A few years ago, I was casually sipping on a hard seltzer when I felt my stomach seize. I knew almost immediately that I was having an allergic reaction, so I grabbed the can and scanned the ingredient list searching for hops or pork, the two random foods to which I’m allergic. But, beyond citing “natural flavors,” the ingredient list didn’t give me much information, so it was impossible to know what had caused my flare-up. Luckily, I knew just what to do: I emailed the company.
What I found out was two things: One, there were hops in the drink; per FDA rules, hops fell under the ingredient umbrella of “natural flavors.” After I said a ceremonious goodbye to my then-favorite brand of hard seltzer, and reopened my search for the perfect beer alternative, the second thing I learned dawned on me: I, a person who had made a career of tasting alcoholic drinks, had no idea what the hell I was actually drinking.
As someone whose career has included interviewing many founders of alcohol brands, I knew that ingredient lists could be fraught — especially in the age of “clean” and “better for you” alcohols. I mean, I was once told by the founder of the hard tea company Owl’s Brew to be wary of the term “natural flavors” because that encompassed things like “beaver butt juice.” And yet even I did not know the extent to which the alcohol industry hid what it was doing from consumers.
Even though we’re supposed to be living in the era of brand transparency and consumer responsibility, a time when information is readily available on any manner of things, the alcohol industry remains remarkably opaque. If you were to go pick up a bottle of vodka at your local liquor store, for example, you wouldn’t find a list of ingredients or nutritional information on the back as you would on a bottle of soda. In fact, the main requirements for alcohol labels as regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) are simply to mention where the drink was bottled, list the Alcohol By Volume (ABV), and include a government warning against drinking while pregnant or operating machinery. Because of this lack of concrete information, many consumers have only a vague idea of what’s in their alcohol, and probably think, say, that all vodka is made from potatoes (it’s not, it’s mostly made of corn, grapes, or rye). They probably also have no idea that wine and beer aren’t necessarily vegan — or even vegetarian — since many varieties of wine and beer are clarified using fish bladders and/or eggs.
Following the disaster that was Prohibition, big alcohol companies (which own 96% of all alcohol on the market) lobbied to keep nutritional labeling as ambiguous as possible. The last time nutritional information was brought up in the TTB was in 2005, when, according to Thomas Hogue of the TTB, “the issue of ingredient labeling remained a complex and controversial subject and [the TTB] decided, instead, to address an area where there was broader agreement by allowing the inclusion of a voluntary Serving Facts panel with calorie and nutrient information.” Essentially, instead of requiring alcohol companies to provide nutritional information to their customers, the TTB allowed them to include nutrient information only if they wanted to.
This lack of transparency has led to another form of opacity in the alcohol industry — the use of the word “clean” to describe alcohol. As opposed to the ways in which alcohol companies used to take advantage of a lack of labeling clarity by adding ingredients that they didn’t tell consumers about (such as artificial flavoring and sweeteners), the recent move toward promoting “clean” alcohol claims to be telling consumers everything they’re putting into their bottles. But, what does “clean” actually mean? When it comes to alcohol, “clean” doesn’t mean any one thing. It isn’t a legislated classification like organic, biodynamic, or vegan — it’s just a marketing term, prominently used not so long ago with the launch of Cameron Diaz’s “clean wine” brand, Avaline. What companies usually mean when they say their alcohol is “clean” is that it’s vegan (so, clarified using methods other than fish bladders or eggs) and doesn’t have added sugar (which most reputable wine/spirits companies don’t have anyways). When it comes to wine, it may also mean it doesn’t have sulfites (a natural compound used to preserve freshness in wine), which really only matters if you are part of the one percent of people who have a sulfite sensitivity.
Still, even though terms like “clean” and “better for you” are just as ambiguous as listing “natural flavors” as an ingredient and leaving nutritional information off alcoholic drinks, that isn’t to say that clean alcohol or alcohol with natural flavors is bad for you. Rather, it simply means that federal guidelines allow alcohol companies to prioritize marketing over giving consumers actual information about what we’re putting in our bodies.
Of course, some alcohol brands have voluntarily become transparent about their ingredient list. Companies like Haus and Good Vodka list their ingredients and processes on their websites and focus their marketing efforts on campaigns and education. Other companies, such as Frankly Organic Vodka, have even added nutrition labels to their bottles, despite it being optional. Then, there are the companies that have taken it one step further, such as Empirical Spirits — a “flavor first” company that not only lists its processes and ingredients online, but has also moved away from traditional spirits and instead created their own unique koji-based spirits.
While transparency reigns supreme in marketing campaigns for small brand alcohol, both as an ethos and a smart tactic to appeal to younger, conscientious consumers, there’s another way these brands are working to balance good practices with big sales: by selling sustainability. Alcohol production is intertwined with agriculture, and one of the ways that newer brands are promoting their products is by making clear consumers know that transparency goes beyond listing ingredients, and extends to sourcing those ingredients responsibly. So, instead of using mass-farmed corn or wheat to distill their spirits, they use crops from small farmers (or their own farms) or use waste products like coffee fruit to create their alcohol. These sustainable processes (and therefore, overall transparency) are possible for smaller and/or direct-to-consumer alcohol brands because it’s built into their business, and is what appeals to consumers about their alcohol. Big brand alcohol, on the other hand, can rely on name recognition and large advertising budgets to sell their product, allowing them to choose low-cost farming and production over sustainable farming practices and label transparency — for now, anyway. It’s highly possible that even some of these bigger brands will be borrowing practices from smaller, sustainable ones, if that’s the kind of thing younger customers demand.
The lack of transparency in the alcohol industry is startling, but not surprising. Until recently, alcohol companies knew consumers would continue to buy from them whether or not they knew what exactly was in their alcohol, so they prioritized selling as much as they could, as cheaply as they could — that’s capitalism! Now, though, as ”clean” and “better for you” marketing is only increasing, there will probably be more pressure on bigger brands to have a similar level of transparency as smaller ones if they want to stay competitive. That’s also capitalism!. But, considering how niche “clean” alcohol still is, will we see ingredient lists, nutrition facts, or clearly described distilling processes on the majority of alcoholic beverages any time soon? Not likely.