Headaches and hangovers are well-known consequences of overindulgence in alcohol, but what is far less well known is that these unpleasant side-effects are largely due to the impurities, the congeners, and not to the alcohol per se.
This interesting fact will be confirmed by many people who habitually drink gin or vodka rather than pot-distilled spirits such as rye, bourbon, scotch, rum or even wine and beer. More objective proof that the congeners and not the alcohol are the bad actors can be found in the scientific literature. Numerous studies have been made and all investigators find the same thing, i.e. that the symptoms of hangover — headache, halitosis, gastric irritation, fatigue and dizziness — were far more severe when the same amount of alcohol were consumed in the form of whisky than in the form of vodka. When you think about it, this is hardly surprising considering the poisonous nature of some congeners.
As an example of such studies, in one clinical investigation 33 men and 35 women were each given 2 ounces of either whisky or vodka on separate occasions. The incidence of after-effects in the group following a single drink of 2 ounces of whisky was halitosis 27%, gastric irritation 25%, headache 9%, dizziness 7% and fatigue 6%. These symptoms persisted during the following day. After the same amount of vodka, temporary headache and gastric irritation were observed in only 2% of the subjects while there were no complaints of halitosis, dizziness or fatigue in any of the cases. It should be noted that all the subjects in this trial were light social drinkers.
The effects described above were produced by a commercial whisky in which the congeners occurred to the extent of about 3%. As part of the study the congeners were separated from the whisky and given to the subjects in the absence of alcohol. The effect was the same as when the whisky itself was imbibed, proving that the congeners and not the alcohol were responsible for the adverse reactions. The chief culprit among the congeners was considered to be one of the fusel oils — amyl alcohol — and not methanol as might have been expected.
These results are not really definitive — for one thing the size of the sample was rather small — but even without such a trial it is not difficult to believe that drinking such things as methanol and fusel oils, even in small amounts, will be bad for you. If it were a different poison, e.g. arsenic, it would not be surprising if a 3% solution in alcohol, or even in water, gave you an upset tummy. 3% is not a trivial amount when one considers that nowadays the authorities are concerned about parts per billion of contaminants in foodstuffs.
One of the conclusions to be drawn from such studies is that whisky production should be handled carefully by amateurs. As mentioned in earlier sections, pot-distilled spirits involve the retention of some of the congeners in order to give taste to the whisky, but some of these taste-providing congeners are poisonous so don't overdo it. It would be wiser, perhaps, and certainly easier, to remove all the impurities by fractional distillation to give a pure alcohol and then add a flavouring agent. The physiological effect of an alcoholic drink, the 'buzz', is due solely to the alcohol, and everything else is merely moonlight and roses!
A final comment concerns the question of alcohol concentration in beverages. In beer the concentration is about 5%, in wine it is 8 to 13%, while in distilled spirits it is usually 40%. Only a moment's thought is required to appreciate that the concentration of alcohol in a drink is irrelevant, it is the amount consumed which is the determining factor in determining whether or not someone becomes inebriated. Drinking a bottle of beer is not less harmful than a 11/2-oz. drink of 40% scotch just because it is weaker. They both contain identical amount of the same alcohol, i.e. 17 ml. Adding tonic water to a shot of gin dilutes it from 40% to maybe 6% but this has not rendered the gin less intoxicating — the amount of alcohol has remained unchanged.
This is all so obvious that it may seem a little absurd to even mention it but, in most countries, the concept appears to be somewhat too difficult for the official mind to grasp. This is shown by the fact that governments put a much higher tax per unit of alcohol on distilled spirits than on beer and wine. The reason for doing this, it is claimed (somewhat piously) is to discourage people from drinking something which could be harmful to their health. A more likely reason is that they see it as an opportunity to increase tax revenue. If a government wished to base their tax grab on a rational argument they should start by basing it on alcohol amount (so much per unit of alcohol) instead of on alcohol concentration. And then, if health were the primary consideration as they claim, an additional tax would be levied based on the amount of poison (congener) present. Vodka would then attract the lowest tax of all and we would all live happily ever after!
A final note for environmentalists and watchdog groups on health matters: Is it not time to demand that governments require all manufacturers of alcoholic beverages to list the composition on the label? This would enable us to choose the ones with the lowest levels of toxic ingredients. They do it for food so why not for drink, particularly for drink which is known to contain several poisons.
Was this article helpful?