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Beyond the Bottle: Gluten Free Insanity

Written by Michael Goldney, Co-founder of LB Distillers

Originally posted March 11th, 2015

AS A CRAFT DISTILLER, I GET ASKED A LOT OF QUESTIONS. I LOVE QUESTIONS I CAN ANSWER. SO GENERALLY, IT WORKS OUT WELL FOR ME. IN A PREVIOUS CAREER I WAS A PHYSICIAN AND I STILL LOVE THE OCCASIONAL MEDICAL QUESTION. HOWEVER, ONE OF MY LEAST FAVORITE QUESTIONS HAS TO BE “ARE YOUR PRODUCTS GLUTEN FREE?” IT’S NOT THAT THE QUESTION IS DIFFICULT TO ANSWER. ALL OF OUR PRODUCTS ARE GLUTEN FREE. WHAT BOTHERS ME IS THAT WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO ANSWER THE QUESTION. THE ANSWER SHOULD BE EASY.

But it is not easy, and I don’t blame the poor people who suffer from Celiac Disease. It is not their fault. I don’t even blame those pursuing a gluten free diet just because it is trendy. Hey, if it makes you feel better not consuming gluten, please go ahead, and enjoy your gluten free lifestyle. I blame the unscrupulous marketers who slap the “gluten free” label on everything. This is what leads to mass confusion.

For those that do not know, gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and other cereal grains. Like most proteins it does not tolerate added heat without denaturing and changing shape. So even though we are making alcohol from grains, I can say with certainty that there is no gluten when the alcohol comes off the still, not even a little bit. I am not alone in this conviction. According to the Canadian Celiac Association website:

Rye whisky, scotch whisky, gin, and vodka are distilled from a mash of fermented grains. Rum is distilled from sugar cane. Brandy is distilled from wine and bourbon is distilled from a grain mash including corn. Since the distillation process does not allow proteins to enter the final product, distilled alcohols are gluten free.

Even though it is chemically impossible for any gluten to survive the distillation process I will still hear objections from people who say that they got terribly sick from a grain-based vodka. These people tend to be skeptical of my assertions and think it must be the gluten. Well, you know what? I believe you that you had a very bad experience. Furthermore, I appreciate your skepticism. Skepticism should be admired in my opinion. I just don’t believe that it was the gluten that necessarily made you very ill. There are other reasons you may have been rendered ill. Alcohol is after all toxic. It is quickly converted to acetaldehyde by your liver. Acetaldehyde is even more toxic than ethanol. Fortunately, most of the time, acetaldehyde is quickly converted to acetic acid with the help of an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ADH). However, genetics are complicated. We inherit different genes for this and other enzymes. Even if we have the right genetic code, we humans have variable expression of the ADH gene. The production of ADH can also be impaired by certain medications or getting older. All of which means that some people are prone to getting violently ill from alcohol. These people should avoid all alcohol. I don’t mean to suggest that every case of alcohol intolerance is from problems with ADH enzyme expression. I just want to point out that not every case of alcohol intolerance can be blamed on the evil that is gluten. You won’t hurt my feelings if you cannot drink alcohol. It’s okay. You are probably still a great person.

So, it is not the people who are skeptical of my assertion that our spirits have no gluten that bother me. I will respect their experiences and we can move on. What bothers me greatly is how it has become a marketing trend to label everything gluten free. If something never had cereal grains in it and never had the potential to have gluten, we should not have to declare it gluten free. I don’t have to declare our products cyanide free, or arsenic free, or Ebola free. So, when I see a corn or rice-based product labelled gluten free I want to lose it. When I see a wine or rum proudly declaring that it is gluten free, I actually physically shudder. It gets worse. Now the gluten free madness has extended to non-food items. I recently was shopping for oak barrels and saw that a company is advertising their barrels as gluten free! You can imagine my relief that finally we can secure a source of gluten free oak barrels (he typed sarcastically)!

You might tell me I am overreacting. Maybe I am. But at best the tactic is a cheap marketing gimmick and at worst it is taking advantaging and exploiting a very serious medical condition. Make no mistake that people actually suffer physical pain from gluten sensitivity. You also have to give me that it does create confusion. How can we expect people to know what gluten is if we haphazardly declare things gluten free! People must get confused.

There. I have finished my rant. I certainly feel better now. I’m going to get off my soap box and back to making some delicious gluten free spirits.

Michael Goldney. Co-founder of LB Distillers
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