During a recent series of whisky seminars I presented at a Scottish Highland games, the gluten status of Scotch became a talking point with audiences.
As described by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. For those with the disease, gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestine, and over time, the inflammation causes loss of absorption of some nutrients. Intestinal damage can cause weight loss, bloating, and diarrhea, along with an overall deprivation of nourishment. The incidence of celiac disease in the US is concerning: 40,000 to 60,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease, and it is estimated that more than three million remain undiagnosed. As there was substantial conjecture, no definite answers, and a great deal of interest at the seminars, I decided to look into the subject.
My initial stop was Google, searching for “Is single malt Scotch whisky gluten free” and the first two results were “Single malt Scotch whisky is gluten free”, followed by: “Single malt Scotch whisky is NOT gluten free.” Another site advised, “It depends on whom you ask.” Other sites used words like “perhaps”, “can be”, “may be”, “trial and error”, and other phrases that were far from addressing the question with assurance.
Research became more definitive when http://wwwceliaccess.com showed the Gluten Status of The Macallan single malt: “Confirmed Gluten Free”, and offered this supporting information: “Tested with the EZ-Gluten ELISA (a test kit for consumers) and it is negative for gluten. As others have speculated, even though this product is initially made from grain, the distillation process results in only the alcohol being captured, not the residual proteins in the grain.” Similar information was found at http://www.celiac.com: “All distilled alcohols are gluten-free.” and http://www.gluten.lovetoknow.com: “The distillation process involves heating the fermented base and collecting the purified vapor, and [Scotch] can be considered gluten-free.” In the UK, the disease is called coeliac disease and http://www.coeliac.org.uk reports “Even when a cereal that contains gluten is used as an ingredient, all spirits are distilled during the manufacturing process and this removes any trace of gluten. Therefore, all spirit drinks (including malt whisky which is made from barley) are suitable for people with coeliac disease.”
What about blended whiskies? http://www.gf-glutenfree.com offers this: “Many people ask: Can I drink Johnnie Walker Scotch if I am a celiac? Well, luckily the answer is yes. Whisky is made by distilling cereal grains such as corn, rye or barley. Examples of gluten free [blended] Scotch whisky are Johnny Walker (Red, Blue, Black and Green Label), Chivas Regal, Black Douglas, Teachers and Ballantine.”
And, what about caramel coloring? Caramel coloring is a food coloring which is water soluble, and whose color palette ranges from pale yellows to dark browns. It is produced by heating nutritive sweeteners, including fructose, glucose, sucrose and many others in the presence of acids, alkalis and/or salts. Author Shelley Case http://www.glutenfreediet.ca/, states: “North American and European manufacturers generally use corn or wheat based glucose to produce caramel color, which is highly processed and is generally considered gluten free.” The Scotch Whisky Regulations, November 2009, define “Scotch whisky” using nine parameters, including ingredients, size and type of casks for maturation, and alcoholic strength. In describing added substances, the regulations state, “Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel coloring [which] may be added to single malt Scotch whisky prior to bottling, to give the whisky a more rich and well-aged appearance.” The Scotch Whisky Research Institute, Edinburgh, regarding the addition of caramel coloring, says: “From the aspect of a celiac sufferer who has food intolerance for wheat, there is no problem in consuming Scotch containing wheat-based caramel.” The SWRI goes on to say, “Caramels were examined very closely by the European Food Standards Agency and the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs (DG SANCO), and they concluded there was no risk to celiac sufferers from spirit caramel made from wheat.”
When all is said and done, the gluten-free status of whisky is not a slam dunk. From http://www.celiacdisease.com: “It’s possible that distillation doesn’t remove 100% of the gluten (studies have been mixed on this point), or that a small amount of gluten is added back in as part of processing after distillation. In some cases, whiskey manufacturers add caramel coloring (which may contain gluten) or even a small amount of the undistilled grain mash after the distillation process.” The advice of my friend Robin Fosler of Camarillo, CA, is good for others with celiac disease, “I am very careful about what I ingest and am constantly reading labels, calling manufacturers and asking questions of wait staff and chefs.”
For those whiskey drinkers, celiac-prone or not, interested in expanding their libation library, Old Sugar Distillery in Wisconsin, offers Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey. Made from 100% Wisconsin sorghum and aged in small charred oak barrels from Minnesota, this whiskey is to be considered for its compatibility for celiac sufferers and for whiskey fans looking for something unique. Visit their website at: http://www.madisondistillery.com.
As a disclaimer, I am not a medical professional, nor am I a celiac sufferer. This article is an attempt at clarifying and providing support documentation, hopefully to allow people with celiac disease who love Scotch whisky to enjoy it, without worrying.
Comments about your personal experiences with celiac and Scotch are welcomed.