From the editors

Gluten-free garbage

  • There’s a scary marketing trend gathering pace in America that could have a (slight) negative impact on Scotch whisky sales.

    Over the past 10 years there’s been a rise in the number of American consumers choosing a gluten-free diet, regardless of whether they suffer from gluten intolerance or, worse, coeliac disease.

    According to a recent Gallup poll, 20% of Americans now include gluten-free products in their diet, from natural foods that don’t contain gluten, to modified GF breads and pasta.

    For those who are unaware, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that some people can be intolerant to. Symptoms include fatigue and depression. In worst cases, the body reacts to the digestion of gluten as if it were poison, making sufferers very ill. This is called Coeliac disease.

    It’s not necessarily the rise in the number of Americans going gluten-free that’s the issue. The problem is the rise of gluten-free vodka. Now bear with me.

    Bread is usually made from gluten-containing wheat, and can be dangerous if eaten by someone with Coeliac disease.​

    Distilled spirits do NOT contain gluten. The process of distillation removes the protein from the grain, so all you’re left with in your glass is alcohol, water and a few congeners that contribute flavour (unless it’s a liqueur then add sugar and flavourings to that list. And botanicals if it’s gin).

    According to ‘Vinegar is accepted as gluten free by major celiac disease centers and support groups. In the United States most distilled white vinegar is made from corn. And even when it is made from wheat, which does happen often, the distillation process removes the gluten protein. Donald Kasarda, Ph. D., a grain scientist who is now retired from the USDA and who has a specific interest in gluten free grains, said there is no scientific evidence for gluten peptides in vinegar. Further, he said he does not know of a single chemist who thinks there are gluten peptides in distilled products.’

    So why are there more and more ‘specialist’ vodkas purporting to be gluten-free when all distilled spirits are such?

    The American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is a department of the US Treasury responsible for making sure alcoholic beverages are labelled correctly, identifies a gluten-free spirit as being a product produced from raw material that does not naturally contain gluten (such as brandy or rum), or that has been modified to remove gluten.

    As corn does not naturally contain gluten, any vodka made from it is permitted to use the term ‘gluten-free’ in large letters across its bottle.

    However whisky – single malt Scotch, blended Scotch, American rye, even Bourbon with a mashbill that contains rye or barley in addition to corn – is exempt from this permission.

    In a ruling posted in February 2014, the TTB stated: ‘TTB does not believe that this provision [as outlined above] will generally be relevant to malt beverages fermented from malted barley and other gluten-containing grains, or distilled spirits distilled from gluten-containing grains, as these products are usually made from the grains themselves, not from ingredients such as wheat starch or barley starch.’

    Stoli Gluten Free – it's made from 88% corn and 12% buckwheat, so of course it's gluten-free.

    What does this mean for Scotch whisky? Well for starters while the rest of the world can identify it as gluten-free, it is not considered as such in the eyes of American Federal law. This is a country that’s close to putting a fascist, racist bureaucrat in the White House after all.

    According to research conducted by Stoli vodka (who incidentally has launched its new gluten-free product this month), 56% of people don’t know that vodka is naturally free from gluten anyway.

    Here’s the punchline: producers know spirits are gluten-free, but in order to educate consumers they have to create an entirely different product that conforms to the TTB’s inaccurate definition. Americans with an intolerance or coeliac disease are under the impression they can ONLY consume products labelled as such. That is simply not true.

    Essentially this TTB ruling is ignoring scientific research and preying on the naivety of consumers. As all Scotch whisky sold in America cannot legally be labelled as gluten-free (as it must contain an element of malted barley), the entire category is going to struggle to gain the attention of this consumer segment if the trend toward gluten-free living and selective marketing of a handful of spirits continues to grow.

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