This is simply to share what I know about various alcohols and their ingredients, since ingredients labeling currently is not required for alcohol in the United States. I have no expertise, simply some experiences in Seattle, WA. As always, use your own judgment, and please let me know about your own experiences.
Beer and Malt Beverages
Beer itself tends to be straightforward, but can have intriguing things mixed into it. I’m skeptical of beers with names that contain flavors and Christmastime “seasonal” ales (due to added spices and therefore nut).
Hops has a track record of causing contact dermatitis, and both of us find that it unsettles our stomachs. We’ve found Belgian ales to be lower in hops content.
Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Limeade etc – contain malt and other beer-like substances. I have not had a problem thus far.
Wine and the Like
Red Wine – contains sulfites
White Wine – also contains sulfites, but I can tolerate it. I don’t know if you can.
Mead – mead is traditionally made from honey. I’ve tried many meads, but I don’t try the ones that have spices in them or “mulled” meads.
Sake – mostly made from rice. There’s a special kind of mold, koji, that is used instead of yeast to encourage and control the fermentation. Sakes also can contain sulfites.
Vermouth – infused with “botanicals,” who knows what that means. Watch out for martinis, vermouth may be a wine, but it is spritzed over martinis.
Mixed Drinks, Liquor, Liqueurs, etc
WARNING Gin is usually infused with many flavors including nuts. Bombay Sapphire is one I know has almond. Dry Fly is one that I know does not contain any nuts whatsoever (the people at Dry Fly are also very nice about answering ingredients inquiries).
WARNING Maraschino cherries may contain almond, and some bartenders like to add cherries or cherry juice unexpectedly. Explain why cherries are a bad idea when ordering your drinks. Several other anecdotal commentors have indicated that Maraschino is usually just sugar and color, traditional has an almond-like flavor from the cherries themselves, sometimes this is done with apricot. In any case, unless I’m holding the jar in my hands I won’t deal with them, since sometimes they do have almond.
Vodka – vodka is a popular drink to flavor, so watch the added flavorings, but what it is made of CAN VARY. Just because you’ve heard that vodka is from potatoes doesn’t mean it all is. I personally have now seen wheat-, rye-, potato-, and honey-based vodkas. Given that though, I find plain vodkas a great starting point when I’m out, one that isn’t scary because they usually are either very plain or the flavor is broadcasted all over the label.
WARNING Absinthe – Even now that it is legal again, I have no plans to ever try it. First it’s anise flavored (which is one of my allergies), and second, I don’t have a good way to test my allergies to wormwood first. Thirdly it contains other undefined herbs.
WARNING Chartreuse – contains over a hundred herbal extracts. I’m not interested in trying this, or trying to figure out if I’m allergic to any of them, I’m sure I’m allergic to at least one.
WARNING Jägermeister – also contains a large number of herbs, fruits, spices etc. That’s too many for me. Jäger is common in mixed drinks, especially drinks that have reputations as NOT “girly” drinks.
Some people One bar I have visited adds Jäger to Long Island Iced Tea, even though that is not traditional. Remember, I’m allergic to a few spices and apricot pits, so I don’t mess around with unknown ingredients. I’ve read claims that Jäger does not contain either nuts or peanuts, and as a secret recipe, I don’t know the actual ingredients.
(technically a wine) vermouth is infused with “botanicals,” who knows what that means. Vermouth is spritzed over martinis. Okay, I’m super confused about vermouth. Because there’s a wine that you can drink, infused with botanicals, and dry vermouth is an ingredient in dry martinis … anything that says “botanicals” I stay AWAY from.
Scotch, Bourbon, Whiskey – usually start from barley, rye, or wheat and are aged in barrels (frequently oak). Sometimes those barrels have been used for other alcohols first (sherry or bourbon – yes, some scotches are aged in bourbon barrels). The grain is usually malted and sometimes smoked – leaving a peaty flavor. Laphroaig scotch usually starts with water from peat bogs, in addition to being smoked over peat. Single malt scotches have a name that they want to maintain, so they’re quite consistent between batches.
WARNING Frangelico – is a hazelnut liqueur. STAY AWAY. This is contained in the popular “chocolate cake” shot – a shot that tastes like chocolate cake but has no cake and no chocolate.
WARNING Amaretto – this is almond liqueur. STAY AWAY.
Godiva Chocolate and White Chocolate liqueur – I had a little bit of a not-so-fun feeling in my mouth on tasting the Godiva chocolate liqueur. Since I don’t know and can’t find the real ingredients I’m staying away.
WARNING Celtic Crossing – I reacted minorly to this. It tasted a bit like almonds. I don’t know what it actually was that caused the reaction.
Kaluah – I’m pretty sensitive to peanuts and tree nuts and I don’t have a problem with this coffee-flavored liqueur. Jason won’t try it though because of his coffee sensitivity and general legume allergy.
Brandy, Cognac, Port – all of these start with wine. I said above that I don’t do red wines for the sulfites, but I haven’t had a problem with brandy or cognac. Port sometimes makes me sneeze, but I like tawny port anyway.
Grand Marnier – a citrus-flavored cognac
Rum – I haven’t tried the spiced rums, but both dark and white rum are pretty straightforward. They start from cane sugar, and some dark rums are aged in barrels.
Cointreau – citrus-flavored, but is NOT a cognac. This liqueur doesn’t start with wine. I have no clue what it really is, but I’m not allergic to it and neither is Jason.
Chambord – dark, berry-flavored. That’s all I’ve got. I’m not allergic to it and neither is Jason.
Tequila – is made from agave syrup. This does bother Jason, and if you’re sensitive to cacti or tropical fruits I’d be careful of it. I recommend getting tested or challenging agave before trying tequila.
Alcohol impairs judgment. If you have food allergies, alcohol may make it harder to make the right decision about using your EpiPen or taking your Benadryl. Surround yourself with trustworthy friends when drinking and call for help if you’re not sure about something.
I have heard some reports that alcohol can speed up allergic reactions or make you more sensitive than usual. Please be cautious.
Benadryl and alcohol can mix badly as they’re both sedatives, so be careful. Follow your doctor’s instructions at all times. I have found consulting nurses, on-campus nurses, and doctors perfectly willing to discuss what happens when you mix alcohol with emergency allergy medications with me – especially when I bring it up before it happens accidentally. Alcohol is common in our society, and an expected part of many social interactions after a certain age. If you have a quick chat with your doctor before you get into a situation involving more than a sip of wine, then you’ll be prepared and ready (on the allergy front anyway) when you’re offered your first drink.
Cocktail shakers can be used for multiple drinks. Watch out for cross-contamination.
Finally, if you plan to go out with friends and you’re not the designated driver, I advise finding a simple, commonly-available alcoholic drink that you are comfortable ordering in a mixed setting before you go out. This way you always have a safe fallback that most bars will carry and you don’t have to feel put upon when the order comes around to you and you start listing allergies. Tee-totallers do this too – they order plain Coke (looks like they’re drinking rum-and-coke) or 7-up (looks like 7-and-7). Rum and Coke, vodka with a twist of lemon, scotch, etc. Feel free to tell your bartender to mix whatever you want. You know he has Sprite or 7-Up or some kind of safe fruit juice and your favorite liqueur? So what if it’s 7-Up and bourbon? Tell him what you want, he’ll probably do it – you’re usually only paying for the liquor and his time anyway.
You know this already: communicate with your server and the bartender when possible. In my experience these people are even more attentive and able to accommodate requests than restaurant servers and chefs. Perhaps there is less pressure in some of the settings I’ve been in, or perhaps there is some reality in the stereotype that bartenders are there to listen, but whatever it is, I’m glad for it.
I’ll keep adding to this as I learn more and as you leave your experiences in the comments.