January is notoriously all about self improvement and resolutions to have a healthier, happier year. Some folks go all-out and do a “Dry January” where they completely cut out alcohol. Considering we’re in the business of reviewing alcohol here at 31 Whiskey, that’s not exactly an option for us — but we do need to shed some of those holiday pounds by cutting back on carbs and sugar. And if you’re in a similar situation, we’ve got some suggestions for what spirits to stock up to make sure you aren’t getting any sneaky sugar back in your diet.
Are spirits (like whiskey) carb-free / sugar-free?
Not all whiskey can be trusted to be carb and/or sugar free, but there are some varieties that do qualify.
The problem you run into with liquor is that there usually aren’t any nutrition labels on the bottles. Since spirits are regulated by the ATF and not the FDA, there’s no legal requirement for that label to exist… which makes it really hard for the average consumer to figure out the macros of a spirit. The good news is that for certain types of spirits, the process (and any additives) is highly regulated, so spirits that follow those processes can be trusted to contain no sugar or carbs.
How can a grain based spirit be carb free? Quick recap on the process: grains are cooked to turn their carbohydrates into sugars; those sugars are then eaten by yeast, which releases alcohol; the liquid is then distilled, where only the relevant alcohol vapors pass through and are captured. All of the “bad” stuff — carbs and sugars — are either eaten by the yeast or left in the still.
So, that said — which spirits are ones which are safe for a no carb / no sugar diet?
No Carb / No Sugar (Keto) Safe Spirits
This is probably the most tightly controlled category and, as a result, you should be pretty safe here. According to local laws in Scotland, the only things that can be added to scotch whisky after production is water and caramel coloring, so there’s very little chance that you’ll find sugar or anything else in there (more details here). This holds true for both Blended Scotch Whisky and Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
As much as the Irish don’t always like to associate themselves with the English, they nevertheless follow the Scottish traditions pretty closely — as you can read about in our full overview of the process in this article here. That includes additives, where water and caramel coloring are the only two things allowed here.
A truly American classic, the bourbon whiskey category is one of the most popular ones out there — and another category that doesn’t allow any additional sugar to be added to the spirit. You can read more about bourbon whiskey production in our article here. Blending and other tricks are allowed, but sugar sure ain’t.
As the name might imply, straight whiskey is just straight up whiskey. No additives, no flavoring, just a good barrel aged delicious spirit. There’s a number of kinds of spirits that carry the “straight” moniker — straight bourbon, straight rye, etc — and with all of them you should be sugar free here.
Yep, we’re specifically calling out blanco tequila here — and only blanco tequila. You can read more about the full process here, but the long and short of it is that any tequila which is actually labeled as “blanco” is probably the only safe bet to stay sugar and carb free. For anything other type (reposado, anejo), the Mexican government allows distilleries to add pretty much anything they want as flavoring — including sugar — as long as it isn’t harmful.
Spirits to Avoid
So those are the “safe” categories of spirits, and as you might be noticing… that list omits some big categories. Here’s a couple to specifically avoid, either due to high likelihood of sugar content or very loose regulations around additives:
- Vodka — Believe it or not, sugar is a common additive in vodka. Up to 2 grams per liter in the US or 8 grams per liter in the EU are permitted to be added without notice on the label.
- Gin — Just like with vodka, there can be a sneaky amount of sugar in gin. Once again, up to 2 grams per liter in the US or 8 grams per liter in the EU are permitted to be added without notice on the label.
- Canadian Whiskey — By law, for export, Canadian whiskey can be flavored with a large variety of things. Including sugar.
- Japanese Whiskey — The regulations around Japanese whiskey have only recently been formalized, meaning that the contents may be unreliable.
- Brandy — Made from fruit juice, some of these spirits might be sugar free, but you’ll typically see some added sugar or flavoring especially with Cognac, Armagnac, and other European brandies.
- Rum — There’s some specific versions of rum that are required to be sugar free, but it’s probably best to just avoid the category unless you really know what you’re doing. Full details here, but especially for EU produced rum, there’s up to 20 grams per liter added in there.
- Ouro / Gold Tequila — As mentioned above, blanco tequila should be fine and reposado or anejo tequila is questionable. But ouro, or golden tequila, is probably the worst of the worst and is very likely to contain sugar.
- All Liqueurs and Digestifs — Pastis, ouzo, advocaat, sambuca, or sloe gin… you name it, any of these spirits contain a bunch of sugar. Some of them contain more sugar than you’ll find in a can of regular Coca-Cola.
One final word of warning: even though these spirits might be safe for a low carb or low sugar diet, that doesn’t mean all cocktails made with them are fair game. (Stay tuned, though — we’ll be going over a few easy sugar-free cocktail recipes on the site here next!) In the meantime, though, your best bet is probably taking these neat or on the rocks.
Good luck with those new years resolutions, and here’s to a healthier 2022!