Here at The Cocktail Society, we want to help drive the change of people drinking better and more mindfully. We think part of drinking in this way is around understanding alcohol and what in alcohol can potentially stop the fun.
A hangover is an all too common side effect that comes with drinking alcohol. It doesn’t matter if you drink too much beer, wine, spirits, cocktails or even a hard seltzer, the morning after will likely always bring the same consequence… A hangover.
There are a lucky few people who don’t seem to experience hangovers (though no one is truly immune to them) but there are certainly some factors that can cause or make you more prone to hangovers than others.
One that you might have suspected before, yet never really know if it was true or not, is that cheap spirits are more likely to give you a hangover. Below we’ll cover if low-quality spirits really give you a hangover and also why this might be the case.
Now this one is a bit sciency…because it has to be. If you don’t have the headspace for the science then skip to our summary at the end of the article.
What Causes Hangovers?
The best way to understand why low-quality spirits can give you a hangover, yet are not solely responsible for the 24 hours of misery after drinking, is to look at the basic reason why alcohol causes hangovers.
Alcohol by its very nature is toxic to humans when consumed. While you feel great having a sociable drink with friends or having a few glasses of wine to unwind after a tough week at work, it’s not without its side effects.
Alcohol brings about a hangover in a number of ways:
- Dehydration (main cause)
- Poor quality sleep
While some of these effects are both a cause and side effect of alcohol (like dehydration) one of the main causes of a hangover is a certain chemical present in alcohol – congeners.
Congeners are a byproduct of the fermentation process that creates alcohol.
Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is the most commonly known compound/byproduct of alcohol. Congeners are a chemical in particular that cause some of the effects listed above with one of the most noted effects being a cause of nausea. So, what is a congener and is it relevant to the quality of a spirit?
While not quite linked to the quality of a spirit (as all alcohol will contain congeners in some quantity), congeners are what most scientists believe to be a leading cause of a hangover. While the exact reasons why this is the case are still unknown, there is a distinct correlation between the number of congeners in an alcoholic drink and the severity/duration of a hangover.
One of the main reasons being that the human body struggles to quickly or efficiently break down congeners after consumption. Your body views them as toxic, essentially acting as a poison and those that cannot metabolise congeners efficiently are more susceptible to hangovers as a result.
This “poisoning” also leads to alcohol staying in your bloodstream for a longer duration of time which has the added effect of compounding the duration of your hangover. It’s basically a losing battle and this is the main reason why there is yet to be a hangover cure as you’d need to prevent dehydration, process/remove the alcohol from your blood and metabolise the congeners!
This then brings us to the relevance of congeners and spirit quality.
Why Do Cheap Spirits Give You A Hangover?
As mentioned earlier, congeners are a byproduct of alcohol production. A congener can also be referred to as a fusel oil with the German translation for fusel oil meaning “bad liquor”.
Different types of fermentation, distillation and sugars (natural or added) will give alcohol different tastes, textures and colours and this can lead to a different quantity of congeners depending on the spirit of choice (regardless of quality).
This means that certain types of spirit actually require a higher number of congeners as they contribute/result from drinks that have a more distinctive taste and texture, like an aged bourbon or whiskey.
Dark spirits including rum, bourbon, brandy, and whiskey (along with other darker drinks like red wine and homebrewed beer) contain the highest number of congeners. Clear spirits like vodka, gin and white rum have fewer congeners present, with vodka, in particular, having the least amount of any other alcoholic beverage.
** Congeners are not the only byproduct that impacts a hangover. Low-quality spirits also have other byproducts in the form of trace alcohols (like methanol) and the more trace alcohols a spirit contains, the more likely you are to experience a hangover as a result.
The relevance of congeners when it comes to spirits is that low-quality spirits do not go through an extensive enough distillation process so have more impurities in the form of congeners!
Low-quality spirits are cheap because the manufacturing process to create them is not thorough or extensive. Therefore, you can use the term “cheap alcohol” but really when looking at the causes of a hangover, we are strictly talking about low-quality which comes from the production of the alcohol, price is strongly correlated but not necessarily the cause.
These low-quality spirits serve a very specific purpose in that the brand receives a better profit margin and you (the consumer) can get drunk cheaply. The benefits you save in terms of price however are often negated by a sub-par taste, poor mixability and most relevant to this article, a greater likelihood to cause a hangover.
What Makes a Spirit Low Quality?
We’ll use vodka as a good example of spirit quality. The reason for this being that this spirit is already known to produce significantly fewer congeners compared with darker spirits (which can vary), regardless of the distillation process.
A mark of a high-quality vodka is for it to be relatively tasteless and smooth.
To achieve this, vodka needs to go through multiple rounds of distillation to remove the impurities that contribute to taste and texture. With each layer of distillation, more impurities are removed from the alcohol but when producing alcohol, each additional layer of distillation adds to the cost of manufacturing the end product.
This is why we can sometimes link the quality of a spirit with price, more processes during manufacturing will usually mean a higher quality product with a higher cost. This of course excludes other business practices outside of price like marketing and brand image,
As a typical middle-shelf vodka, the industry standard is triple distillation which you’ll see from the likes of Smirnoff or Absolut. These brands distil the vodka enough to remove impurities whilst also retaining some flavour/taste as not everyone wants a tasteless spirit.
To achieve high-quality vodka, premium brands use extensive filtration and distillation processes to remove as many impurities as possible. On the lower end of the scale, however, low-quality alcohol is the result of fewer rounds of distillation, typically you’ll see bottom-shelf brands are single distilled for vodka.
If you’ve tried these brands before, you’ll likely experience that the drink is less smooth, has a stronger taste, can cause some throat irritation (very common with cheap booze due to impurities) and will likely lead to a hangover.
The tricky concept with cheap spirits is that some types of alcohol like whiskey or barrel-aged bourbons intentionally ferment their alcohol in a certain way for more flavour and texture. Bourbon, which takes flavour, colour and impurities from the barrel in which it’s fermented, has been shown to have 37 times more congeners than vodka.
Therefore, when looking into spirit quality and the number of congeners/impurities that might be present, you’ll need to factor in that some spirits will have more chance of causing a hangover regardless of quality.
What To Consider With Spirit Quality?
If you’ve suffered from a hangover, we’re not going to tell you that sticking to the top shelf when it comes to spirit selection will prevent this from happening again. Hangovers can be impacted by a number of factors that were outlined earlier, however, drinking a low-quality spirit will increase the likelihood of a hangover.
This is an easier factor to determine when drinking clear spirits. By opting for higher-quality spirits that have gone through more extensive distillation in order to remove impurities like trace alcohols and congeners you’ll reduce the stress (and toxic substances) that cause a hangover.
Where this can become more tricky to navigate is with darker spirits. We’d still recommend opting for a higher quality spirit where possible because the fermentation/distillation process will still remove some of the impurities from the end product.
With the likes of whiskey and bourbon though, you’re still going to be inadvertently consuming more congeners regardless of the spirit quality. Therefore, if you are prone to bad hangovers, it’s better to stick to the mid-top shelf and choose clear spirits as your drink of choice.
High-quality spirits are not a hangover cure!
Drinking alcohol will always lead to the risk of a hangover and basic steps like staying hydrated and drinking in moderation are the best ways to reduce or prevent a hangover. With that said, low-quality spirits certainly do not help matters and can definitely lead to more severe hangovers than their top-shelf counterparts.
With more impurities (mainly congeners and trace alcohols), low-quality spirits will act as more of a toxic/poison that most people are unable to metabolise quickly. This leads to longer and more severe hangovers as you spend the next 24-48 hours trying to flush these chemicals from your body.
The key takeaway is therefore to not only drink responsibly but also to avoid these low-quality, cheap spirits where possible.