Is Maker’s Mark safe for celiacs?

Maker’s Mark is one of the most popular bourbon whiskies in the world. With its signature red wax seal and smooth, sweet taste, it has cultivated a dedicated following among bourbon enthusiasts. However, for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, enjoying a glass of Maker’s Mark poses some risks. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by the ingestion of gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. For celiacs, exposure to even small amounts of gluten can cause damage to the small intestine, resulting in symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and malnutrition. Understanding the ingredients and production process behind Maker’s Mark can help determine if it is considered gluten-free and safe for those with celiac disease.

What Ingredients Are Used in Maker’s Mark?

As a straight bourbon whiskey, the primary ingredients used to make Maker’s Mark are corn, malted barley and water. According to the federal standards of identity for straight bourbon whiskey, it must contain at least 51% corn in the mash bill (grain recipe). Rye or wheat is typically used for the remaining grain. Maker’s Mark has a mash bill of around 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat and 14% malted barley.

The use of malted barley is where the concern lies for people with celiac disease. Barley contains gluten and in the malting process, gluten helps convert the starches into fermentable sugars. However, the gluten content is significantly reduced later in the distillation process.

Distillation Process

After the grains are milled and mashed, the resulting liquid is distilled. During distillation, the mash is heated, causing the alcohol and other constituents to evaporate at different temperatures. Since alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, it can be condensed and separated. The gluten proteins from the barley remain in the still and are removed from the final distillate.

Most experts agree that the distillation process removes nearly all traces of gluten from the final spirit. Any gluten present would fall well below the 20 parts per million threshold to be considered gluten-free.

Barrel Aging

After distillation, Maker’s Mark is aged for around 5-7 years in charred oak barrels. The charred oak barrels impart flavor, complexity and color to the spirit as it ages. The barrels are also a possible source of gluten contamination. However, Maker’s Mark uses new oak barrels that have never contained other spirits. This avoids any cross-contamination from barrels that previously held whiskey made with rye or wheat instead of corn.

Testing for Gluten in Maker’s Mark

Over the years, there have been conflicting reports on whether Maker’s Mark contains detectable levels of gluten. Earlier testing often yielded mixed results, with some tests showing small amounts of gluten while others found none. These inconsistent results were primarily attributed to inconsistencies in the testing methods used at the time.

More recently, Maker’s Mark has been tested using newer ELISA testing methods that can accurately detect gluten down to 5-10 parts per million. The following gluten tests were conducted on Maker’s Mark whiskey:

  • In 2011, Maker’s Mark was tested by the Gluten Intolerance Group using the R5 ELISA test and found to contain less than 5 ppm of gluten.
  • A study in 2014 tested Maker’s Mark and other bourbons using the R5 ELISA test and Morinaga ELISA kit. No detectable gluten was found in any of the bourbons.
  • iEAT, a food allergen testing facility, tested Maker’s Mark in 2018 using the G12 ELISA kit. The results showed less than 10 ppm of gluten.

Based on this recent testing using validated methods, there does not appear to be any quantifiable gluten left in Maker’s Mark bourbon after distillation.

Is Maker’s Mark Completely Gluten-Free?

While the distillation process removes nearly all gluten protein from Maker’s Mark, it’s difficult to definitively claim any food or beverage as 100% gluten-free. However, Maker’s Mark meets the requirements to be considered gluten-free under the FDA guidelines:

  • The corn, wheat and barley used are inherently gluten-free grains.
  • The distillation process separates and removes the gluten proteins.
  • Subsequent testing shows non-detectable levels of gluten, below 20ppm.

Maker’s Mark does not specifically promote their whiskey as being gluten-free. Technically, the barley malt used in production means it cannot be labeled as such. However, based on its ingredients and test results, there is negligible gluten content remaining.

Are There Any Other Considerations?

In addition to the whiskey itself, those with celiac disease also need to watch out for added ingredients that may contain gluten. Maker’s Mark has limited edition offerings like:

  • Maker’s Mark 46 – Introduced seared French oak staves during aging.
  • Maker’s Mark Cask Strength – Bottled at a higher proof without watering down.
  • Flavored Editions – Infused with spices and other natural flavors.

When dealing with any flavored whiskeys or limited releases, it’s important to check that no additional sources of gluten were added after distillation. Maker’s Mark states that their products only use natural flavors derived from fruits, spices or grains that are gluten-free.

There is also some debate on whether whiskey aged in barrels previously used for wine or other spirits could pick up trace amounts of gluten. While not completely proven, this risk seems low since bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Cross-Contamination Risk

In facilities that handle gluten-containing grains, there is always potential for cross-contamination through shared equipment, storage vessels and transportation. Maker’s Mark has stated that their distillery takes steps to reduce cross-contamination, including:

  • Thorough cleaning of equipment between productions
  • Dedicated tanks, pipes and transportation for gluten-free grains
  • Mandatory procedures for employees handling gluten-containing materials

While they may not be able to guarantee a completely gluten-free facility, these measures can help limit any traces being introduced. Those highly sensitive should always use judgment and caution.

Maker’s Mark and Celiac Disease Support Groups

The consensus among most major celiac disease and gluten intolerance groups is that distilled spirits made from gluten-containing grains are safe in moderation. This includes organizations like:

  • Celiac Disease Foundation
  • National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
  • Beyond Celiac
  • Gluten Intolerance Group
  • Coeliac UK

Most of these organizations cite the distillation process as effectively removing gluten protein from the final products. They generally consider beverages like Maker’s Mark to be safe for those with celiac disease, though individual reactions may vary.

Personal Tolerances May Vary

It’s important to remember that celiac disease manifests differently in each individual. Factors like age, extent of damage to the small intestine and sensitivity levels can affect reactions to potential cross-contamination. Some celiacs report reacting negatively to whiskey even with undetectable levels of gluten. Others are able to handle occasional moderate gluten exposures with no issues. Each person needs to judge their own tolerance levels and comfortability with trace exposures from equipment and facilities.

Other Whiskey Considerations

When evaluating other whiskies, keep in mind that the mash bill can make a significant difference. Bourbons like Maker’s Mark with higher corn content tend to be safer than those with more rye or wheat. Malted barley is used in nearly all whiskies, but the fermented mash is then distilled to remove gluten. Contamination risks come more from shared equipment and barrels. Checking a particular whiskey brand’s production methods and testing results is the best way to assess potential gluten content.

Drinking Maker’s Mark with Celiac Disease

Based on its ingredients, distillation process and gluten testing results, most evidence indicates that Maker’s Mark whiskey is safe for those with celiac disease in moderate amounts. While unaffected by celiac disease themselves, the master distillers at Maker’s Mark also avoid making definitive gluten-free claims. Their focus remains on making a great-tasting bourbon, while trying to provide transparency for concerned consumers.

For celiacs, some general recommendations when considering Maker’s Mark include:

  • Research the brand’s production methods, testing policies and gluten-handling procedures.
  • Start with small serving sizes to judge individual tolerance.
  • Avoid versions with flavoring additives that may contain gluten.
  • Be extra cautious if you are highly sensitive or have severe celiac reactions.

Distilled spirits offer an appealing gluten-free option for many celiacs tired of being left out. With proper education and careful choices, bourbons like Maker’s Mark can often be enjoyed in moderation by those with celiac disease.

The Bottom Line

Despite being produced from gluten-containing grains, Maker’s Mark bourbon seems to be tolerated relatively well by most people with celiac disease. The distillation process removes nearly all gluten protein, resulting in non-detectable levels through validated testing methods. However, individual sensitivities can vary. Starting slowly and researching production methods is key for celiacs considering Maker’s Mark and other whiskies.

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