While Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and contaminated oats (oats are naturally gluten-free but we contaminate them in how we process them), Luxford explains that few drinks created from these grains contain gluten.
“For the general population, all distilled alcohol is fine, unless [distillers] were to add some sort of flavoring agent or some sort of item that might have gluten in it, but that’s very rare,” Luxford says. “Once the alcohol goes through the distillation process and becomes pure alcohol, the gluten content is negligible and doesn’t affect those populations [with gluten-related conditions].” Trace amounts of gluten may remain after distillation, but as long as that amount is less than 20 parts per million (ppm), the FDA limit, the product is considered gluten-free and safe to consume. Wine is generally safe as well.
Beer, on the other hand, is a whole keg of worms. Luxford breaks down beer into three categories: traditional beer, beer that’s made from cereals that don’t contain gluten, and beer that has been modified to remove the gluten. While traditional beers made from wheat, barley and rye are obviously out, Luxford also suggests avoiding the modified variety because there have been no conclusive studies on them and many people still report issues after drinking them. Beers made from non-gluten cereals are the way to go for gluten-sensitive beer lovers. Anything made from millet, rice, sorghum, buckwheat or corn will work.
This is about the point where we reach the limits of our scientific knowledge and enter the theoretical. Dig around on the internet and you’ll find plenty of people with gluten sensitivity that report symptoms after drinking pure alcohol distilled from grains. This probably doesn’t mean gluten is getting through distillation, but Luxford lays out a few possible explanations for the trouble.
For one thing, like other food sensitivities, those with gluten sensitivity may be susceptible to other ingredients as well. Another possibility is that the damage done to someone’s intestines during years of eating gluten with an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity may make them extra sensitive to the miniscule amount of gluten below 20 ppm. Finally, alcohol could exacerbate “leaky gut,” a condition that’s disputed among physicians but may make the intestines more permeable to harmful gluten and other nutrients. No matter the cause of distress from ostensibly gluten-free products, Luxford suggests those feeling symptoms after drinking some pure whiskey ought to consult directly with their doctors.
While all of these general guidelines are a good start to understanding gluten in your booze, it can be hard to find accurate information about specific brands. When in doubt, Luxford suggests sticking to tried and true gluten-free brands like Tito's Vodka, Bacardi and Bombay Sapphire.