No matter how many times the spirits are distilled, the world of cocktails remains as murky as ever. Labeling laws are lax compared to any other edible product available for purchase, allowing producers to omit all potential allergens, origins, methods, and co-packers. Broad assumptions can safely be made about the basics, but as soon as any flavors are invited to the party, all bets are off. It’s tough being vegan and enjoying a truly happy hour.
Even well-meaning bartenders often forget the little details, like fish-based Worcestershire sauce in bloody Mary mix, or honey syrup sweetening a gold rush. There are some common sense guidelines to follow for keeping spirits high, but the best advice I can give? Trying your best means making mistakes sometimes, especially if you’re already one or two drinks in. I know I’ve gotten it wrong, only to find out days or even weeks later. It sucks, but it doesn’t make you any less vegan, and if it’s not a matter of allergies, it won’t hurt you either. Live, learn, and raise a glass to all the straight-up imperfections along the way.
Alcohol Processing Pitfalls
Based on some of the bizarre ingredients chosen to filter various spirits, you’d think that producers were already drunk by the time they clocked into work. These antiquated, animal-based components include:
- Gelatin – Best known for creating chewy gummy bears and bouncy marshmallows, it’s also used to filter some types of alcohol and remove sediment. Sadly, it comes from a much less whimsical place. We’re talking about the skin, tendons, and bones, primarily from cows and pigs. Kosher gelatin is no better, as it’s typically sourced from fish.
- Casein – This cow’s milk protein can affect the brain like hard drugs, which explains why people can get legitimately hooked on cheese. This versatile ingredient also sneaks into adhesives, paints, and various industrial products. In booze, it’s another clarifying component that won’t show up on the final label.
- Isinglass – Imagine, if you will, the dried bladders of various fish, including cod and sturgeon, in every glass. Yes, fish bladders are just what your cocktail needs for that extra special touch. For better or for worse, you won’t be able to taste or see it.
Common Cocktail Flavorings and Fillers
Creative mixology knows no bounds, which can sometimes become problematic for those with dietary or ethical concerns. When in doubt, always ask for specifics.
- Cream and milk – When you’re craving a real treat, thick and luscious liqueurs can make you feel like you’re drinking melted ice cream. Not all bottles with “crème” on their labels are guilty of deriving their richness from dairy fats, but unless I can confirm otherwise, I personally would stay away. Even in the case of coconut cream, this plant-based milk is sometimes padded with unlisted, unnecessary dairy derivatives.
- Eggs – There’s more than on way to crack an egg, and that’s part of the problem when ordering a vegan mixed drink. The classic example that comes to mind is the beloved eggnog. Egg whites are popular for creating foams and many types of “fizz” cocktails, adding a velvety texture instead of more harsh bubbles from seltzer or sparkling wine. Whether they use the whole egg or just the yolk, these cocktails should be off the menu for plant-based people.
- Honey – Often billed as a more natural sweetener, honey comes at a steep environmental price. This is an easy fix, though: Just ask the bartender to either omit it to embrace a more sour/bitter/bracing taste, or swap it for simple syrup, made from sugar instead.
Best Bets For Safer Spirits
Next time you want to stock your home bar, stick to the essentials to ensure higher quality and cleaner flavor across the board. Look hard enough and you’ll find exceptions to every rule, but generally speaking and especially for top shelf options, these are always vegan-friendly spirits because they’re distilled, rather than filtered:
- Vodka – Made from starches such as sorghum, corn, rice, rye or wheat, or potatoes
- Bourbon and Whiskey – made from a mixture of corn and grains
- Rum – Made from sugarcane
- Gin and Schnapps – Made from grains, such as wheat or barley with added juniper and/or herbs for flavoring
- Tequila – Made from agave cactus
Smart Choices Go Beyond Veganism
No matter what you raise a glass of, please remember to drink responsibly and know your limits. If you can appreciate the vegan virtues that go into crafting your favorite cocktails while savoring the moment with friends, so much the better.