February 25, 2011

Raising a Cup to Compassion: Vegans & Alcohol


By Bill (Flickr) via Wikimedia Commons

Many outside the vegan lifestyle seem to think that eschewing the use of animal products begins and ends with the food on the plate. Yet anyone who has sworn off foods and goods derived from animals knows that so much more is involved. Strict vegans, whether for moral, health, or spiritual purposes extend their animal abstinence to food, clothing, health and beauty products, and yes, even drink. Interestingly enough, it is the area of vegan-friendly libations that is among the most tricky.

Compassionate consumers cannot live by water alone. Sometimes, we want something with a little more kick. We are talking about alcohol, of course. To be sure, we want that kick to come with as little karmic cost as possible.  It is not as easy as it may sound, however. Most animal products are easily recognized: meat, milk, eggs, fur, etc. In many other cases, we can rely on the listing of ingredients on the product label to tip us off to any unwanted animal additives. The problem with alcohol is two-fold. By look, and even by taste, it can be difficult to tell what is in the drink. Worse yet, when was the last time you saw a bottle of booze with a comprehensive label of ingredients affixed to it? Even in the United States, where food labeling has become a near obsession, laws requiring nutritional information on bottles of beer, wine, and liquor have been elusive.

But why the concern? After all, we are talking about basic alcohol here.  For the most part it involves plant materials such as fruits, grains, sugars, juices and, of course, water.  There is, however, beyond the perception of the eyes, nose or tongue, the distinct probability that animal-derivatives have been used in its production. Many alcohols are either clarified, fined, or filtered with non-veg-friendly ingredients such as gelatin, isinglass (from swim bladders of fish), chitin or sea shells.  It is unlikely you will find these listed on any labels. Of course, there are more obvious examples such as thick, creamy liquors like Bailey’s Irish Cream and others that require milk products or eggs. Also, any of the specialty libations that advertise honey as a flavor are out of the vegan question. Fear not, though, there are plenty of vegan-friendly ferments and brews with which we can whet our whistles.

General rules of thumb can be helpful, though not always exact. For instance, hard, pure liquors tend to be more vegan-friendly than their fancier, flavored cousins. Quality German beers that adhere to the four-ingredient gold standard of brewing also tend to avoid the use of any animal-based additives. But again, this is general guidance at best.  Strict vegans and vegetarians roll the dice in the absence of comprehensive ingredients labels on alcohol bottles. Unless, of course, they know who to ask or where to look. The good folks behind Barnivore, the vegan wine and beer guide, can be a veghead’s best drinking buddies. Their site lists over 1200 alcohol producers – makes of beer, wine and liquor – that have been checked, double checked, and even triple checked in some instances. Each entry clearly states whether the maker is vegan-friendly, produces products with vegan options or is not for vegans. Clicking the name of a company provides full contact info as well as a listing of its products with the same aforementioned labels.

Barnivore is an amazing resource for those moments in which you need something a tad bit stronger than water, juice, or non-dairy drinks.  It is a labor of love created and maintained by two vegans in Toronto, Canada. Where do they get their info?  Well according to their site, they get it mostly from readers who contact the alcohol producers directly. Yes, in some cases, they contact the makers themselves. But it is two people against the booze-making world. They even provide you with the information you need to make your own contacts and then submit what you learn. Think of it as a site driven by the eco-conscious consumers who so badly need the info.  It is a win – win endeavour for all who care about the origins of the things we consume and put into our bodies.

The next time you are looking for a little libation to raise your spirits, first consult Barnivore (or one of the smartphone apps that uses its database) to see if what you are about to imbibe is vegan-friendly. Then raise that glass in a toast to Jason and Angela in Toronto for helping us get our liquor on in a more compassionate and conscientious way!  Better yet, if you see something missing from their list or a listing that seems outdated, contact the producer for some answers and insight and then let the Barnivore team know. True compassion requires constant vigilance and action. We’ll drink to that any day!

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