How to Avoid Those GMO Booze Blues
Paying attention to the foodprint of your dinner? Why not the same for cocktails with friends? The rye whiskey in your old fashioned or the gin in your martini may have started out from GMO grain or corn.
What’s the Big Deal with GMOs?
Over the last twenty or so years, the use of genetic modification in conventional agriculture has become an industry standard. With their rise has come a wave of consumer concern, ranging from their safety to the increasing use of herbicides — like glyphosate — associated with their use. There’s an ongoing debate about the safety of GMOs, but one thing is very clear: herbicide-resistant GMOs are bad for the environment. Because of these concerns, polls show that consumers want mandatory labels on foods containing GE ingredients.
In the United States, around 90 percent of the corn grown is genetically modified. And seeing how many domestic whiskies — 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 Avoid GMOs in Your Cocktail
One of the easiest ways to avoid GMOs in your booze (as well as your 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. 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. As is Papagayo Rum from Paraguay.
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 three popular whiskey brands on the market that use non-GMO corn — Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace.
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 EU (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 GMOs in Hard 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 GMO-free option (and let us know what it is!).
Here’s the Nitty Gritty, by Type of Alcoholic Beverage
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 barley, quinoa, wheat, potato and 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 interesting base alcohols that aren’t corn or a corn blend. Check out this 100 percent barley malt gin, 100 percent quinoa 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 you don’t have to worry about GMOs when it’s 100 percent agave tequila. But where you need to be careful is with “mixto” tequilas — which are usually just called “Tequila” or “Tequila Gold”. These mixto tequilas include at least 51 percent agave sugars, with 49 percent from “other” sugars. The “other” sugar is often cane sugar, but can also be from beet sugar or even high fructose corn syrup, both of which will contain GMOs. Mixto tequilas can also have coloring and other additives, and aren’t always from Mexico. One word of caution about blue agave: the crops are often grown in an industrial monoculture fashion, and are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Because the agave plant takes six to ten years to grow to maturity, and is susceptible to bugs, fungus and cold, to lose a crop would be devastating for the farmer so they “protect” them with chemical sprays.
Where is it made? It is grown in Mexico, and by law should come from the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. The majority comes from Jalisco.
Best choices: 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. But where you need to be careful is with “mixto” mezcals, called type II, which are at least 80 percent agave sugars and 20 percent other sugar, often cane sugar. Because of the wider variety of agave allowed in mezcal (approximately 30 varieties), it can be harvested from more diverse lands than blue agave, sometimes even hand harvested from the wild. The most common mezcal agave, the espadin, is often grown in a monocrop setting.
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 and Michoacan. The majority comes from Oaxaca.
Best choice: 100 percent agave, organic, if possible. Look for wild harvested agave, like the tobala agave, for the most environmentally-friendly selection (and a quite pricey one!). This mezcal compares finding the tobala agave plant to finding truffles and this one is wild grown and harvested at 12 years old.
What is it made from? Sugarcane and sugarcane byproducts, such as juice, syrup and molasses. There is talk about rum from sugar beets, but since that is not the legal definition of rum, it isn’t being sold, which is a good thing for avoiding GMOs. 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. 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? Sugarcane is not a genetically modified crop.
Where is it made? Sugarcane is grown in many tropical regions, but rum is made all over the world. If it is made in a region that is not tropical, 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. Otherwise, look for white aged rum to avoid any added coloring. Unadulterated caramel color-aged rum does exist, but you have to look for it. If you are up for spending a big chunk of change on your rum, check out these two that claim no additives. Foursquare Distillery in Barbados doesn’t use additives and produces two rums, Rum Sixty Six and Doorly’s, that are more affordable. Here’s a great rum reviewer who cares about additives — check here for more info.
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 GMO free, 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: Organic is a good choice, or look for a rye with no corn in the base alcohol. There are many rye whiskeys with no corn in the mash — Dad’s Hat, Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey, 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 malted barley and either rye or wheat. If bourbon is “blended,” 51 percent must be straight bourbon while the other 49 percent can be “other” spirits and coloring and flavoring are permitted.
Is it commonly GMO? With 51 percent corn, there is a good chance that your bourbon contains genetically modified corn.
Where is it made? It can be made anywhere in the US, but has historic roots in Kentucky.
Best choice: Of the big producers, only three are GMO-free: Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace. 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. 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. 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 GMO free.
Where is it made? All Scotch is made in Scotland.
What is it made from? Mostly from sorghum, corn, rice, rye or wheat and sometimes potato. There are even a few vodkas from soybeans (which are most likely genetically modified) and sugar beets (also mostly genetically modified). There is a lot of talk about gluten-free vodka, which is mostly made from corn (likely genetically modified if made in the US). But there are gluten-free options made from potatoes or rice.
Is it commonly GMO? If it is made from corn, soybeans or sugar beets — it is likely genetically modified.
Where is it made? Because of the variety of ingredients it can be made from, it is produced all over the world.
Best choice: There are many choices when it comes to GMO-free vodka — Absolut Vodka (wheat), Devotion Vodka (sugar free, gluten free, GMO-free from corn), Grey Goose (wheat), Ocean Organic Vodka (sugarcane from an organic farm in Maui), Ciroc (grapes, and promoted by Sean Combs), Ketel One (wheat) — and the list goes on. You can also find blends, like Hangar 1, which is a combo of grapes and wheat.
The spirit company Fair carries fair trade alcohol that is also GMO-free and gluten-free. 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.