This week, 21st Century Distillery announced that its flagship Blue Ice Potato Vodka had become the first distilled spirit to be certified as "gluten-free" by the federal government.
Specifically, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau -- "TTB" for short -- approved a request by 21st Century Distillery to change the label of the vodka to include a red sticker that says "gluten free." Thomas Gibson, the company's chief operating officer, told The Huffington Post that the company initially applied for this designation two and a half years ago. Getting it, he explained, required extensive testing of the vodka and distilling plant by the TTB. But he said the approval was worth the work.
"We're the first spirits product that can put gluten-free on the label," he said. "We're going to be changing our packaging so that moving forward, all the bottles will have that seal. We're really excited about that."
Casual observers of the burgeoning gluten-free trend probably won't be shocked by the introduction of the country's first gluten-free brand of vodka. After all, Americans now spend more than $6 billion a year on gluten-free products, and nearly a third of all Americans say they're trying to cut back on gluten. Dozens of new gluten-free products are released every month. Why should vodka be any different?
Although that seems like a rhetorical question, there's an answer. Vodka should be different from cookies and English muffins because vodka, unlike cookies and English muffins, is naturally gluten-free. All distilled liquors are, from applejack to whiskey, even if they're made from grains, like wheat, barley and rye, that contain gluten.
"The process of distillation separates substances that are volatile from those that are not volatile," gluten expert Tricia Thompson explained. "Protein, including gluten, is not volatile and it does not vaporize. Therefore, in a proper distillation, you will not have protein in that final distillate."
Thompson said that spirits were firmly established as safe for those with celiac disease to drink in 1988, when Canadian researcher J.A. Campbell published a landmark paper showing that distillation removes all proteins, including gluten, from liquors. For that reason, many people who avoid gluten for health reasons have long imbibed spirits with a clean conscience. (Beer is a very different story. The overwhelming majority of beer contains gluten.)
The TTB's strict liquor labeling laws prevented any manufacturer from labeling any alcoholic beverage regulated by the bureau -- those with more than 7 percent alcohol by volume -- as "gluten free." But in May 2012, the TTB started allowing alcohol companies to advertise their products as gluten-free if they met certain standards. Under TTB's rules, however, distilled liquors could only apply for certification if they were made from gluten-free ingredients, such as agave, sugar cane and, yes, potatoes.
Thompson said that the TTB had excluded grain-based spirits from gluten-free certification because no test of the gluten content of distilled liquors has ever been "formally validated." For that reason, it's currently impossible to verify with absolute certainty than any liquor made with gluten-containing ingredients does not contain gluten. Still, she emphasized that the distillation process made it virtually impossible for distilled spirits to harbor potentially dangerous levels of gluten. For that reason, she expressed reservations about the advent of gluten-free certification for individual brands of liquor.
"What's going to happen now is that you're going to have people be really, really confused and wonder if they can only drink distilled spirits that say they're gluten free, when in fact, this was an issue that was settled long ago," she said.
Gibson, of 21st Century Liquors, said that he was aware that many believed that all spirits are gluten-free, but he felt confident that TTB's certification would make a difference with consumers.
"It has never been proven that a wheat-based product is gluten free," he said. "We're the only vodka that's gone through the time and process to be completely sure that there's no gluten in there. We think that to have it on the label so consumers can be 100 percent sure about drinking our vodka is a progressive step for the industry."
If sales of Blue Ice Potato Vodka rise after the label change, other distilleries may well follow 21st Century's lead and pursue TTB certification. And Gibson, for his part, is confident that the gluten-free label will boost sales.
"We conducted tests of the new label in some liquor chains in Southern California," he said. "When we put the label on the bottle, sales increased 40 percent."
Southern Californians may be more enthusiastic than most Americans about gluten-free products, but 40 percent is a large number. So large that even longtime celiac suffers and experts on gluten sensitivity shouldn't be surprised if they walk into a liquor store in two years and find the shelves crammed full of liquor touting a "gluten-free" status.