Living a gluten free lifestyle can be challenging, with gluten ingredients and products found in many foods and drinks. Even alcohol consumption can be difficult, with beer and some wines containing gluten and therefore needing to be avoided. Not all alcohol is unsafe, however, with all whisky products and other spirits 100% gluten free.
According to the National Institutes of Health’s Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign, distilled alcohol is inherently gluten free. This includes the full range of conventional spirits, such as gin, vodka, Scotch whisky, rye whiskey, and whisky blends. This fact may surprise some people, with the basic ingredients of whisky known to be full of gluten. However, while whisky is derived from ingredients such as wheat, barley, and rye, the distilling process entirely removes these gluten proteins.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the name given to the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. While this might be a fairly short list, these proteins are found in a huge proportion of modern foods. Wheat alone has a number of variations, including durum, wheatberries, spelt, farro, semolina and many more.
The term "gluten" shares origins with the term "glue", with these proteins holding food together and helping it to retain its shape. Along with being common in breads, cereals, and beer, these gluten-containing foods are also used in the production of whisky.
How is whisky made?
Is whiskey gluten free? To answer this, you need to understand how it's made. Whisky, or whiskey, is a distilled alcoholic beverage produced from malted barley and grains. Malt whisky is made purely from malted barley, grain whisky is made from a variety of grains, and some products are made from a blend of malt and grains. There are five stages involved with whisky production: malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.
- The malting process is necessary to convert soluble sugars into alcohol. While different distilleries have their own secrets, the barley needs to be soaked, spread, and turned until it starts to germinate. When the barley starts to shoot, it is dried in a kiln, with peat often used to power the kiln and add flavour to the final spirit.
- Mashing involves grinding down the malt into a "grist", and adding warm water to extract the sugars. The combination of malt and water is called the "mash", which is put into a large vessel and turned while the sugars dissolve and are drawn away. The resulting liquid is called "wort", and this process is carried out three times.
- Fermentation involves cooling the wort and processing it in large tanks. This is where the yeast is added and the fermentation process begins. Just like the barley, peat, and water, the yeast plays a role in the final flavour profile. The liquid should turn alcoholic in just a couple of days, with the "wash" containing about as much alcohol as a strong beer.
- Distillation raises the alcohol stakes, with a 5-10% alcohol range kicked up a few gears to somewhere around 65-70%. Distillation happens in stills, which are made from copper in a distinctive shape in order to extract impurities from the spirit. Alcohol from the middle or 'heart' of the distillation process is used to make the final whisky product.
- The final stage of whisky production is known as maturation, with the spirit put into oak casks and aged over many years. The American bourbon and Spanish sherry industries are responsible for most of the oak casts, with flavours from the original ingredients mixed with flavours from the barrels to produce the distinctive whisky flavour and aroma that we know and love.