Before we get into the specifics of the different types of alcohol, there are some noteworthy differences between vegetarians and vegans. Both vegetarians and vegans exclude meat, poultry, and seafood from their diet; some vegetarians exclude dairy, while others don’t, and some may consume eggs. However, vegans also eliminate all animal products from their diet. This includes any type of animal milk and eggs. Vegans also avoid foods produced using animals or animal products in any way. If we take all this into consideration, a vegetarian could consume a pretty wide range of alcoholic beverages. This may not be the case for a purist vegan, however.
Drink producers usually incorporate animal derivatives in one of two different ways: as an ingredient in the drink itself; or in the filtering process, and it is through this filtration that most alcoholic drinks cease to be vegan. Some examples of animal products used in the production of alcoholic beverages include gelatin, casein, chitosan, isinglass, and egg albumen.
Both wine and beer are sometimes processed using animal products such as isinglass, egg whites, or gelatin. Unfortunately, these ingredients are never listed nor labeled clearly because alcohol is commonly exempt from the labeling requirements of other food products. Isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish, has historically been used to clarify ale during the secondary fermentation stage, to make the end product visibly clearer. The isinglass gathers up the yeast suspended within the liquid and makes it sink to the bottom of the cask. However, vegan ale is a fast-growing trend.
Vegan beers include Heineken, Corona and Carlsberg.
As we all know wine is made from grapes. Yeasts, either natural or cultured, convert the grape juice sugars into alcohol. However, some animal derived ingredients may be used in the clarifying and processing of wines to improve its overall appearance through ‘fining’. All young wines are cloudy and contain tiny molecules such as proteins, tartrates, tannins and phenolics. Drink producers use a variety of aids called ‘fining agents’ to make the wine clear and bright. Traditionally, the most commonly used ones are casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein) and isinglass (fish bladder protein).
Non-animal alternatives do exist in the form of bentonite (impure clay), kieselguhr (sedimentary rock), kaolin (clay mineral) and silica gel. Activated charcoal is another vegan and vegetarian-friendly agent that is also used. Also, organic wines are usually vegan and do not use animal derived finings, but it is always worth seeking clarification if unsure.
Spirits and liqueurs
Fortunately, virtually every brand of hard liqueur including bourbon, whiskey, vodka, gin, and rum, is considered to be vegan. Almost all distilled spirits are vegan except for cream-based liqueurs and products that mention honey on the label. Spirits are the highest alcohol by volume (or ABV) products of the yeast-based fermentation of a liquid brewed to have fermentable sugars. Unlike beer or wine, spirits are the product of distillation, which increases its alcoholic content.
Most spirits appear to be acceptable to vegetarians/vegans as they do not tend to involve the use of animal substances. However, some malt whiskies may have matured in sherry casks which had previously held sherry that has been treated with animal derived finings.