It’s Time For Nutritional Information on Alcohol Labels

We Should Know What's In Our Alcohol
We Should Know What’s In Our Alcohol

This week the state run liquor stores in Finland pulled Fireball Cinnamon Whisky because it contains levels of propylene glycol that are “out of compliance with European regulations”. Both Sweden and Norway followed suit asking for the batches of of Fireball with propylene glycol to be recalled.

Since Fireball is such a hot product, there was an immediate firestorm on the Internet, enough to cause Sazerac president Mark Brown to issue a statement about the recall. Truth be told, the EU has much stricter regulations on food and beverage than the US (which is why tonic in the EU has sugar and not high fructose corn syrup, and is consequently so much better). The US Food and Drug Administration considers propylene glycol safe “up to 50 grams per KG” (Fireball has less than 1/8th of that) and it’s a common additive that’s found in thousands of products in the US. 

It’s not uncommon for alcohol companies to make different versions of their products for different regions because of varying food laws and requirements.  Martini makes a special version of their vermouth in the United States that doesn’t contain any calamus, a botanical that’s banned by the FDA but considered safe in the EU. (Calamus is also the reason you can’t get Amer Picone in the US, as it’s one of the ingredients).

The big issue that this Scandinavian recall raises is that, whether or not it’s considered safe, consumers should have the information on what they’re consuming so they can make their own decisions. Go to any grocery store and almost every packaged product lists its ingredients as well as calories, sugar, and a host of other important details. Why is hard alcohol exempt from this?

Most spirit companies will state (as Sazerac did when asked) that “the exact recipe is proprietary”. It’s a thin argument, as some of the most iconic beverages in the world, like Coca Cola, list most of their major ingredients on the package. Of course they sum up their flavorings under the term “natural flavorings”, but the list of what’s inside the bottle, for the most part, is on the bottle.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky

To their credit, Sazerac is one of the few spirit companies to list the nutritional information for their products, but most other spirit companies don’t disclose even the most basic information on their spirits. We did a search to try to find the nutritional information on the corporate sites for many of the major consumed liquors, including Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, and Jägermeister, and came up empty. They don’t even disclose calories and sugar!

It’s understandable why these companies don’t want to have to disclose what they put in the bottle. Would you buy a honey liqueur if you saw that it had more high fructose corn syrup than honey? Would you buy a bottle of vodka if you found out it had glycerine, sugar, or other additives? Having the basic information on the label would also mean that some brands would have to change their stories. There are a number of rums that claim that they “don’t add any sugar” and yet, they do:

Rums That Add Sugar
Source: Alko Finland / Refined Vices

The issue of sugar in spirits isn’t trivial. Sugar is an accepted additive for several spirits that are tightly controlled by an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) including Cognac and Tequila.  Wouldn’t it be important to know if the bottle of tequila you bought has added sugar? Beyond “hidden sugar”, the amount of sugar in many liqueurs is staggering. By definition, a liqueur is defined by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) as having “not less than 2.5% by weight sugar, dextrose, levulose or a combination”. That’s the minimum. We did some research (including the information from Sazerac’s nutritional information site) and the level of sugar in some popular liqueurs is pretty mind blowing.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (66 proof, 33% ABV, 1.5 oz serving 108 calories and 11 grams of sugar per serving) – Doesn’t sound horrid until you start doing the math:  at 1.5 oz, 11 grams of sugar (which is 2.2 teaspoons or .73 Tablespoons), this converts to 0.38 oz. which is a full 25.33% of the shot. That’s right – 1/4 of that shot of Fireball is sugar! At 33% ABV there’s almost as much sugar in each shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky as there is alcohol.

Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey (70 proof, 35% AVB, 1.5 oz serving) – Since Brown Forman/Jack Daniels doesn’t disclose the nutritional information, we can only go with what’s been reported online: 108 calories, 6 grams of sugar. For 1.5 oz, 6 grams of sugar is 1.2 teaspoons or .4 Tablespoons, which converts to .21 oz which is 14% of the shot. Not as bad as Fireball, but still a healthy percentage.

Jägermeister (70 proof, 35% AVB, 1.5 oz serving) – Neither Jägermeister nor Sidney Frank (the distributor) officially discloses the nutritional information for Jägermeister, but given what we’ve been able to find online (and it must be considered a best guess), Jägermeister has 150 calories and 16.4 grams of sugar. For 1.5 oz, 16.4 grams of sugar is a shocking 1 full Tablespoon of sugar! That is .58 oz, a shocking 38.5% of the shot. That’s right, there’s apparently more sugar in a shot of Jägermeister than alcohol!

1 Tablespoon Per Sugar Per Shot
1 Tablespoon Per Sugar Per Shot

Would you buy a bottle of alcohol if you knew that it had more sugar than alcohol in it? This is information that consumers deserve to have and there’s no excuse why the TTB doesn’t require it. There’s an obesity epidemic in the US and it’s irresponsible for liquor companies not to let their customers know that they may be consuming as much as 1 Tablespoon of sugar per shot!

It’s time for the TTB to stop letting liquor companies hide what they’re putting in their bottles and give customers the information they need to make educated decisions about what they buy. There’s simply no excuse.

The upside of nutritional information on spirit bottles is that quality spirits that don’t actually add anything extra to their spirits will be rewarded by consumers. Shouldn’t the companies who do what they do without relying on sugar, flavorings, emulsifiers, and anti-freezing agents have the benefit of their customers knowing it?

  • Vestal Vodka

    Another truly great article that gets straight to the point and issues with spirits producers today. I believe total transparency would be very useful for all .

    • Thanks. Even as a reporter I was unable to get official statements from many of the top producers about the sugar and calorie content of their products.

      • Vestal Vodka

        the other interesting element is the list published on rums as many of the very very large brands contained 0 sugar which makes me think they have discovered even scarier alternatives !

        • It was very important to me not to really single out one brand over another, this is an industry wide issue.

          • Vestal Vodka

            I think other wise the message would have got lost although im sure there are those practise this more than others, can the small profits savings really justify this though, how much do they really save ?

        • LREKing

          Doesn’t the fermentation process convert sugar to alcohol? So wouldn’t any sufficiently high-proof spirit have essentially no sugar unless it were an added ingredient?

          • Any real sugar should not survive the distillation process, but without disclosures we’ll never know what is added in to a spirit when it’s put into the bottle.

  • Totally agree with you! Thanks for a great article.

  • LREKing

    After drinking nothing but bourbon for some time, I thought I would try Southern Comfort and was surprised (read: nearly gagged) to find out how much sugar it has in it. I asked at my local spirits store, where I was told that if I wanted to be sure my liquor was unadulterated, I should stick with bourbon. Until such time that companies list their ingredients and calories, that’s advice that I can happily follow.

    • Southern Comfort is horrid, i don’t think it’s even whiskey based anymore. If brands were forced to disclose the sugar levels you’d see a real shift in products like Soco.

  • Barry

    This is something that is very important to me. I have been in contact with two of my favorite breweries (Founder’s and 3Floyds) about this topic and have heard nothing from them.
    I feel that we have a right to know what’s in our food. Or in this case, our beverages. I don’t need to know the recipe per say, but an ingredients list would help me make a more informed decision on what I products I buy.
    With this article and the Mindful Drinking article can we expect a few reviews of organic spirits? I’m half way through a bottle of Prairie Organic Vodka and it’s very good.
    Geoff, if there are no plans for such reviews, I would like to make a formal request for reviews of organic spirits. A request. Not a demand … Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comment and suggestion. I’ve gotten a few requests to cover the segment of Organic spirits. I’ve been accruing information in that space about weather or not it actually matters if the source grain is organic, haven’t gotten a definitive answer other than “probably not”. Will take your suggestion into consideration thought…

      • Barry

        Great! Thank you!

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  • liam young

    It’s not just alcohol and sugar. It’s additives (color, flavor) as well a inputs, including chemicals that are above and beyond the standard traditional additives. Many spirits talk about being 100% corn, but this may be from a form of glucose-fructose that research is working to show is harmful for our bodies. For something like wine, percentages of a labeled grape or region could be as low as 75% (and in some jurisdictions, lower). Many wines now have many different grapes and juice coming from places like China and Chile even though they try to pretend that they’re from a ‘premium’ location like California. They have flavoring like oak, fruit and other simulated aromas designed to trick our noses into believing it’s a quality wine.

    Ultimately, there’s an opportunity for a producer to be transparent about their product and to SHOUT OUT about it so that consumers understand there’s an important trend happening here. Failure to do so will be missing out on a spectacular marketing opportunity.

  • It’s a hot topic in rum especially. But it wasn’t until around 2014 or so. Maybe it’s really time for other spirits to get that discussion as well (I’m especially looking at you, Tequila). It’s uncomfortable for producers, and also for many consumers, still it’s something that can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided.