The ultimate vegan alcohol guide

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10 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
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Can a vegan drink alcohol? The answer is a resounding yes, but.

Just because vegans don’t eat meat, fish and dairy, doesn’t mean they don’t like to occasionally kick back with a refreshing glass of wine or pint of beer. Sometimes, a long day of closely examining packaging labels or dodging questions about where vegans get their protein necessitates it.

That said, knowing what alcohol is vegan can be a bit of a minefield when following a plant-based diet – many of the drinks which appear vegan aren’t, and likewise some that seem non-vegan actually are.

So, why is alcohol not vegan? Alcohol that isn’t vegan is usually unsuitable because of its actual ingredients, or because of its manufacturing process. The question of ‘is alcohol vegan?’ is therefore a tricky one to answer. The latter is more common, and is often harder to navigate. While vegans are used to searching for egg or milk in unusual places, it’s not so obvious to be on the lookout for fish in your wine.

A good understanding of how different alcohols are made and the often secret ingredients to be found within them is key to ensure a smooth trip to the pub. Here is everything you need to know:

What ingredients make alcohol not vegan?

Just as with food, there are countless ingredients which can make alcohol non-vegan. These range from the obvious, like cream and honey, to the more obscure. The trick is to know what to look out for, and have an understanding of the processes which go into making certain types of alcohol.

Here are some animal derived ingredients to know:

  • Albumin – an ingredient derived from egg whites, used in the fining process of some wines
  • Carmine – crushed scales of a cochineal insect which give a distinct red colour, watch out for this in cocktails and premixed drinks
  • Gelatine – a substance derived from bones and connective tissues of cows or pigs, can be found in some ciders and fortified wines
  • Isinglass – a filtering ingredient, which is obtained from fish swim bladders, used in the production of some real ales and wines
  • Pepsin – a foaming agent, which is sometimes derived from pigs, usually used in beer
  • Casein and lactose – proteins derived from cow milk, which can often be found in the fining process of beer and wine

Of course, one of the biggest problems with drinking alcohol is that brands do not list ingredients on their packaging. There is no legal requirement for them to do so in the same way that is required of food manufacturers, so spotting vegan alcohol in the UK can be tricky.

To be sure none of the above make their way into your drink, the best bet is to check with the manufacturer whether animal ingredients have been used – most will have the information on their website, or can be contacted quickly through social media. In a pinch, another good resource is Barnivore, an online database of more than 55,000 alcoholic drinks which gives insight into which beverages are vegan and which aren’t.

Beer and cider

Lager

Vegans can rejoice knowing that many lagers from well-known beer brands are vegan. This includes a wide range of bottled, canned, and draught varieties from the likes of Amstel and Corona, to Peroni, Estrella and Carlsberg.

In the UK, the only big-name beer brands to really watch out for are Carling, Coors Light, Foster’s and Kronenbourg. These four beers are known to have a non-vegan filtering process and therefore are not suitable for those following an animal-free lifestyle.

As with all food and drink products, it is worth remembering that ingredients and manufacturing processes vary from country to country, so what is vegan in the UK may not be elsewhere.

Ale and stout

Unfortunately, not all alcohol is vegan. On the contrary, it is much harder to find vegan ales and stouts as the fining process for these types of drinks still predominantly relies on animal-based substances. Popular brands like John Smiths, Ruddles, Old Speckled Hen and Fullers are non-vegan alcoholic drinks, so are a no-go for those following a plant-based diet.

However, all is not lost. Newcastle Brown Ale is vegan, as is Guinness in all its forms (cans, bottles, draught). Additionally, a growing number of craft breweries are working on vegan ales and stouts, though these might be harder to access for some as production and selling is sometimes localised.

Craft beer

Craft beers are a mixed bag. There are some breweries doing excellent work in the field of vegan alternatives, and their relatively small operations gives them more control over the final product. Brass Castle is a 100% vegan and gluten-free brewery in Yorkshire. Founder and owner Phil Saltonstall says the addition of animal products to craft beer is “simply unnecessary, lazy and almost always diminish the final product”.

Other craft breweries that have committed to 100% vegan brewing include Moor Beer Company and Little Valley Brewery. Both have online shops where beers can be purchased, and are also stocked in select locations. Beyond wholly vegan breweries, a growing number of brands offer vegan beer ranges, even if their whole output isn’t vegan. Check the website of your favourite craft brewery for up-to-date information on their ranges.

For a more readily available craft beer selection which is vegan, a good bet is always BrewDog. The Scottish craft beer company is registered with the Vegan Society for all its beers, bar the ones which contain milk and honey. BrewDog beers are widely available around the country, in draught, can and bottle formats.

Cider

Another type of alcohol that could go both ways, cider can similar feature non-vegan fining ingredients. However many cider brands have made great strides in recent years to become vegan. Kopparberg and Rekorderlig – two of the UK’s favourite fruit flavoured drinks  – have both reformulated to become vegan. For non-flavoured ciders, it’s best to consult Barnivore or the brand website.

Why not try…

Spirits and liqueur

When it comes to spirits, vegans can relax a little bit. The majority of distilled spirits – from vodka and gin to rum and whisky – are made with no animal products, either directly or in the filtering process. Those which aren’t vegan are the exception, rather than the rule – for example, Jack Daniels is the exception to the rule which says most whiskeys are vegan.

For liqueurs and flavoured spirits, it’s best to exercise a bit more caution. Non-vegan alcholic drinks in the spirits section of the bar includes some well-known favourites like Baileys, Kahlúa, Drambuie and Malibu. These are all off the menu for vegans, as they contain either non-vegan ingredients or utilise non-vegan manufacturing processes. Additionally, some spirits added to traditional cocktails, like Martini Extra Dry, some Campari products and some mezcals are non-vegan.

Fear not, however, as there are still plenty of vegan alcoholic drinks and cocktail mainstays to pick from. Aperol, Pimms, Disaronno Amaretto and many others are all naturally vegan. Meanwhile other brands like Baileys have developed vegan versions of their products – like Baileys Almande.

Another good tip is to scour supermarkets for their own-brand versions of certain liqueurs. Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, and even more budget-friendly retailers like Aldi, are full of vegan-friendly drinks. Keep your eyes peeled around Christmas time for best-sellers like M&S’ Chocolate & Coconut Liqueur, and Clementine Gin.

Why not try…

Wine

Red, white and rosé

As mentioned already, the process of fining is usually what makes a wine – which is otherwise completely plant-based – not suitable for vegans. Common fining agents for red wine are albumin, casein and isinglass.

The reason behind the use of fining agents is to stop the liquid being cloudy. All young wines are by nature cloudy and will over a longer period of time clear up themselves (known as ‘self-fining’) but winemakers use this step to speed the process up.

Similar to red wine, vegans have to watch out when selecting a white or rosé wine to drink – though it is generally accepted that white wines and rosé wines are more likely to be vegan than red. Common fining agents used in production for these wines which aren’t vegan include casein, gelatine and isinglass.

Increasingly winemakers are opting for vegan fining agents instead and so there is a growing list of vegan wine on the market. These include clay, carbon, limestone vegetable plaques and plant casein. All have been proven effective when it comes to fining wine.

Sparkling

Another kind of alcohol which requires vegans to be on the lookout is sparkling wine. While there are increasing vegan options available, it’s best to check with the makers to avoid any of the aforementioned fining agents.

Supermarket prosecco brands are a good bet when it comes to vegan sparkling wine, as most (including those from Asda, Tesco and Aldi) do not use animal-derived fining agents and are labelled as such. Champagne is somewhat harder to decipher from the label, however there are some big-name brands which are plant-based, so it’s best to just try to remember a few names that are for reference.

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Cocktails

Because so many cocktails are made from spirits, which we know are mainly safe, vegans might be tempted to assume all cocktails are animal-free. However once again, this is an area where paying close attention to your alcoholic beverages is required. A number of the most popular cocktails around boast ingredients that aren’t vegan. Here are some to watch out for:

  • Amaretto Sour – not vegan because of the inclusion of egg white foam. For the same reason, be wary of other ‘sour’ cocktails.
  • Gin Fizz – also includes egg white in the classic recipe, however many bartenders will be happy to leave out if asked.
  • White Russian – made with cream, and thus not vegan. Can be easily veganised with a plant-based cream substitute.
  • Eggnog – made with a host of non-vegan ingredients including milk, cream, egg whites and egg yolks.
  • Bloody Mary – traditionally made using Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies. Vegan Worcestershire sauce alternatives do exist, and can be used to make a vegan version of the cocktail.
  • Martini – if made using Martini brand alcohol, this cocktail isn’t vegan. More generic brands of vermouth are fine.
  • Anything made with honey – for obvious reasons, honey is a non-vegan ingredient. It can sometimes be used in place of simple syrup (sugar water) for sweetness, so keep an eye out.

As always, cocktail recipes will vary between bars so always be sure to check with the person making your drinks for total peace of mind. As well as finding out which drinks are not vegan, this method might also bring up some surprises with drinks you thought were off limits but actually aren’t.

For example, drinks like an Espresso Martini or Piña Colada might seem non-vegan thanks to their creamy texture – but if a bar is following the traditional recipes, these actually don’t contain any dairy so it’s always worth asking what recipe they follow. For the former, the creamy texture comes from the crema of the espresso, while the latter achieves its recognisable white colour through coconut cream.

Pre-mixed cocktails

The perfect addition to a picnic, pre-mixed cocktails – usually canned, bottled, or, in some cases, pouched – have become a huge part of the modern alcohol market. In many cases, these are vegan friendly alcohol brands and are a great way for vegans to enjoy a cruelty-free tipple. However, you should still watch out for pesky hidden animal-derived ingredients like carmine and albumin.

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