How to Buy Alcohol Without Hurting Animals

How to Enjoy Wine and Beer (and Liquor) without Hurting Animals
Virginia Shedd, Social Media & Outreach Coordinator

AlcoholAs a group, vegans tend to be label readers. Many of us have skimming down to a science. While some items appear obviously vegan, things aren’t always what they seem.

How Did Fish Bladder End up in my Wine?

Although it seems an unlikely place to find hidden animal products, alcohol has a relatively high rate of “contamination.” Some beverages contain animal-derived ingredients; others use animals’ organs in the production process. Even if alcoholic beverages were required to have ingredients labels*, some non-vegan processes would remain hidden.

There are three primary reasons animal products are used in alcohol: color, flavor, and consistency. When it comes to color, red-hued beverages are the most likely offenders. Flavor? Sugar and honey may be issues. As for consistency, cask-conditioned ales and some wines are clarified (in a process called fining), and this processing often uses animal organs. Carmine, gelatin, casein, egg whites, honey, sea shells, isinglass, bone char, and (we can’t believe it’s true) blood are all animal products that may be found in alcoholic beverages. Let’s define some of these.

Isinglass is not an ingredient per se, but is one of the most common reasons for an alcohol to be unsafe for vegans (and nonhuman animals). Isinglass is used in the fining process, the process by which alcohol is filtered during and at the end of brewing/fermenting. It refers to a protein or collagen made from the swim bladders of fish.

Carmine (also called cochineal, cochineal extract, Crimson Lake, Natural Red 2, C.I. 75470, E120, and carminic acid) may sound familiar. It is a common food and makeup colorant, and is made from ground cochineal beetles. Carmine is found in some red wines and in liquors like Campari, among other beverages. This particular ingredient is one of the more prevalent animal ingredients found in alcoholic beverages.

Gelatin is made from the skin and connective tissue of cows and pigs and occasionally makes its way into thicker beverages and may be used in the fining processes in hard ciders and port.

Casein, a milk derivative, can be found in all manner of things labeled dairy free, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, hair products, food, and, yes, alcohol.

Blood, though outlawed as an ingredient in the United States and France, may still be found in beverages from other places in the world. Thankfully, it is a rare ingredient.

Sugar is often processed using bone char and may not be vegan.

Processes and Alternatives

Most red wine gets its color from the variety of grape used. Some beers may contain carmine, but it should be on the label as it is considered an allergen. Anthocyanins (red color from fruits and berries), beetroot, and lycopene are alternatives.

Nearly all of us are aware that most commonly used, refined sugars are filtered through bone char. But we also know that alternatives are readily available.

Honey is not a common ingredient in any particular alcohol outside of mead, and it is usually listed on the label when it is present.

So what about the fining process and fish bladders? Well, fining occurs primarily in beer and wine. It is during this process that materials, such as yeast left from fermentation in beer or grape, additive, or barrel particles that remain in wine, are removed. During the process, isinglass is used to gather the yeast or other particles and make them sink to the bottom of a cask or barrel so that the alcohol doesn’t have anything floating in it. According to the Vegetarian Society, “[b]ottled naturally conditioned beers will not always have been treated with isinglass. Keg beers and lagers are pasteurised and usually passed through Chill Filters, as are canned beers and some bottled beers. However, a considerable number of breweries still use isinglass to clear their pasteurised beers.”

The good news is that there are a great many beers and wines that are vegan, so we know isinglass alternatives exist. Many brewers and vintners eschew isinglass and use instead “bentonite (impure clay), kieselguhr (sedimentary rock), kaolin (clay mineral) and silica gel.” Centrifuging and filtering are also growing in popularity as fining methods.

Where does liquor stand in all this? The vast majority of liquors are vegan and those that aren’t often happen to be labeled so (those boasting their honey content, for instance).


The Good Stuff

Here are the great parts about all of this: you’re a more informed vegan, we’re about to share stellar resources for finding vegan beverages with you, and you can even get companies like Guinness to go vegan!

Don’t be daunted! You have a large number of vegan adult beverages to choose from. I often navigate the wine and refrigerated beer aisles, phone in hand, with the Barnivore site open. I am happy to report that most of what I look up is vegan. Barnivore’s database of vegan beers, wines, and liquors can even tell you if a company’s IPA is vegan but its stout is not. The database takes user submissions and includes suggested text for contacting a winery, brewery, or distillery and finding out if its products are vegan. It’s inquires like these that got Guinness to go happily vegan! Another great resource is the Vegetarian Society’s similar database.


*Alcoholic beverages rarely fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration and, as such, have different labeling rules (if any)-  read more about it here and here.

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