This is a question that has come up a few times in my period behind the bar. Normally I’d simply laugh internally at the misunderstanding of coeliac disease and the rectification of spirits and make up a great little cocktail that I swore had no gluten in it what-so-ever.
Could I have been horribly wrong?
In short no, I wasn’t but there’s a lot more to this issue of allergies and gluten intolerance than basic principles of chemistry. A really in depth article by the Alcohol Professor I read yesterday really did point out to me how little we know about the coeliac condition. A good read for anyone and certainly worth reading some of the comments, truly eye-opening.
My own research find there are three major factors surrounding the misunderstanding of how alcoholic spirits may affect gluten intolerance:
People that believe they have gluten intolerances/coeliac often aren’t aware that gluten itself isn’t the issue, it’s peptide strains commonly found in the gluten molecules and often found in other compounds such as certain commercial colourings and flavour additives. Many are also not genuinely coeliac but suffer adverse reactions to different compounds altogether which happen to be present in many gluten-based products, yeast allergies or sulfite sensitivity are great examples of this.
The most basic fundamentals of chemistry teach us that alcohol vapourises before water and gluten requires water molecules to bond with in order to vapourise themselves. Alcohol vapours do not carry gluten molecules so distillation cannot result in gluten finding its way into your spirits. There is a decent argument for column still distillation (which allows distillate and wash to come into contact) resulting in residual peptides being carried through to the end spirit, however the process of column distillation results in a far greater level of rectification so I would argue that the peptides would be left well behind before the alcohol vapours reach the condensing coil regardless of contact contamination.
Many of the reactions attributed to alcohol, especially with regards to gluten, are often anecdotal and could be the result of everything from severe liver disease through to multivitamin pills reacting badly with alcohol. There is also an undoubted placebo effect with allergy sufferers, if they believe they have ingested something that may cause a reaction they will often exhibit symptoms regardless of whether they actually have ingested it.
Here’s the basic guide for dealing with allergies and spirits:
Don’t drink most commercially available blended spirits. They often have colouring added which can have gluten, sulfites, tartazine etc.
This means almost no American or Canadian whiskies, only those from small distilleries or that state sulphite free/free of colors/flavours on the bottle. Even then they often have chemical additives to speed up fermentation which almost everyone has a bit of a reaction to. Belgrove Rye Whisky is a great example of a 100% natural rye whisky with absolutely zero gluten and has the added benefit of coming from the most carbon neutral distillery on the planet.
It also means most cheap tequilas and certainly any tequila that doesnt state that it is 100% agave spirit. Small producers that are USDA Organic certified and state no artificial colours or flavours are usually your best bet. Two great examples are Casa Noble and Quinta de Gomez in tequila and Don Chuy mezcal.
No blended scotches, single malt only and only single malts that state no coloring, caramel or flavours added. Bruichladdich also has an organic single malt that is a damn good dram if you want to make certain you are avoiding anything that might set you off.
No commercial brandies or cognacs. This might sound like its going to cost you more but Tariquet and Delord armagnacs and Jean Grosperrin or Mercier cognacs are unparalleled for quality and price and are all completely natural and free of chemicals that may cause adverse reactions.
I rarely advocate vodka as an option but a natural vodka like McHenry & Sons Puer vodka is a fantastic option.
Gins need to be carefully monitored as many commercial gins, whilst distilled traditionally, use sulfite-heavy and even gluten-containing additives when distilled under license in other countries. Best bet is to stick to artisanal small producers like Monkey 47 or McHenry & Sons Gin.
For more information please check out the article by the Alcohol Professor and remember to get your allergy properly defined. If spirits are causing a reaction then do not assume it is gluten or sulfite based as these are almost never present. Talk to your doctor and always consider being appropriately tested so that you can define exactly what protein/peptide you or your loved ones are allergic to.