Here’s what ‘gluten-free alcohol’ really means

If you’re gluten intolerant or suffer from celiac disease, you already know standard beer is a no-go since it’s made of water, hops, yeast, and gluten-containing grains like barley, rye, or wheat. But as wellness culture slowly trickles into the beverage industry, you may be led to believe spirits, too, contain gluten, and that they’re off limits. And that is categorically false—to a certain degree.

“The only other consideration I can think of that could matter is if a spirit is made in a facility that processes gluten. For instance, if a vodka brand also makes beer,” says Kevin Gray, beverage expert and editor of the drinks website Bevvy. “It’s hard to imagine that cross-contamination scenario, but it could happen, I suppose.”

Let’s back it up for a second. Distilled alcohol is necessarily always gluten-free because the distillation process strips away the protein that those with gluten intolerances react to. Gray says alcohol labeled “gluten-free” has not been manufactured any differently than counterparts without gluten-free labeling, so distilled spirits like vodka, rum, whiskey, and bourbon labeled “gluten-free” is redundant. It’s the equivalent of a veggie burger brand proudly declaring their products are “meat-free.”

Your “gluten-free” vodka might actually be a misnomer, but the microscopic amount it does contain won’t harm you. As per the Food and Drug Administration, a product can be labeled “gluten-free” while also legally containing a gluten content of up to 20 parts per million since it’s the lowest amount detectable using valid scientific testing, and thus the lowest amount someone with a gluten intolerance can, well, tolerate. “I suspect that all liquors would pass this test unless they’re adding anything to the liquor, like some dumb flavoring that contains gluten,” says Gray. For example, smoke flavor is something you should watch out for when ordering, say, an Old Fashioned or Manhattan infused with artificial smoke flavor, since the product may include barley malt flour as a carrier agent. According to Gluten-Free Watchdog, USDA-regulated products declare this ingredient, while those regulated under the FDA “may or may not.”

Everything you need to know about gluten:

If you—for whatever reason—don’t trust the distillation process to strip the grain entirely of the bad stuff, Gray says you can always opt for vodka made of potato, grape or corn, which are all gluten-free to begin with. “There are lots to choose from. Or drink tequila, which is made from the agave plant,” he says.

It’s easy to point fingers and chastise brands for profiting off a wellness trend, but for the 3 million Americans living with celiac disease, and 18 million Americans living with a gluten intolerance, selecting a product safe for consumption can be a matter of life and death. “With ‘gluten-free alcohol,’ it feels like they’re jumping on a trend and trying to grab part of the gluten-free market,” says Gray. “But that label is a way for gluten-free people to make quick purchase decisions, so I get it.”

Moral of the story: if your diet doesn’t allow gluten, know that you can have your spirits and drink them, too. Any stomach issues that arise are likely a result of drinking too much and too quickly on an empty stomach—not a reaction to any gluten.

Here’s what experts what you to know about gluten and dairy. And why sober drinking is taking off (no thanks to mocktails).