With a few exceptions (below), most alcoholic beverages contain corn syrup. The corn syrup is used both to boost the alcohol content during the fermentation process and/or to sweeten the finished product. This is especially true of beer, coolers, and drinks for mixing. Also, bourbon is made exclusively from corn! Then there’s the special case of vodka, which is made from just about anything. Vodka is distilled and purified to the extent that even if it were made from corn, the amount of corn proteins, etc. in the finished product is truly negligible. That said, most vodka indicates somewhere on the bottle what it’s made from — the usual choices are wheat, rye or potatoes.
Alcoholic beverages other than beer
Although alcoholic beverages are not required to list their ingredients, Canada does regulate what can go into a number of them. The composition of these alcoholic beverages is described in the part of the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations called “Division 2. Alcoholic beverages,” i.e. section B.02.
In general, premium alcoholic beverages are made exclusively from one specific type of plant according to traditional recipes. They will generally not contain corn. However, it is sometimes difficult to find out whether corn products may be present in some alcoholic beverages unique to particular regions of the world, since the laws about what goes into them are set by the countries where they are made. For instance, Mexico regulates the contents of tequila. Since I don’t know my way around the Mexican legal system, I can’t vouch for whether it is corn-free (though the one shot of tequila I had in my life did not do me any harm). However, just because an alcoholic beverage has its contents regulated by the Canadian government does not mean that it is corn-free, as I explain in the list below. In addition, all other alcoholic beverages I have not listed below, including gin, are permitted to contain corn syrup.
Generally corn-free alcoholic beverages
- Wine or brandy or grappa (made from grapes), or slivovitz (plums) or other fruit wines (fruit) are generally OK, though some may contain corn-based sweeteners or other “fruit and other botanical substances or . . . flavouring and flavouring preparations” with corn-based constituents.
- Rum is made exclusively from sugar cane, but flavoured rum may contain corn products.
- Single-malt scotch is made from barley, according to Scottish laws – but note that other kinds of whiskey/whisky may contain corn.
- Tequila is made from agave, according to Mexican laws.
Beer and Cider
The vast majority of beer and cider sold in Canada and the USA contains corn, though Guinness seems to be OK. (If you’ve ever wondered what ingredients are allowed to go in Canadian beer, see our beer ingredient laws, section B.02.130. (Cider is not regulated in the same way). However, there is still hope for corn-sensitive beer-lovers out there. Beer brewed in Germany NEVER contains corn. Thanks to the Bavarian Purity Act of 1516, German beer ingredients are limited to barley, hops, water and yeast. Many microbrewries worldwide are proud to advertise that they obey the Bavarian Purity Act. All such beers are corn-free. A number of German breweries, such as Beck’s, even make non-alcoholic, beerlike beverages that do not contain corn. (These are sold at grocery stores).
Premium breweries, especially microbreweries, sometimes list the ingredients of their beer or cider on the labels. Many of these beverages are corn-free. Watch out that they’re not aged in bourbon barrels, though! I had a close call with an otherwise corn-free cider that was “corntaminated” in this way.
Evidence that corn in beer is a dumb idea
The Ontario Corn Producers’ Association put out a flyer in 2008 called “A Day in the Life of Corn” that proudly states,
Demand for bland, less filling beer, especially in the U. S., has permitted use of more refined carbohydrate sources of two types: a) dry adjuncts, primarily dry milled corn grits, broken rice [and] refined corn starch, and more recently, dextrose. B) [sic] Liquid adjuncts, namely corn syrups.
I don’t think it can get much more obvious than this.