages distilled from gluten grains without damage. A few researchers have tested gin, whiskey and gluten grain-based vodkas for gluten content, with mixed results. Some have found gluten in them and some have not.

Theoretically, distillation, if it's done properly, should remove all the gluten. But not all makers of alcoholic beverages distill enough times to purify their beverages completely. In addition, some add in a little of the grain "mash" (which does contain gluten) following distillation to improve color and flavor, and there's always the possibility of cross contamination from gluten grains in the manufacturing facility following distillation.

Regardless of the expert opinions on the safety of gluten-grain-based alcohol products, many people have reported getting serious gluten symptoms after drinking them. I'm one of them. While I can drink other alcoholic beverages without issue, I cannot tolerate alcohol made from gluten grains.
[You can read the remainder of her column here.]

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