There are numerous gluten-free alcoholic beverages on the market, but you still need to be wary of hidden gluten in your drinks. Most alcoholic beverages are not regulated by FDA and therefore do not adhere to a standard definition for gluten-free.
There is some disagreement within the gluten-free community about which alcoholic beverages are truly safe, so I will note the controversy as necessary.
Your level of sensitivity to gluten will determine what alcoholic beverages are safest for you to consume—the most gluten-sensitive people may react to small amounts of gluten and should take the recommended precautions; if you are not especially sensitive to gluten, these recommendations may not apply to you.
Keep in mind that, especially if you have a sensitive disposition, you may also react to other ingredients in alcoholic beverages such as sulfites or tannins in wine or chemicals in highly-processed mixers.
Beer / Malt Beverages
Traditional beer and malt beverages are brewed from gluten-containing grains, most typically barley or wheat. Unlike some distilled liquors that are also derived from gluten-containing grains but considered gluten-free (see information below), most traditional beer and malt beverages are not distilled and their gluten content far exceeds the 20 ppm gluten-free standard. Alternatives for beer and malt beverages include gluten-free beer (see below), hard cider, and kombucha (a probiotic-rich, fermented tea). Home-brewers can also find a variety of gluten-free beer and kombucha recipe and kit options online.
Gluten-free beer can be brewed from grains that do not contain gluten, such as millet, rice, buckwheat, sorghum, and/or corn. Gluten-free beer can also be brewed from gluten-containing grains if the manufacturer uses a gluten filtration or removal process AND testing of the beer meets the proposed gluten-free standard of 20 ppm.
There is some controversy about the accuracy of the tests used by manufacturers to quantify the presence of gluten in these beverages. In addition, there is some controversy about “low-gluten” traditional beers that test below 20 ppm but are not specially processed to remove gluten proteins.
Therefore, the best and most reliable test for most gluten-sensitive individuals remains how their body reacts to these gluten-free options.
Wine is made by mixing crushed grapes with yeast, which is followed by a fermentation, aging, and bottling process that varies according to type of wine. Wine is generally considered gluten-free because it almost always meets the gluten-free standard of 20 ppm.
Although wine is naturally gluten-free, there is some controversy about a few aspects of the manufacturing process for wine. A possible, but unlikely, source of gluten contamination occurs in (mostly European) wines aged in barrels that use wheat-based paste. Most domestic winemakers use tank-fermentation or other methods for aging that are safe for the gluten-sensitive population. If you are concerned about this issue, I recommend contacting the winemaker about their aging process.
Another possible, but unlikely, source of gluten contamination occurs from the use of a wheat-based fining agent that clarifies the wine. It is also common for winemakers to use other allergens, such as dairy or egg, as a fining agent. The source of fining agent is not typically labeled on the finished product. If you are concerned about this issue, I recommend contacting the winemaker about their fining agents.
I also recommend avoiding wine drinks, like wine coolers, or any wines that have added colorings or flavorings unless you can confirm their gluten-free status because they may contain barley malt, colorings, and/or flavorings that are not gluten-free. Instead, make your own sangria or wine spritzer if you are interested in a different wine option.
Hard Liquor / Mixed Drinks
Brandy, cognac, ouzo, port, sake, sherry, and triple sec are naturally gluten-free because they are not sourced from gluten-containing grains. As with naturally gluten-free foods, their gluten-free status may be affected by processing conditions or adding flavorings and/or colorings. I recommend confirming their gluten-free status before consumption.
Gin, vodka, scotch whiskey, and rye whiskey may be sourced from gluten-containing grains; however, the distillation process, in theory, should remove all gluten proteins and hypothetically be gluten-free.
There is controversy about the distillation process because it is not standardized and gluten testing is inaccurate. Some gluten-sensitive individuals may react to these drinks; your own experience will best determine if you need to avoid gluten-sourced distilled alcohol.
High-quality tequila and rum are almost always gluten-free, but beware of pre-packaged mixed drinks and cheaper alternatives as they may contain gluten. I also recommend taking precautions when ordering or purchasing drinks with flavored liqueurs and pre-made mixes; mixers can quickly make a naturally gluten-free option unsafe.
Alcoholic beverages are a common source of gluten contamination, so always double-check what ingredients are in your drinks.