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Chances are, when you’re savoring a glass of wine or a sip of ice cold beer at the end of a long day, you probably don’t pause to wonder whether your booze contains animal products. Alcohol seems like one of those things that’s so obviously vegan, that you wouldn’t bother asking “is alcohol vegan?” — but you should.

Before we figure out the complicated answer to this query, let’s take a moment to understand how alcohol is made.

Brewing beer and vinifying vino

racks of wine in a store

Beer and wine may be two very different beverages but they’re both made via fermentation. This process, which humans have been using for thousands of years, is what converts grape juice to wine and water and grains to beer, but it’s only possible with one special ingredient: yeast.

This microscopic fungi consumes the natural sugars found in beer’s grains and wine’s grapes, converting them into carbon dioxide and a specific type of alcohol known as ethanol. This process explains why trace amounts of alcohol may be present in other fermented foods and beverages, such as soy sauce and kombucha.

The carbon dioxide byproduct is trapped in beers, ciders and sparkling wines to give them their signature bubbles, but allowed to dissipate when making still, or non-sparkling, wine. The ethanol, as you’ve probably figured out, is the compound responsible for making you drunk.

While this simple process works fine for wine and beer, making spirits like rum and vodka is slightly more complex because yeast, delicate as it is, cannot survive in the high alcohol content of spirits. That’s where distillation comes in.

As you may vaguely recall from your high school chemistry class, distillation involves boiling a liquid and collecting the condensated vapors. In the case of spirits, the fermented liquid is boiled until the ethanol vaporizes, leaving behind water, and those condensated ethanol vapors become liquor.

You can see the process for yourself below:

Why alcohol isn’t always vegan-friendly

Based on what we know so far, it would appear that there are no animal products involved in the process of making alcohol. This is generally true, except in the cases of some beers and liquors that are sweetened with honey (thankfully those are almost always clearly labeled and easy to avoid).

While the simple and straightforward processes of fermentation and distillation are generally animal-free, the process of refining alcohol may require a surprising array of animal-based ingredients, the most common of which are isinglass, gelatin, carmine, and casein.

These ingredients are known in the industry as “fining agents,” meaning that they’re used to refine alcoholic drinks, making them brighter, clearer, and more appealing to consumers. If you’re a vegan consumer, however, you’ll find nothing appealing about these additives.

two alcoholic vegan beverages on a wooden board against a dark background

While you’re probably familiar with gelatin (see can vegans eat jello, if not), carmine, and casein, isinglass is a foreign word to many new vegans (and non-vegans, for that matter). This mysterious fining agent has nothing to do with glass; rather, it’s a type of collagen made from the swim bladders of fish. Gross!

Isinglass is most commonly used to clarify beer. It attracts leftover particles of yeast in the brew, causing them to clump together so they’re easier to filter out from the finished product. If you ask me, I’d much rather wait for the beer to clarify naturally (but vegans are the unreasonable ones, right?).

While it’s frustrating enough to know that these animal-based ingredients are used in alcohol at all, it can be downright maddening if you live in the United States. Thanks to convoluted legal distinctions made by the FDA, most alcoholic beverages are not required to display a list of ingredients, making it that much more difficult to know whether your booze contains fish bladders, bug juice, or other unsavory ingredients.

Don’t let that discourage you too much, though. These fining agents are most commonly used in beer, but many of the most popular brands of beer, like Corona, Budweiser, Coors, Blue Moon, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, are already vegan. Plus, data suggests that the rise in conscientious, millennial consumers is driving up the demand for vegan beer. Even in countries like the UK where using fining agents like isinglass and gelatin is the standard practice, we may see a shift toward more vegan-friendly brews.

Choosing animal-free alcohol

stacks of whisky barrels

Avoiding these animal-based additives can be a piece of vegan cake with the right resources. The most useful tool that every vegan alcohol drinker needs in their arsenal is Barnivore. This site’s ever-growing database will help you determine what alcohol is vegan, and what isn’t. While the database doesn’t include every single brand of alcohol ever created, it is fairly extensive (but it’s not the end of the world if you can’t find the brands you’re looking for!).

Since you probably don’t want to be bothered loading the Barnivore website on your phone when you’re out at a bar, you may want to try a much more convenient mobile version of Barnivore. While the site doesn’t technically have its own official mobile app yet, there are similar enough apps on both Apple and Android that will help steer you away from non-vegan booze.

Keep in mind that, while these handy resources may stop you from accidentally drinking non-vegan booze, they won’t stop you from embarrassing yourself in front of coworkers or waking up with a massive hangover. Please drink responsibly.

Mixing it up: making vegan cocktails

three vegan cocktails on a bar with rows of spirits behind

If you’re in the mood for something a bit more complex than a beer or a shot of vodka, there are countless vegan alcoholic drinks to try. In fact, most cocktails are already vegan, and you can easily veganize ones that contain egg whites or dairy products.

To get you started, here are ten refreshing and tasty cocktails from The Vegan Society. You can even make alcoholic smoothies, should you wish! Just be sure not to use plastic straws like the beverages in the image above, please.

Once you’ve made your plant-based cocktails, don’t forget to serve them up in elegant glasses to wow your guests (or yourself, because we all deserve nice things, right?).

READ NEXT: Is Soda Vegan? Or Is There No Such Thing As Plant-Based Pop?

Is alcohol vegan? Answered!

The answer to this “is it vegan?” piece, like so many others, is “Yes…and no!” Common refiners like isinglass and gelatin can make certain types of booze non-vegan, so the wisest plant-based booze lovers should arm themselves with knowledge. By familiarizing yourself with resources like Barnivore and stockpiling a list of go-to vegan cocktail recipes, you can enjoy alcohol the cruelty-free way.

What are your favorite plant-based alcoholic drinks? Let us know in the comments below!

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