I should start by pointing out that I am not a doctor. I don’t even play one on television. So, please, if you're in any doubt talk to a trained medical professional. With that noted, 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. Most experts in celiac disease say distilled alcoholic beverages are gluten free. This includes spirits like whisky made from grains. At least according to the US Food and Drug Administration’s standard of being less than 20 parts per million.
There is a 'but' though. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulate alcoholic beverages in the US. And, they don't allow use of the term "gluten-free" on products made from 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 triggered by eating gluten. It causes inflammation and damage in their intestinal tracts and other parts of the body. Current estimates suggest that up to 1% of the population has this condition. A gluten-free diet is necessary to avoid inflammation, as well as the symptoms.
The Consumer Reports National Research Centre has done a survey in America. They found 63% of Americans believe a gluten-free diet could improve their 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 want to know what's going on before making such a dramatic decision!
Why doesn't whisky have gluten in it?
Cereal grains are the staple ingredients of whisky. They provide the starch which becomes alcohol. Scotch can use wheat, oat, rye, maize or corn. To be a Single Malt Scotch Whisky the grain must be barley. You can read more about the other main ingredients in whisky here.
Barley, wheat and rye all contain glutens. But, the process of producing the spirit remove them from the whisky. To make whisky, the grains go through mashing and fermentation. During mashing, the grains soak in hot water. Here, enzymes from malting dissolve starch into sugar. This results in a liquid called wort. The wort goes into vessels together with yeast. 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 a form of beer.
Now, beer has gluten in it and this brewing beer would definitely but a problem for someone who is gluten free.
But, when you make whiskey you distil the beer. Distillation heats a liquid to separate its component parts. The beer, known as wash, gets heated to 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 goes into a second still called the ‘low wines’ or ‘spirit’ still. Here, the process happens again to create a liquid that is around 70% ABV.
This is the liquid that goes into barrel to mature and after a few years sleeping in a warehouse it will be whisky. You can read more about dunnage warehouses here.
The process of distillation removes the protein from the grain. All you’re left with is alcohol, water and a few congeners that contribute flavour. That’s all you’re drinking and this is why whisky is ‘gluten free’. This is why 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 coeliacs have particularly sensitive gluten allergies. They may still have negative reactions, because the distillation process isn’t perfect. Distillation is separation based on boiling point. When trying to separate a mixture of two substances, like ethanol and water, you add heat. This makes the substance with the lower boiling point evaporate first. It will rise in the still and separate from the other substance. But, when most of the first substance has evaporated, some of the second will start to evaporate. This second substance can, in part, evaporate before the first has finished evaporating. So you don’t have 100% pure distillate.
The more you distil, the more likely you are to remove the gluten proteins. Something distilled with a Coffey still, which can have 20+ plates, or an Irish whiskey distilled 3 times, is less likely to contain gluten. 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 made from corn don’t have any gluten in them. Whiskies like Mellow Corn from Heaven Hill and some Balcones whiskies should be gluten-free. You can also have Sorghum-Based Whiskies like, Queen Jennie Whiskey. These use sorghum in a facility that does not use wheat, barley or rye.
So, there you go. On balance, whisky does not have gluten. But coeliacs with very severe allergies might still have problems. So, most whiskies can't be labelled gluten-free.
This is an important topic. We'd encourage you to seek professional medical advice. If you'd like to do some more reading, here are further articles you may find useful.