How to Avoid Those GMO Booze Blues
Paying attention to the foodprint of your dinner? Why not do the same for cocktails with friends? There might be GMO alcohol in your old fashioned and the gin in your martini may have started out from GMO grain or corn. But there are options for non-GMO alcohol to pour from instead.
What’s the Big Deal with GMOs?
Why should you care if your cocktail is made with GMO alcohol? Over the last 20 or so years, the use of genetic modification in conventional agriculture has become an industry standard. With the rise in GMO use has come a wave of consumer concern, about both GMO safety and the increasing use of herbicides — like glyphosate — associated with their production. While there’s an ongoing debate about the safety of GMOs for human health, one thing is very clear: herbicide-resistant GMOs are bad for the environment. Because of these concerns, the USDA will begin to implement a GMO label in 2020, which will be mandatory for food companies by 2022.
In the US, around 90 percent of the corn grown is genetically modified. And seeing how many domestic whiskeys — as well as some gins — are made from varying quantities of corn, either as part of the whiskey mash or to make a neutral grain spirit, it’s possible that your cocktail is anything but GMO free. So, if you’re trying to avoid GMOs, what do you drink?
How to Find Non-GMO Alcohol For Your Cocktail
One of the easiest ways to avoid GMO alcohol (as well as GM food) is to buy products that have the certified USDA organic label, a certification that prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms. And, even though you may not encounter many certified organic spirits, it never hurts to ask your local bartender if they carry any certified organic brands. These are typically from smaller producers and can be harder to come by. For instance, Buffalo Trace Distillery, owned by large producer, Sazerac, has a small-batch, certified organic bourbon.
Some smaller producers of certified organic spirits in the US include Square One vodka made from rye and Prairie vodka made from corn. Koval makes a single barrel, certified organic bourbon as does Wigle Pennsylvania Bourbon. As for rum, look for a bottle made with organic molasses and spices, like Los Angeles’ Crusoe or Minneapolis-based Drake’s. And don’t forget the tequila, with such certified organic producers as 123 Organic Tequila and 4 Copas. Del Maguey Single Village makes a certified organic mezcal. Although these tequilas and mezcals are from Mexico, they are certified USDA organic.
Even if it’s not certified organic, some of the larger US whiskey brands are quietly using non-GMO corn. As of right now, there are at least two popular whiskey brands on the market that use non-GMO corn — Wild Turkey and Four Roses.
If you’re a Scotch drinker or choosing a spirit distilled in Europe, there’s good news. GMOs are very strictly regulated and nearly entirely banned in the European Union. Then again, there are strict rules on what goes into Scotch, so it’s a safe choice for various reasons.
Four General Tips to Help You Avoid GMO Alcohol
- As we mentioned, look for a brand that carries the USDA organic label.
- If that’s not an option, avoid alcohol that is primarily made from GM crops – like corn, soy and sugar beets.
- If you’re still going for corn-based alcohols (not just whiskey, bourbon and rye, but some gins and vodkas, too), pick ones made with non-GMO corn. Avoid flavored and colorful alcohol, which can contain additives, high fructose corn syrup (made from GMO corn), food coloring and more.
- Drink brands from Europe where GMOs are (nearly) banned.
If you have the time, do some research and find a good non-GMO alcohol option (and let us know what it is!).
The Best Options For Non-GMO Alcohol, by Alcoholic Beverage Type
What is it made from? A neutral spirit base usually made from corn, barley, wheat and/or rye. But you can find gin made from other ingredients including quinoa and potato among other agricultural products. The spirit base is infused/distilled with juniper berries and other botanicals, such as caraway, angelica, cardamom, coriander seed, cassia bark and citrus.
Is it commonly GMO? Many gins are made from a non-specified neutral spirit base. This makes it more complicated to figure out, but the base could include corn, so would likely be GM if it originated in the US.
Where is it made? Because of the variety of ingredients that it can be made from, gin is produced all over the world.
Best choice: Organic gin. If you can’t find organic, look for gins made from small, local producers using interesting base alcohols that aren’t corn or a corn blend. Check out this 100 percent barley malt gin, 100 percent wheat gin or this 100 percent potato gin.
What is it made from? Blue agave.
Is it commonly GMO? Agave is not a genetically modified crop, so for the time being you don’t have to worry about GMOs when you’re purchasing a bottle of 100 percent agave tequila. But because erratic weather behavior — including snowfalls and frost — has caused blue agave sugar production to drop significantly, while also leaving the plant more susceptible to disease and pests, Mexican scientists are currently looking at a GMO option, although it’s still unclear if the tequila regulatory board will allow the spirit to be made from genetically modified plants.
It’s also important to note that the blue agave crops are often grown in an industrial monoculture fashion, and are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Because it takes the plants six to 10 years to grow to maturity, to lose a crop would be devastating for the farmer so they “protect” them by using industrial practices such as chemical sprays.
Also keep in mind that the spirit only needs to be made from 51 percent blue agave to be labeled tequila; beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, food coloring and other additives, all which can contain GMOs, are often used for the remaining base to make “mixto” tequilas, lower-quality tequila sold as “tequila” rather than “100 percent agave tequila.”
Where is it made? Blue agave is grown in Mexico, and by law tequila must come from the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. The majority comes from Jalisco.
Best choices: To drink non-GMO tequila, look for 100 percent agave, organic if possible, and there are many options. Look for smaller batch tequilas to avoid monocrop production, such as the tequila that George Clooney drinks, or this one named after “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.
What is it made from? A variety of agave plants (including blue agave), but predominantly agave espadin.
Is it commonly GMO? Just as with tequila, mezcal agave is not a genetically modified crop, so you don’t have to worry about GMOs with 100 percent agave mezcal. As stated above, researchers are looking into the potential of GMO agave as changes in weather patterns make growing the plant more difficult.
You also need to be careful with “mixto” mezcals, called type II as well, made from at least 80 percent agave and 20 percent other ingredients, often cane sugar.
Where is it made? It is grown in Mexico, and by law should come from the states Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla. The majority comes from Oaxaca.
Best choice: 100 percent agave, organic, if possible. Look for a producer using sustainable methods, such as organic agave cultivation and water conservation techniques. Examples include, Sombra mezcal or those made from wild-harvested agave like Del Maguey, which also focuses on sustainability practices including helping to provide the communities they workd with clean water and renewable energy, and protecting the local wild agave species.
What is it made from? Sugarcane and sugarcane byproducts, such as juice, syrup and molasses. While GMO sugarcane isn’t grown in the US, the FDA approved Brazilian-grown GMO sugarcane in 2018. And at least one US distillery and one Canadian producer are making rum with sugar beets, which are likely GMO, although technically rum must be made with sugarcane to be labeled as such.
You will find rums from white or clear to shades of caramel and darker. The aging process is what creates the color, but most rum is cut with water to dilute the alcohol content before bottling, and producers often add that “caramel” color back in — literally from the addition of caramel (burnt sugar). Rum that is flavored, sweetened or very dark most likely has added sugar, glycerol, artificial and/or “natural” flavorings, which can all be made with GMOs. True aged rum, that is not filtered, will be a caramel color from the oak and sherry barrels that it is aged in.
Is it commonly GMO? Most rums are made from sugarcane and sugarcane byproducts, which may be GMO if not grown in the US.
Where is it made? Sugarcane is grown in many tropical regions, including Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas in the US. Rum is made all over the world however, and if it produced in a non-tropical region, the rum was most likely distilled from imported molasses or was distilled and sent to another area for aging.
Best choice: Organic, if you can find it. A few good options include Los Angeles’ Crusoe, Minneapolis-based Drake’s or Paraguay’s Papagayo Rum, which is also USDA certified organic. Otherwise, look for a small, US producer making white aged rum to avoid any added coloring like this one, made with a touch of Michigan honey, or this Brooklyn-made gin.
What is it made from? For a whiskey to call itself rye, it must be distilled from a mixture that is at least 51 percent rye, with the rest usually made from corn and malted barley.
Is it commonly GMO? Rye is not a GM crop — but to be sure your rye whiskey is non-GMO alcohol, you need to know what the other 49 percent is made of. There are some 100 percent ryes available, and others that do not include corn in the “other” portion of the mash.
Where is it made? American rye whiskey is made in the US.
Best choice: When shopping for non-GMO rye, you best choice is organic: Chicago’s Koval, New Hampshire’s Tamworth Distilling and California’s Spirt Works are all good options. Otherwise, look for rye with no corn in the base alcohol. There are many rye whiskeys with no corn in the mash — Lot 40 Canadian Rye Whisky, Whistlepig Rye, Bulleit Rye, Journeyman Distillery Rye and more.
What is it made from? For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, the mixture of grains that it is distilled from must contain at least 51 percent corn, with the rest being malted barley, rye or wheat. If bourbon is “blended,” 51 percent must be straight bourbon while the other 49 percent can be “other” spirits, coloring and flavoring.
Is it commonly GMO? With 51 percent corn, there is a good chance that your bourbon contains genetically modified corn unless otherwise specified.
Where is it made? It can be made anywhere in the US, but has historic roots in Kentucky.
Best choice: Of the big producers, at least two make non-GMO bourbons: Wild Turkey and Four Roses. Since there has been a whiskey boom in the US, you may find small producers of USDA certified organic bourbon at your local cocktail bar including Maine’s Split Rock Distilling, Colorado’s Rising Sun Distillery and Pennsylvania’s Wigle Bourbon. Stay away from blended bourbons.
What is it made from? Barley and other grains. Most often Scotch single malt whisky is made from 100 percent barley. If it’s Scotch whisky, then it might have additional grains, such as rye, wheat or corn. E150a, a caramel coloring, is sometimes added to make the coloring consistent.
Is it commonly GMO? Scotland banned GM crops in 2015, and since Scotch must be made in Scotland, it is non-GMO.
Where is it made? All Scotch is made in Scotland.
Best choice: Organic, if you can find it, is the best bet when shopping for non-GMO Scotch whisky. Look for brands that do not use E150a coloring — The Macallan is one that you see often and Bruichladdich, too.
What is it made from? Mostly from cereal grains like rye, barley and wheat, although potatoes, grapes and rice can also be used. There has even been vodka made from soybeans (which were most likely genetically modified) and sugar beets (also probably genetically modified). There are also some gluten-free vodka options made from corn, so possibly genetically modified if grown in the US, but there are gluten-free options made from potatoes or rice as well.
Is it commonly GMO? If it is made from corn, soybeans or sugar beets, it is likely genetically modified. However, if it’s 100 percent wheat, such as Absolut or Grey Goose among others, you are okay.
Where is it made? Because of the variety of ingredients vodka can be made from, it is produced all over the world.
Best choice: There are many choices when it comes to non-GMO vodka. Certified organic vodka producers include Square One made from rye, Prairie and Crop vodkas made from corn, and Humboldt Distillery vodka made from sugar cane. Some of the well-known brands using non-GMO ingredients include Absolut Vodka (wheat), Grey Goose (wheat), Ocean Organic Vodka (sugarcane from an organic farm in Maui), Ciroc (grapes) and Ketel One (wheat); smaller US producers to look for include Hanger One (made from grapes and wheat), Green Mountain Distillers (made from 100 percent grain) and Leaf vodka (made with Alaskan glacier water and Michigan wheat).
The spirit company Fair carries gluten-free, fair trade alcohol. Some of their options include a joint collaboration between French distillers and Andean farmers for quinoa vodka; Fair Trade Certified rum with sugar cane from Belize that is grown organically and sustainably; and gin made from juniper berries sourced from a nature reserve in Uzbekistan where agriculture is the chief source of income for the mainly rural population.