Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why Tequila Doesn't Lead to Crazier Nights, and Why You're an Idiot for Thinking It Does...

Charlie's first article! Everybody clap for Charlie! Yaaaay!

Being a college student, I spend a large portion of my time drinking, and a decent portion of that drinking time is also spent in the presence of other college students. As a direct result of this, I've had to be subject to listening to a series of absurdist conversations about which alcoholic drinks get you "more drunk", lead to more reckless or "crazy" behavior while drinking, or more unpleasant mornings. One of the most common idiotic statements I've had to be personally subject to is that, "Tequila always gets me in trouble..." In order to address whether or not this statement has any foundation in reality, let's talk a little about about alcohol itself...

"Alcohol" as we know it refers to Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol - a string of two carbons bonded to a hydroxyl (-OH) group and a constitutional isomer of dimethyl ether, often abbreviated as "EtOH". Ethanol is the second simplest alcohol behind methanol, with the family of alcohols being identified by their primary functional group, the hydroxyl (-OH) group. Ethanol for human consumption has classically been produced by the fermentation of natural sugars by yeast in an anaerobic environment, also producing carbon dioxide in the process. How EtOH is produced isn't really the question here though, is it? You fucks have wikipedia for that.

Ethanol works in the brain as a GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) agonist; roughly the same mechanism as the benzodiazapenes (roofies), barbituates, some insomnia medications and a host of other weird psychoactives. In general, ethanol mimics endogenous GABA and activates it's receptor, albeit in a slightly different way than endogenous GABA and with different affinities, working to depress other neurochemical function in the brain. Thus, the source of that stupid word "depressant". Oh yeah, ethanol is also a depressant at all dosages. The "stimulant in small doses, depressant in large" thing your asshole teacher told you is blatently false.
Anyway, though the process of fermentation is the same for most alcoholic beverages on the market today, there are numerous different refinements that can be made to the resulting liquid. Beer generally changes little after fermentation, resulting in a beverage containing between 5-8% ethanol by volume. Wines are often fermented slightly longer, and are aged in wood casks for a number of years before being bottled, often ending-up with a final ethanol content in the low teens. Distilled spirits are refined further by a process known as "distillation". Distillation functions on the principal that ethanol (and most lower alcohols) vaporize (or "boil") at a lower temperature than water. By heating the water/ethanol mixture at a controlled temperature below the boiling point of water and collecting the resulting vapors, one can achieve a far more concentrated alcohol solution. The vast majority of distilled spirits are around 40% alcohol by volume, and a number of them are aged after distillation - usually whiskeys, bourbons, brandies, gold tequila, etc. Generally, the shit that's dark/brownish in the bottle.

Now, about "proof" and what the fuck it means... "Proofing" alcohol became important when buyers needed to know the alcohol content of a beverage without any fancy chemical analysis techniques. Usually, a purchaser would saturate a small pile of gunpowder with a few drops of the beverage in question and light it on fire. If it lit, it would be "100% proof" that the drink was at least 50% alcohol by volume (specifically, 57.1% ABV). Thus, the "proof" of a drink is roughly twice it's alcohol content by volume, making most 40% ABV drinks referred to as "80 proof".

So, what makes an 80 proof shot of Vodka different from an 80 proof shot of silver tequila, in terms of it's effect on the brain? In short, nothing. Absolutely no difference. One shot of an 80 proof distilled spirit should contain the exact same kind, and amount, of alcohol is any other. What matters here is the concentration of alcohol, and nothing more.

Well, that's not entirely correct...

One interesting effect of aging alcohols in wood casks is that it tends to increase the amount of ethanol-related byproducts present in the beverage, including methanol, formaldahyde, acetone, acetaldehyde, butanol, etc. Most, if not all, of these byproducts are many times more toxic than ethanol itself. Thus, the aged alcohols such as whiskies, bourbons, brandies and gold tequilas tend to lead to more impairment and worse hangover effects than clear distilled spirits or beers.p

It's also worth taking into account how much water, juice or generally non-alcoholic fluids are normally mixed with the spirit being consumed. Is it being consumed in shots, or is it being mixed with 20oz of iced water or fruit juice?p
So, to wrap-up... Is a margarita of one size containing a single shot of 80 proof silver tequila going to make you behave worse than a screwdriver containing a comparable amount of vodka? Probably not, but G-d help you if you spend all night taking shots of Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam... you'll be pissing formaldehyde the next day.


  1. Talk chemistry to me baby!

  2. Maybe we LIKE pissing formaldehyde.