Is absinthe gluten-free?

Gluten-free diet regimens have become very popular over the past few years. As with many dieting trends, this may end up being a short-lived fad, but as the partner of someone who maintains a strict gluten-free diet by medical necessity and not by choice, I can tell you that knowing the gluten content of consumables will remain crucial for many people for the rest of their lives.

So, when it comes to our favorite aperitif, is absinthe considered to be a sweet green fairy, or a mean green scourge for folks living with Celiac disease? Simply put, is absinthe gluten-free? In a word: YES! *

That asterisk is all too familiar to baseball fans perusing player stats, and is not the definitive answer someone living with Celiac disease will be hoping to read, but the good news is that traditional absinthe made according to the authentic recipe profiles will be perfectly fine. Those absinthes consist of a distilled neutral base alcohol containing a variety of herbs and other botanicals which have been macerated in it, none of which contain gluten, so gluten-sensitive folks may indeed be given the green light to enjoy absinthe.

But let’s back up for a moment. What exactly is gluten, and why should we care? Gluten is the catch-all name for the protein complexes, specifically, prolamins and glutelins, which are found in wheat, rye, and barley (with similar complexes being found in oats as well). These protein complexes are toxic to the digestive tract of many folks; it is estimated that 5% to 10% of the population (about 3 million people in the USA) has some sensitivity to gluten, but that 97% of those folks have not been diagnosed. For some, it amounts to a sensitivity to gluten which causes some mild discomfort after consumption, but for others who have Celiac disease, it can cause damage to the small intestine which gets progressively worse (and even life-threatening) over time.

As such, it’s important for these individuals to avoid consuming anything which contains these glutens. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, this means most beers are automatically taken off their menu (after all, it wasn’t considered “liquid bread” by the ancients for nothing). However, several gluten-free beer options have become available in recent years, as brewers have experimented with using such grains as rice and sorghum to replace the traditional barley and wheat.

The subject of distilled liquor (including absinthe) is a little bit more complex. All distilled liquors are considered by the ADA and to be safe for those with gluten intolerances, because the distillation process removes the gluten protein complexes from the finished liquor, rendering it gluten-free. This applies even to liquor made from gluten-laden grains such as wheat and rye.

However, not everyone agrees on that being 100% true, citing their own personal experiences with grain-based distilled alcohol (see the comments section in that same link). Whether those effects are psychosomatic or possibly the result of an imperfect distillation is difficult to say, but those who are sensitive to gluten on any level should use their own judgment when it comes to grain-based alcohols. (On a personal aside, my partner and I shared several glasses of wheat whiskey over the course of a few months, and she suffered no ill effects from it.) That being said, there is no concern at all with distilled absinthe which uses a wine/brandy/grape-based neutral alcohol instead of a grain-based alcohol, so if you’re being particularly cautious, choosing one of those absinthes is the way to go.

So how is it that absinthe or any grain-based alcohol could be gluten-free via distillation, only to then become contaminated with gluten after the distillation process? For one thing, the production of absinthe doesn’t end after distillation, with the exception of blanches (white absinthe). The coloring step which gives green absinthe its distinctive color occurs after distillation, and consists of soaking a variety of herbs in the distilled liquor. As long as that combination of herbs doesn’t contain any wheat, barley, rye and/or oats, then there is little cause for concern. However, if a distillery which produces absinthe also produces its own grain-based neutral alcohol (which is rarer than you might think), then they must exercise caution and make sure that the distilled liquor from a finished batch does not come into contact with the raw grain and/or the fermented mash derived from that grain, and that any shared equipment (from paddles used to stir batches, to muslin bags used to soak botanicals in the still) is thorougly cleaned in between uses. Lastly, when absinthe is prepared at home, you may use sweeteners such as sugar, simple syrup, and agave nectar without fear of gluten-contamination, but avoid using brown rice syrup, as many of these contain barley malt enzyme.

Please note that while liquors and liqueurs are considered to be safe for those with gluten intolerance, that does not apply to all liquor-centric products nor mixed drinks. In addition to beer, wine coolers and some ciders containing gluten via barley, some pre-made drink mixes (particularly Bloody Mary mixes) also may contain barley malt and/or hydrolyzed wheat protein. You can always ask your server or bartender about potential gluten-content of these products, but remember that not everyone knows or understands which ingredients contain gluten, so consider playing it safe by not ordering certain drinks when you are enjoying a night out.

Nightshade Apothecary Absinthe by Free Spirit