The last 24 hours have been interesting for me, gastrointestinally speaking. Last night, Kelli made a delicious batch of sugar cookies from scratch. A short time after eating a few cookies from the first batch, I had a reaction that was suspiciously reminiscent of a gluten cross-contamination episode. The funny thing was, there was no gluten in the recipe, and we don't have gluten-containing products in the house...or so we thought. It turns out we had a traitor lurking in our midst, hiding in plain sight in our spice cupboard.
The offending product was supermarket-brand almond extract, which I had bought while grocery shopping earlier in the week. The problem, it turns out, is not the almond, but rather the alcohol listed on the ingredients list for the extract. (If you read our post about the hidden source of gluten contamination at our Whole Foods cooking demonstration back in 2008, I feel stronger than ever that the problem then was the brand X vanilla extract, which would have had the same problem - gluten-contaminated alcohol used in the extract.) Allow me to explain.
First, let me make clear that this is a discussion about distilled alcohols. Fermented alcohols such as wine and beer are another story entirely, and don't pertain to this discussion. We're talking here about distilled spirits, which include most vinegars, as well as many of your harder liquors - vodka, gin, brandy, scotch, whiskey. When it comes to answering the basic question - Is there gluten in my distilled spirits? - the answer should be cut and dry, yes or no. Unfortunately, there are many shades of gray, and it all comes down to the very dissatisfying answer: it depends. Here's why...
At the outset, it's important to ask whether or not the source grain for your alcohol is one that contains gluten in the first place. If we're talking about corn-based or potato-based or rice-based alcohols, then gluten isn't present in the grain, and therefore, also shouldn't be present in the alcohol derived from that grain. (Most vinegars are made from red or white wine, apple cider, or rice wine, so they're all safe. The exception is malt vinegar, which both contains barley AND is typically not distilled. Hence, malt vinegar is NOT gluten-free.) But what if the source grain is something like wheat, which is chock full of gluten?
For years, there was debate as to whether or not the distillation process removed gluten and left us with a gluten-free alcohol. The science of the distillation process is sound - distillation does remove gluten from a grain alcohol. More accurately, distillation leaves the gluten behind. Distillation is a process whereby two or more liquids with differential boiling points are separated from one another. The mixture is heated to the boiling temperature for the lowest-boiling-point liquid, which becomes a gas and is subsequently condensed. Because alcohol has a relatively low boiling point, it boils off first and leaves the gluten behind. When it later condenses, you're left with a purified alcohol free of gluten. (Also, the more distillations an alcohol undergoes, the purer it becomes.)
However, we know from overwhelming numbers of anecdotes that people with Celiac Disease or especially sensitive cases of gluten intolerance may still have a reaction when consuming distilled spirits that should be gluten-free. Tests have subsequently confirmed that gluten is sometimes found in certain distilled spirits. The fault, though, is not with the distillation process. The theory and the science there are sound. The problem is with the practice of distillation in a real world setting.
For one, although distillation removes gluten from gluten-containing spirits, the source grains may still be present in the facility, and present the possibility for cross-contaminating the gluten-free final product post-distillation. (This is the same reason why GF beers should be brewed in a dedicated facility, so as to avoid cross-contamination with barley and wheat used for other beers.)
Secondly, distillation can't solve the problem of ingredients added to an alcohol after the distillation process. Those ingredients, added later, may include barley malt or colorings or flavorings that contain gluten (this is sometimes the case with certain vodkas, brandy, scotch, whiskey and gin).
In the end, then, what are we to do? You have several options: 1) use only extracts, vinegars and spirits that are labeled as gluten-free (such as the Rodelle Vanilla Extract). 2) contact the manufacturer of a product and find out the source grain for their alcohol and other ingredients. 3) If you're a gambler, you can try different products and see how your body reacts to them. (For me, this hit-or-miss gastrointestinal version of Russian Roulette isn't worth the consequence.)
The biggest lesson, perhaps, is that when it comes to distilled spirits (and extracts and vinegars), the best posture is one of buyer beware. Products that are labeled as gluten-free inspire a welcomed level of confidence, and once you find a product that works, stick with it!