Published On: Wed, Jan 11th, 2017

A vegan’s guide to ethical alcohol

The Vegan Society’s Louise Hopkins navigates the potential pitfalls of your favourite drinks to make sure they’re vegan and animal-friendly…

A vegan's guide to ethical alcohol

Alcohol is something of a vegan’s no-man’s land; a minefield of misinformation and misunderstanding. There remains a distinct lack of knowledge about what goes into the drinks we consume, making vegans and omnivores alike often surprised to learn that their favourite tipple contains animal products.

Drink producers typically incorporate animal derivatives in one of two different ways: 1) as an ingredient in the drink itself; or 2) in the filtering process, and it is through this filtration that most alcoholic drinks cease to be vegan.

The full extent of the amount of animal products in drinks is very difficult to quantify, not least because manufacturers in the UK are not required by law to list their ingredients for alcohol content higher than 1.2%. This lack of transparency regrettably poses problems for those choosing to live cruelty-free. But fear not, keep reading for some much-needed info, plus a few tips and tricks for drinking with a conscience.

What makes alcoholic drinks not vegan?

Some common animal products hidden 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

Beer and cider

A vegan's guide to ethical alcohol

Luckily for lager lovers, many of the mainstream brands remain free from animal products. Real ale enthusiasts, however, have an altogether tougher time, mainly because of the dreaded isinglass.  As with some white wine as described on the right, isinglass, which as we now know is fish guts, has historically been used to clarify ale, to make the end product visibly clearer. This archaic method continues to be used by most real ale breweries, although there are exceptions. Barnivore.com is great for quickly checking the vegan status of beer and cider, as well as wine.

A general rule of thumb for beer drinkers is therefore to steer clear of draft real ales, and instead opt for lagers known to be vegan or German and Belgian brews. The brewing purity laws in these two countries, known locally as ‘Reinheitsgebot’, decrees that beers can only contain water, hops, malted barley and wheat – and nothing else – meaning that pretty much all their beers are animal-free.

Vegan ale is, however, a fast-growing trend amongst craft beer companies here in the UK, which is very much embracing plant-based brewing: Moor, Marble, BrewDog are three such breweries. As well as the obvious ethical benefits, it is widely accepted that the absence of isinglass significantly improves the flavour and taste of the finished product.

Even Guinness made the decision last November (World Vegan Month) to ditch the fish, and is set to go vegan towards the end of this year. Surprisingly and sadly, the vast majority of ciders are not vegan friendly. The most popular brands incorporate gelatine into their manufacturing, such as Kopparberg, Strongbow and Rekorderlig.

Vegan beers and ciders:
  • Stella Artois
  • Budweiser
  • Beck’s
  • Corona
  • Carlsberg
  • San Miguel
  • Heineken
  • Pear-flavoured Magners
  • Bulmers
  • Guinness

Wine

A vegan's guide to ethical alcohol

It would be reasonable to assume that wine, made predominately from grapes, would be plant-based. But no! The final ‘fining’ process often uses animal derivatives to latch onto any impurities in the wine, so that unwanted particles can be easily caught in the filters before bottling. White, rosé and sparkling wines typically use isinglass, derived from fish swim bladders, to make the end product clear and bright. In red wine, to remove any bitter flavours, egg whites and milk protein are also often used. Watch out for fortified wines too, as port and sherry are usually a no-go due to the addition of gelatine.

These fining methods are not essential processes, but do dramatically speed up production, as it would otherwise take a month or more for wine to clear naturally. Some manufacturers do opt to clarify naturally, so look out for ‘not fined/filtered’ on labels.  Vegan alternatives do exist in the form of natural rock and clay, which organic wineries tend to go for. Be aware that organic does not mean plant-based, so always seek clarification if unsure. Online databases like barnivore.com are great for some quick and easy reassurance.

Vegan wine:
  • Co-op, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco sell own-brand vegan wine
  • Co-op – prosecco
  • Oxford Landing – Sauvignon Blanc
  • Or shop online at veganwinesonline.co.uk

Spirits

A vegan's guide to ethical alcohol

Spirits are mostly a vegan safe-zone, as the most popular and widely-used spirit brands are suitable. There can, however, be some anomalies, such as some imported vodkas being filtered with charred animal bones as part of the sugar-refining process, but these are the exception rather than the norm. Cream-based liquors are often fairly straightforward to identify, brands like Baileys and Advocaat are well-known to contain dairy products. Milk, cream and even eggs can also make an appearance in cocktails, yet in these instances the ingredients are fairly self-explanatory on bar menus. It is easy to be caught out though, so remain savvy. A Bloody Mary cocktail, for example, is not vegan-friendly as Worcester sauce contains anchovies. 

When it comes to mixing your spirits, most soft drinks like Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Schweppes products are vegan. Gelatine can be used to give drinks like Tango its orange colour, so watch out for these. Red beverages also sometimes get their appearance from crushed insect scales, an ingredient often identified as cochineal extract, carmine, crimson lake, or E120. Watch out for this in the aperitif Campari and grapefruit flavoured soft drinks. 

Vegan spirits:
  • Bacardi
  • Smirnoff
  • Pimms
  • Jagermeister
  • Captain Morgan Rum
  • Jack Daniels
  • Don Julio Tequila
  • Jose Cuervo

Where to buy

In stores

It is becoming increasingly common to see companies and supermarkets labelling their products as vegan. The Co-op is particularly helpful in listing different alcohols’ ingredients and suitability for vegans. Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Asda sometimes state whether their own-label wines are vegan. The easiest option for the conscious consumer are products that sport The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark, as they are guaranteed to be cruelty-free.

A vegan's guide to ethical alcohol

Out and about
  • 13th Note, Glasgow: An independent music venue that offers comedy and theatre events while serving vegan food, lagers and wine.
  • Northern Monk Refectory, Leeds: Brews its own veggie-friendly beers and offers an array of vegan food in its pop-up ‘Grub and Grog’ shop.
  • The Railway Hotel, Southend: Serving only vegan and vegetarian food, this pub is well-known for its live music and friendly crowds.
  • Vegbar, London: This Brixton-based bar serves food and cocktails that are 100% vegan. With live entertainment and music every weekend, it flaunts a nightclub, speakeasy and cinema screen.
Online

Barnivore: The online database Barnivore is a great resource when buying ahead, listing 26,898 beverages that are checked by vegans. www.barnivore.com.

The Vegaholic: This app is perfect for when on-the-go. It works as a traffic light system so a red light means non-vegan, amber warns that the product sometimes does contain animal products, and a green light means good to go. www.vegaholic.com.

Find out more at www.vegansociety.com

Follow Vegan Food & Living on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest news, recipes and product launches from the vegan community. 

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