How to Avoid Those GMO Booze Blues

Recently, over a delicious cocktail at my local neighborhood bar, I started thinking about what went into the ingredients in my drink - and whether or not I was imbibing any GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) along with it. I know - what a buzzkill! But here's the thing: I go out of my way to make sure that I'm avoiding GMOs when it comes to my groceries, so why not expand that to include happy hour drinks? I knew that some types of alcohol are made from corn, and when I think about corn, I think GMOs. (Around 92 percent of the corn grown in the US is genetically modified!). But what I didn't know is which specific kinds of alcohol are made with corn (or even other GM products like soybeans and sugar beets). My lack of education around alcohol and where it comes from was obvious: Gin is made from juniper berries, right? And vodka is made from potatoes? Not necessarily.

What's the Big Deal with GMOs?

From GM cornfield to martini glass is sadly not far from the truth. And while some might debate that there is anything "toxic" left in alcohol by the time it reaches a cocktail, the process of growing GM crops is detrimental to our environment. Issues attached to industrial GM crops include chemical pollution of the land, air and water; biological contamination of organic crops; harm to insects and animal populations; loss of biodiversity; and the list goes on.

So How Do I Avoid GMOs in My Cocktail?

One of the easiest ways to avoid GMOs in your beverage (and in your food) is to buy products labeled USDA organic, which prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms. But does your local bar carry organic alcohol? Sadly, probably not!

So with some weekend cocktails and the environment in mind, I set out to simplify non-GMO booze. I've learned a ton,  and the takeaways are not simple. Here's what I found, but let's keep the conversation alive at happy hour.

Five General Tips to Help You Avoid GMOs in Hard Alcohol

  1. Buy organic.
  2. Avoid gluten free alcohol if you can. If it's gluten free, it's often made from corn. (But there are exceptions, so read on below!)
  3. Avoid flavored and colorful alcohol, which can contain additives, high fructose corn syrup (made from GM corn), food coloring and more.
  4. Avoid alcohol that is made from GM crops - like corn, soy and sugar beets.
  5. What's your poison? Do some research and find a good GMO-free option.

Here's the Nitty Gritty, by Type of Alcoholic Beverage

The Booze: Gin

What is it made from? A neutral spirit base usually made from corn, barley, wheat and/or rye. But you can find gin made from other ingredients including barley, quinoa, wheat, potato and other agricultural products. The spirit base is infused/distilled with juniper berries and other botanicals, such as caraway, angelica, cardamom, coriander seed, cassia bark and citrus.

Is it commonly GMO? Many gins are made from a non-specified neutral spirit base. This makes it more complicated to figure out, but the base could include corn, so would likely be GM.  

Where is it made? Because of the variety of ingredients it can be made from, it is produced all over the world.

Best choice: Organic gin. If you can't find organic, look for gins made from interesting base alcohols that aren't corn or a corn blend. Check out this 100 percent barley malt gin, 100 percent quinoa gin100 percent wheat gin or this 100 percent potato gin.

The Booze: Tequila

What is it made from? Blue agave.

Is it commonly GMO? Agave is not a GM crop, so you don't have to worry about 100 percent agave tequila. But where you need to be careful is with "mixto" tequilas - which are usually just called "Tequila" or "Tequila Gold". These mixto tequilas include at least 51 percent agave sugars, with 49 percent from "other" sugars. The "other" sugar is often cane sugar, but can also be from beet sugar or even high fructose corn syrup. Mixto tequilas can also have coloring and other additives, and aren't always from Mexico. One word of caution about blue agave - the crops are often grown in industrial monoculture fashion, and are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Because the agave plant takes six to ten years to grow to maturity, and is susceptible to bugs, fungus and cold, to lose a crop would be devastating for the farmer so they "protect" them with chemical sprays.

Where is it made? It is grown in Mexico, and by law should come from the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. The majority comes from Jalisco.

Best choices: 100 percent Agave. Organic if possible, and there are many options. Look for smaller batch tequilas to avoid monocrop production, such as the tequila that George Clooney drinks, or this one named after The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Booze: Mezcal

What is it made from? A variety of agave plants (including blue agave), but predominantly agave espadin.

Is it commonly GMO? Just as with tequila, mezcal agave is not a GM crop, so you don't have to worry about 100 percent agave mezcal. But where you need to be careful is with "mixto" mezcals, called type II, which are at least 80 percent agave sugars and 20 percent other sugar, often cane sugar. Because of the wider variety of agave allowed in mezcal (approximately 30 varieties), it can be harvested from more diverse lands than blue agave, sometimes even hand harvested from the wild. The most common mezcal agave, the espadin, is often grown in a monocrop setting.

Where is it made? It is grown in Mexico, and by law should come from the states Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Michoacan. The majority comes from Oaxaca.

Best choice: 100 percent agave. Organic, if possible. Look for wild harvested agave, like the tobala agave, for the most environmentally-friendly selection (and a quite pricey one!).  This mezcal compares finding the tobala agave plant to finding truffles and this one is wild grown and harvested at 12 years old.

The Booze: Rum

What is it made from? Sugarcane and sugarcane byproducts, such as juice, syrup and molasses. There is talk about rum from sugar beets, but since that is not the legal definition of rum, it isn't being sold, which is a good thing for avoiding GMOs! You will find rums from white or clear to shades of caramel and darker. The aging process is what creates the color, but most rum is cut with water to dilute the alcohol content before bottling, and producers often add that "caramel" color back in - literally from the addition of caramel (burnt sugar). Rum that is flavored, sweetened or very dark most likely has added sugar, glycerol, artificial and/or "natural" flavorings. True aged rum, that is not filtered, will be a caramel color from the oak and sherry barrels that it is aged in.

Is it commonly GMO? Sugarcane is not a GM crop.

Where is it made? Sugarcane is grown in many tropical regions, but rum is made all over the world. If it is made in a region that is not tropical, the rum was most likely distilled from imported molasses, or was distilled and sent to another area for ageing.

Best choice: Organic, if you can find it. Otherwise, look for white aged rum to avoid any added coloring. Unadulterated caramel color-aged rum does exist, but not many producers are discussing it. If you are up for spending a big chunk of change on your rum, check out these two that claim no additives. I also found a distillery in Barbados, Foursquare Distillery, that doesn't use additives and produces two rums, Rum Sixty Six and Doorly's, that are more affordable.

The Booze: Rye

What is it made from? For a whiskey to call itself rye, it must be distilled from a mixture that is at least 51 percent rye, with the rest usually made from corn and malted barley.

Is it commonly GMO? Rye is not a GM crop - but to be sure your rye whiskey is GMO free, you need to know what the other 49 percent is made of. There are some 100 percent ryes available, and others that do not include corn in the "other" portion of the mash.

Where is it made? American rye whiskey is made in the US.

Best choice: Organic is a good choice, or look for a rye with no corn in the base alcohol. There are many rye whiskeys with no corn in the mash - Dad's Hat, Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey, Whistlepig Rye, Bulleit Rye, Journeyman Distillery Rye, and more!

The Booze: Bourbon

What is it made from? For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, the mixture of grains that it is distilled from must contain at least 51 percent corn, with the rest malted barley and either rye or wheat. If bourbon is "blended," 51 percent must be straight bourbon while the other 49 percent can be "other" spirits and coloring and flavoring are permitted.

Is it commonly GMO? With 51 percent corn, there is a good chance that your bourbon contains GM corn.

Where is it made? It can be made anywhere in the US, but is often associated with Kentucky.

Best choice: There are some GMO-free bourbons at your bar right now! These 3 claim to be 100 percent GMO-free: Wild TurkeyFour Roses and Buffalo Trace. Stay away from blended bourbons.

The Booze: Scotch

What is it made from? Barley and other grains. Most often Scotch Malt Whisky is 100 percent barley. If it is Scotch Whiskey, then it might have additional grains. E150a, a caramel coloring, is sometimes added to make the coloring consistent.

Is it commonly GMO?  Scotland banned GM crops in 2015, and since Scotch must be made in Scotland, it is GMO free.

Where is it made? All Scotch is made in Scotland.

Best choice: Organic if you can find it. Look for brands that do not use E150a coloring - The Macallan is one that you see often and Bruichladdich, too.

The Booze: Vodka

What is it made from? Mostly from sorghum, corn, rice, rye or wheat and sometimes potato. There are even a few vodkas from soybeans (which are most likely GM) and sugar beets (also mostly GM). There is a lot of talk about gluten-free vodka, which is mostly made from corn. But there are gluten-free options made from potatoes or rice.

Is it commonly GMO?  If it is made from corn, soybeans or sugar beets - it is likely GM.

Where is it made? Because of the variety of ingredients it can be made from, it is produced all over the world.

Best choice: There are many choices when it comes to GMO-free vodka - Absolut Vodka (wheat), Devotion Vodka (sugar free, gluten free, GMO-free from corn!), Grey Goose (wheat), Ocean Organic Vodka (sugarcane from an organic farm in Maui), Ciroc (grapes, and promoted by Sean P Diddy Combs), Ketel One (wheat) - and the list goes on. You can also find blends, like Hangar 1, which is a combo of grapes and wheat.


Fair just took the environmental booze thing up a big notch with fair trade alcohol that is also GMO-free and gluten-free. Some of their options: a joint collaboration between French distillers and Andean farmers for quinoa vodka, Fair Trade Certified sugar cane for rum from Belize that is grown organically and sustainably, and juniper berries for gin sourced from a nature reserve in Uzbekistan where agriculture is the chief source of income for the mainly rural population.

This blog was originally posted on GRACE's Ecocentric Blog.