How to avoid a hangover

Buy vodka you don't like so you won't drink as much.

Published December 29, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

My editor told me to buy three bottles of vodka, get drunk with my buddies, write about it and she would pick up the tab. The down side of the assignment was also the reason for it: the hangovers.

For me hangovers are an inevitable nuisance. Many of my weekends contain a few hours of alcohol-infused discomfort -- usually in the form of a Saturday or Sunday morning headache coupled with a general feeling of sloth. Occasionally I get a much worse beast to contend with, usually after my birthday, New Year's Eve, or St. Patrick's Day. During such an attack I
picture my brain, completely devoid of its naturally protective liquid coat, 2 inches smaller in size than normal, bumping against the inside of my skull. But big or small, I've learned to accept the hangover. I like bars. I like drinking with friends. I'm going to get hangovers.

Being a cocktail-loving, hangover-plagued entity, my ears perked up when I first heard Skyy Vodka's claim that its product is so pure it won't cause a hangover. Could it be true? Does mankind face alcohol-fueled malaise unnecessarily? I was enthralled, but also hesitant. We are talking about Skyy, after all, a company locked in marketing overdrive -- the ultra-modern cobalt blue bottle, the fashionable advertising campaigns, the dual Y's. Such a trend-savvy company surely wouldn't be above making up or over-promoting hangover-free properties just to sell more vodka. Or would it? In the interest of separating hope from hype, I lifted my glass Skyyward to test the claim.

But before I start pounding vodka, let me provide a little background on Skyy's assertion. The story, as is oft told by the San Francisco-based distiller, goes that the company's founder, Maurice Kanbar, scientifically engineered Skyy to be consistently free of congener content. Congeners, bits of amyl alcohol, propyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol and other impurities, naturally come along for the ride through the distillation process (ethyl alcohol
is what actually gets you drunk). In this effort Skyy is distilled a whopping four times at various temperatures to remove specific congeners, and purified three times to remove others. For comparison, Smirnoff vodka -- another common domestic brand -- is distilled twice.

Skyy's congener story does have a basis in fact, according to Jordan Friedman, director of health education at Columbia University. Congeners, Friedman explains, do contribute to the headache aspect of a hangover. Liquors such as rum and whiskey tend to be high in congeners and yield bigger headaches, while liquors such as vodka and gin tend to be lower in congeners, producing smaller headaches.

But, Friedman warns, congeners only play one part in alcohol-related headaches and hangovers. In addition there's the dehydration caused by any alcohol, which can result in headaches and overall discomfort. Add to that alcohol's acidic traits, which give you gastrointestinal distress, and the fact that alcohol disturbs natural REM cycles, leaving a drinker tired and sluggish. To make matters worse,
according to Friedman, hangovers are almost mini withdrawals. The body is at some level crying out for more booze.

While Skyy's hangover-free claim does have a reasonable scientific grounding, the question is, will congener-free vodka notably reduce real-life hangovers. This is the question I set out to answer, coordinating my methodology accordingly.

I decided testing such a postulate would require a multiple-subject test group of people ranging in size, shape, sex and drinking habits, sampling a range of vodkas. So, in the spirit of science, I signed up six people (including myself) for a series of cocktail parties. Each person was told to consume as much as they felt comfortable drinking, but to drink the same amount of vodka at each party.

Additionally, everyone was also instructed to eat the
same amount of party food (which, due to some unfortunate circumstances, in the first test would turn out to be Tater Tots), and to be consistent in what hangover precautions they used (water, Advil, vitamins, prayer, whatever). The day after each tasting, we'd meet to discuss our state of mind.

The test subjects consisted of three men and three women. Here are the relevant stats: Myself (male, 27, 6 feet tall, 190 pounds); Mari (female, 26, 5-foot-2, 110 pounds -- and a biotech researcher who poked constant fun at my "science"); Kate (female, 29, 5-foot-6, 130 pounds); Nick (male, 32, 5-foot-8, 150 pounds); Ben (male, 35, 170 pounds, 5-foot-9); Caroline (female, 29, 5-foot-8, 130 pounds).

Of this group, Mari and I are moderate drinkers, Nick and Kate are light drinkers, and Ben and Caroline are very light drinkers, rarely drinking alcohol in quantity.

For practical purposes I decided to limit the testing to three brands of vodka. These would consist of Skyy, a top-shelf, more expensive brand than Skyy, and a lower-end "economy" brand. The top-shelf brand I chose was Ketel One, a popular independent vodka imported from Holland ($33.99 for 1.75 liters) The bargain-basement brand I chose was Popov ($12.39 for 1.75 liters). The Skyy was $23.99 for 1.75 liters.

We tested Ketel One first, as I wanted Skyy to go last and I was afraid everyone would quit outright if we started with Popov. We set up shop with plenty of Ketel One, note pads to record our thoughts, mixers and, due to an overabundance of the horrific processed little potatoes in Caroline's freezer, Tater Tots as snacks. The drinking commenced at roughly 9 p.m. and ended at around 2:30 a.m., as it would each of the three nights. I hit a total of eight drinks. The other male subjects dank six and seven drinks respectively. The female participants averaged five drinks each. We were all certifiably buzzed.

Ben turned out to be the drunkest. A reflection of the tally in his journal the next day gives an idea as to how overboard he went:

9:20 p.m.: I feel great! First gimlet, yummy.

10:05 p.m.: Second gimlet. Still feel fine, no recognizable buzz.

10:30 p.m.: Third gimlet. Definitely buzzed.

11:00 p.m.: Vodka and cranberry. I'm heavily buzzed, bordering on crocked. All inhibitions are on leave.

11:20 p.m.: Second vodka and cranberry. I'm lit.

12:42 a.m.: Third vodka and cranberry. I'm still lit.

1:15 a.m.: Ouch. Talked to Rrrrrrralph on the big white phone. Lounging in the bathtub spinning. Spinning, round I go.

When I left that night, Ben was still laying in Caroline's bathtub. I haven't seen him since. All I have for consolation is what he wrote in his note pad the next morning -- 8:30 am: Guess what, that vodka gave me a hangover!

As for me, I felt very typical for a night of too much drinking. I had a headache, was tired, and felt slightly sick to my stomach. Three of the participants also said they had standard-issue hangovers. Only a single female, Mari, said she felt good the next day, no headache, but a little dehydrated.

A week later, we faced up to the dreaded Popov night. Ben was gone, and likewise Caroline dropped out, leaving four of us left. We plowed on.

One thing that we all agreed on was that Popov is nowhere near as smooth or as tasty as Ketel One. Its questionable flavor pierces even cranberry juice, so we were not enthusiastic about drinking it. As a result, as the night went on I began feeling relatively loose, but the mood seemed definitely more sober. One person speculated that we weren't drinking as much, arguing that even though we were putting diligent effort into measuring the drinks accurately, the bad taste of the Popov subconsciously (or otherwise) led to weaker drinks. Fearing that he may be right, I added one beverage to my eight to compensate. Everyone else stuck (as far as their journals reveal) to what they had drunk the previous round.

The next morning, two of the testers and I reported mild hangovers, some headache tendencies, but generally OK. The fourth tester faced what she described as a splitting headache. Overall the hangover count wasn't that bad. The lack of pain from such cheap vodka reinforced the theory that we just didn't drink as much of the harsh Popov.

But upon inspection of the scene the next day, I spotted credit cards lying on the keyboard of the computer. Then it came back to me. Somewhere around 2 a.m. the night before we got the brilliant idea to start buying shoes online.

I took this as a fair sign we had been drunk.

Now we were ready for the final Skyy test. We picked up the same mixers, Tater Tots, and a big blue bottle of Skyy. We convened around 9 p.m., and again, the party wore on until about 2 a.m. I continued to make a concerted effort to mix the drinks the same strength as they had been all along. By the end of the night I had finished my now-standard eight drinks, but of the other participants, two fell a drink short (though they were obviously
feeling what drinks they did have), and the last tester added a drink to her regimen.

At some point in the night I noticed a unique attribute of my Skyy buzz; it left me remarkably clear-headed. I was feeling intoxicated, but my head seemed very sound. Case in point, I remembered to floss my teeth before going to bed.

Mich Earleywine, an alcohol and alcoholism researcher at the University of Southern California, says that he has seen other anecdotal evidence that different congener content can cause a subjectively different buzz. Mostly he says this comes from reports on tequila, which has different congeners than other popular alcohols. I was impressed that Skyy's heavy filtration process would be so noticeable even as I was drinking. I prepped myself to be hangover free. As for the taste, it did leave a little more of a vodka aftertaste than Ketel One, but notably less than Popov. It's good vodka, and comes sans Ketel One's lofty import price. If hangover free, it was a real find. I ran this thought by the rest of the crew and they concurred.

In the end though, I was hung over. Not too badly, but I felt a lingering exhaustion that stuck with me through the morning. My headache was small, but it was there. Two of the other participants (one male, one female) reported feeling hung over, but with relatively light headaches. The fourth participant said she had a nice meaty headache, no doubt about it. Skyy, for all its distillation and filtration, felt relatively on par with both Popov and Ketel One in terms of aftermath.

Obviously this test had its flaws. Not everyone managed to consume the exact same amount of vodka each night. We used sugary mixers. We ate Tater Tots. After talking with the group, however, we all agreed that it didn't seem to matter too much that the test wasn't extremely precise. Skyy, if consumed to a state of intoxication in the right setting, will produce a headache. Other vodkas will also. As we found, cheap vodkas may even
produce less of a headache because you'll want to drink less of them.

Skyy's distilling process probably does reduce the headache aspect of a hangover to some degree. Perhaps, if limited to two or three drinks, Skyy's reduced congener content can make a real difference in next-day health. The problem is that mixed with all the other factors that go into a hangover, the impact of congeners just gets lost in the noise.

The four of us came to the consensus that if anything should be gleaned from our experiment is that you should rely on moderation, Advil, and water to get you through a hangover, and you should choose vodka based on personal taste preference. When I asked each person which one night they would do again, the reaction was unanimous: Ketel One, Saturday morning haze be damned.

By Robert Capps

Robert Capps is a fellow in investigative reporting at Salon.

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