What to look out for when buying vegan alcohol

Vegan alcohol is a subject I get asked a lot of questions about, and I’ve mentioned before that alcohol was one of the last areas I tackled when going vegan. It can be a bit of a minefield as drinks don’t tend to be as clearly labelled as food products and so there can be a lack of information about what is actually in the wine, beer, cider and spirits we drink.

This issue is heightened as UK manufacturers are not required by law to list the ingredients for alcohol content higher than 1.2%, and so this lack of information can make it really difficult to navigate the vegan alcohol sector.

One of the main questions I get asked is why alcohol might not be vegan in the first place, and unfortunately there are 2 main reasons for this:

  1. Firstly, animal derivatives are used as an actual ingredient in the drink; and,
  2. Secondly (and most commonly), animal derivatives are used as part of the filtering process

I would recommend always reading the labels of the alcohol you wish to purchase, and this is a handy list from Vegan Food & Living of some common animal products used in alcoholic drinks to look out for:

  • Albumen: which is derived from egg white
  • Albumin: from eggs or dried blood
  • Carmine: crushed scales of a cochineal insect
  • Casein: obtained from milk
  • Charcoal: often derived from animal bone
  • Chitin: derived from the shells of crabs or lobsters
  • Gelatine: from bones and connective tissues of cows or pigs
  • Honey: derived from bees
  • Isinglass: obtained from fish swim bladders
  • Lactose: protein derived from milk
  • Pepsin: a foaming agent in beer sometimes derived from pigs

Ok, so let’s talk about the main things to look out for.

Wine

Unfortunately wine can be the hardest area to navigate due to the filtration processes used towards the end of production. Oh, you thought that because grapes are vegan, wine was also vegan? Yeah, no. Humans do weird shit to things. 

White wine, Rosé and Sparkling Wines typically use Isinglass in their production process. This is a substance made of the swim bladders of fish and dried to form collagen used in the clarification process, which is used to make the wine clearer. Whereas in Red Wine, egg whites and milk protein are often used to remove any bitterness in the end product. Yummmy. The frustrating part is that these filtration processes aren’t essential as the wine would naturally clear in a month or so, but they are used to speed up production.

However, the good news is not all companies use these methods so look out for ‘not fined/filtered’ on the bottles, as this would suggest they are suitable for vegans.  Supermarkets and manufacturers are also getting a lot better at labeling and cataloging vegan wines, so you can always ask to see the product list when searching in store, or research online beforehand. 

Popular Vegan Wines: 

  • Co-op, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco sell own-brand vegan wine
  • Co-op – Prosecco
  • Yellowtail (red wine only)
  • Oxford Landing (Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Charles Shaw (red wines only)
  • Frey Vineyards
  • Lumos Wine
  • Red Truck Wines
  • The Vegan Vine

Beer/Cider

Beer and cider can be a mixed bag.

Luckily, the majority of mainstream lager brands are suitable for vegans and are animal free. This includes Budweiser, Stella, Corona, Becks etc. 

The problem you’ll encounter is when it comes to Real Ale due to the use of isinglass (again with the fish guts). As described above with the wine, this is used to clarify the ale and make it clearer. Unfortunately most real ale breweries use this method, however Barnivore is a great resource for finding vegan ales and manufacturers. 

Interestingly, the brewing purity laws in German and Belgian state that beers can only contain water, hops, malted barley and wheat. So this means that almost all of their beer is animal-free. Hooooray! So a bit of advice would be to avoid or steer clear of draft real ales, and go for lagers or German and Belgian brews. 

More good news is that vegan ale is becoming ridiculously trendy, and many craft beer companies  in the UK are embracing the plant power and are focusing only on plant-based brewing. Moor, Marble, BrewDog are three breweries to keep your eye out for. And for you Guinness lovers, Guinness announced last November as part of World Vegan Month that they plan to stop using isinglass completely and their products are all set to go vegan by the end of 2017.

When it comes to Cider, you need to keep an eye out. Many of the larger manufacturers use gelatin in their products, this includes Kopparberg, Strongbow and Rekorderlig which should all be avoided. However, there are still some popular brands that are good to go for vegans, included on the list below. 

Vegan Beers & Ciders:

  • Stella Artois
  • Budweiser
  • Beck’s
  • Corona
  • Carlsberg
  • San Miguel
  • Heineken
  • Pear-flavoured Magners
  • Bulmers
  • Thatchers
  • Old Mout
  • Stonewell Cider
  • Brothers Cider

Spirits

Good news is you’re mostly safe when it comes to spirits. Most of the popular big brands are all suitable for vegans.

However there are a few things to look out for, such as cream-based liquors like Baileys and Advocaat which both contain dairy products. It’s also worth bearing in mind that cocktails can often have other ingredients added into them such as egg, cream, milk, chocolate, honey and Worcester sauce etc. So just make sure you’re aware of all the ingredients if ordering a fancy AF cocktail.

Another thing to look out for is mixers being used with your spirits. Most soft drinks are vegan, so you’re fine when going for Coke, Diet Coke, Red Bull, Lemonade etc. However some orange coloured soft drinks again contain isinglass or gelatine to maintain their colour, and some red drinks can contain shellac or crushed insects which are listed on the ingredients as cochineal extract, carmine, crimson lake, or E120. Avoid Campari and grapefruit flavoured soft drinks especially for this, and some fortified wines such as sherry and port can also have added gelatin.

Oh and of course, because things are never simple and humans do freaky stuff, sometimes there can be gross ingredients thrown in like some imported vodkas which use charred animal bones in the filtration process, but luckily these tend to be pretty rare and can normally be easily googled. 

Vegan Spirits: 

  • Bacardi
  • Smirnoff
  • Pimms
  • Jagermeister
  • Captain Morgan Rum
  • Jack Daniels
  • Don Julio Tequila
  • Jose Cuervo
  • Tia Maria

Where to buy

Like most things in the vegan world, knowledge is power and educating yourself and others is key!

There are lots of helpful resources to help you do this, and companies are also getting a lot better at supporting this with their labeling. The Co-op Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Asda list the vegan wines/beers available on their online stores, so just search ‘vegan wine’ and you’ll be provided with a list.  

In addition, there is a tonne of information online and there are some amazing databases available such as:

All of which have thousands of alcoholic beverages listed to make buying alcohol, much much easier! 

Phew.

Ok wow. I need a drink.

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