The Science of Hangovers – Debunking Common Myths

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So, you wanna be a baller, huh? You love to pound shot after shot, cocktail after cocktail in an effort to show just about all your bros (and often hos) that absolutely no one can possibly upstage you during an evening out, by drinking you under the table. How well you “handle yo’ licka,” is a skill which must be conveyed to all your homies at any cost. Among several problems with such an excessive endeavor, including (1) rapidly draining the evening’s budget and tapping into the Rent Reserve (2) funnin’ strangers boobs without a formal invite and (3) eating a fist full of teeth and getting tossed on your bum, perhaps the most challenging may be the dreaded Hangover.

What in tarnation causes a hangover anyway? How do you avoid it? Most importantly, how do you get rid of it once you have it?


Hey Bartender, that new Indie documentary about to be released, recently published a not-so-accurate video snippet (embedded directly above). In it, they interview some of the stars of the film, as well as Hospitality mini-celebs like perpetual winner of the Internet Bartender O’ The Year: Jeff Morgenthaller. They’re asked specifically how one might address a bad hangover. With few exceptions, just about all of them answered either (a) Hair of the Dog and/or (b) lots and lots of water. There’s only one problem with all of their answers: they’re ALL WRONG. Folks “in the biz” love to postulate about hangovers, hiccup cures, mixing brown/clear spirits and of course – shaken v. stirred Martinis. Me? I fucking love science.

Here are the facts about what actually causes hangovers (aside from the obvious, excessive drinking), as well as what (if anything) can be done to alleviate the suffering. I’ve touched on this topic before here.


As fellow Drink-Slinger/Blogger Dave has mentioned before in his How to Avoid a Hangover article, alcohol acts as a diuretic. In quantity, it messes with your liver to the point where (when overloaded) that organ is no longer able to process the booze in an efficient manner. It’s only able to process so much hooch, in so much amount of time. Your body, therefore, begins to literally suck the water out of your brain, in an attempt to bring your body’s water content back into adequate balance. Well, that’s all well and good for keeping your limbs and core hydrated, but it has the effect of shrinking your grey matter, somewhat separating that precious material from your skull. That’s essentially the pain you feel in your head.

Simultaneously, your body is overloading on Ethanol and the toxin Acetaldehyde (products/by-products of your Kennedy brand liver, trying to keep up with the booze it’s being thrown).

Adulterants (a.k.a., Impurities or Congeners) 

In most cases, “impurities” aren’t impurities at all. Rather, they’re intentional ingredients which all add to the particular flavor profile of a spirit, wine or beer. The exception being crap, rail liquor like Georgi and Alexi vodka, Montezuma Tequila, etc. etc. Wholesale, those plastic jug cheapies can be obtained for as low as $3 or $4 a bottle, and resold for up to a 1000% profit sometimes. Now you know why dive bars stock their wells with, well, Well liquor, and why their prices are often retarded cheap.

In the business, as well as in the scientific community, “impurities” are officially referred to as “Congeners.” 

On the flip side, many vodkas like Titos, Chopin, Grey Goose, and Belvedere, all make it a point to distinguish themselves as having been distilled number of times. The distillation process and frequency, along with separating alcohol from other ingredients, generally removes unwanted (or sometimes wanted) ingredients to a degree. Then why wouldn’t you want to distill your hooch like 5 gazillion times to have the purest vodka possible? I’m no brewmaster. But Tito is. As he explains it, doing so would remove too much flavor. I suspect you’d be left with nothing but Ethanol – pure and simple.

However, multiple distillations isn’t the only factor playing into the Congener game. Many items which contribute to flavor like tanins, wood residue, a previous mash, spices, herbs, sugar, citrus, Red Bull, etc. are in your hooch by design. The taste wouldn’t be the same otherwise. The problem with them is that many of them contain some of the same toxins that contribute to you feeling severely ill. Substances like Acetaldehyde, Esters, and Acetone are just a few.

For many of these reasons, you constantly get wind of bar folklore - like “…I’m sticking to vodka and soda only so I won’t get a hangover (or get the fats)”. The problem with this mentality is that it’s mostly wrong. Yes, flavorless crap is often less calorically dense than “brown liquors,” wines, and of course, something like a White Russian (one of my favorite highballs, by the way). Vodka and sodas obviously have none of the sulfites and residue you’ll find in many wines. Regardless, drinking enough vodka will still make you feel like you’re a minority whose been dragged by rope from the back of a pickup truck, in the Civil Rights era South.

And there you have it folks. The only sure-fire way to cure a hangover is (drumroll please)… to sit and wait. Time. All that “Hair of the Dog” lip service, is simply that: bombastic bullshit. While keeping buzzed/drunk may “re-animate” you to an extent, and somewhat mask the symptoms, “re-imbibery” isn’t going to prevent your body from telling you “you’ve done me wrong, dude.” Likewise, (1) drinking lots of water between drinks (2) avoiding large quantities of sugary and carbonated cocktails (3) pacing yourself and (4) eating during drinking are all good strategies for mitigating hangover effects before the fact.  How much alcohol you ingest, in how much time, plays the biggest role in determining how you’ll feel the next day.

Watch the video. It’s an epic win and everything you simply never wanted to know. Then, go out and get smashed (or not). Like several other mind-altering substances and “alternate lifestyle” type activities, my general belief is that the key to success, keeping sane, happy and healthy, is of course – moderation.

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