What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten (Wikipedia) is a composite of two proteins found in some grains in the grass family (like wheat, rye, and barley): gliadin and glutenin. If you’ve ever kneaded bread dough without putting down enough flour, you’ve seen the stuff that sticks to the counter like glue. That’s gluten, which is why its name comes from the latin for glue. Here’s what it looks like dry:
It’s what gives bread dough its elasticity, helps it rise, and gives it its chewiness when it’s done.
Some people have an allergy-type condition called celiac disease, and these people react dreadfully to the gliadin in gluten.
But wait a minute, isn’t vodka made of grain? Should I stick to potato vodkas to avoid all the gluten? Just look at all these vodkas that say they’re gluten-free! That must mean it’s a problem in other vodkas!
There was an advertiser in the 1950s named Rosser Reeves (one of the inspirations for Donald Draper in Mad Men, and the originator of the Melts in your mouth, not in your hand slogan for M&Ms). He was tasked with selling a rather unremarkable toothpaste from Proctor and Gamble called “Gleem.” After interviewing the production team, he found that the toothpaste contained chlorophyll as a breath freshening agent. He re-branded the chlorophyll as “GL-70,” and began to push the uniqueness of this remarkable toothpaste: the first to fight bad breath while it cleans your teeth! Gleem toothpaste contains the miracle ingredient GL-70, enjoy fresh breath without harsh mouthwash!
It sold well. It quickly became a very popular product, and it was only discontinued in 2014.
But here’s the thing: Gleem was not the first breath-freshening toothpaste. In fact, just about every toothpaste on the market already contained chlorophyll.
The truth is, quite aside from it being dubious that Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is even a thing, vodka cannot contain gluten.
Glutenin isn’t water or alcohol soluble, and gliadin is alcohol soluble, but only at 140 proof.
Vodka is a clear spirit, and this slide from an Oregon State University Department of Biochemistry presentation on the use of wheat gluten in biomanufacturing shows that neither part of gluten is soluble in regular vodka. If it’s not dissolved, where is it?
The mash used to make wheat vodkas does contain gluten, but vodka is made by distilling the alcohol out of that mash.
Distilleries refine alcohol (in the simplest terms) by raising the mash to the boiling point of alcohol, then condensing the alcohol steam into spirit. Alcohol boils at 173.1°F (78.37°C), well below the 212°F (100°C) required to boil water, so the water is left behind in the mash, along with everything else.
Certain congeners and other molecules can be transported with the alcohol in this process, ending up in the spirit. This is what gives different vodkas their character.
Gluten is not a congener. Gluten is the heavy protein composite that makes old-fashioned bread possible.
It doesn’t boil when you bake your bread, and it doesn’t boil when you distill vodka.
Just try to boil this. It ain’t gonna work.
It’s important, before you accept something as fact, that you first understand it, or you’ll find yourself using Don Draper’s toothpaste.