Being Choosy About Booze Helps Avoid Hangover (to a Point)

“The darker the liquor, the bigger the hangover,” is a rule of thumb that actually contains some truth. But as a new study shows, drinking clear liquor will only go so far in preventing a hangover.

'Tis the season for office parties and New Year's bashes, but as revelers lift their glasses, they may want to keep one rule of thumb in mind: the darker the liquor, the bigger the hangover.

Although it sounds like an old wives' tale, its actually true—to a point, according to a new study.

Compared to clear liquors like vodka and gin, brownish spirits like whiskey and rum contain greater amounts of congeners, substances that occur naturally or are added to alcohol during the production and aging process. Congeners—many of which are toxic—contribute to an alcohol's unique color, odor, and taste, but they can also interfere with cell function and punish your head and belly the morning after.

Congeners aren't completely to blame for the pain and sluggishness of a hangover, however. The alcohol itself is the main culprit, with congeners playing a relatively small role, according to the study, which compared the aftereffects of drinking bourbon versus vodka.

"Bourbon does make people feel somewhat worse, but the bourbon isn't the whole story," says lead study author Damaris Rohsenow, PhD, an associate director at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, in Providence. When it comes to the severity of a hangover, says Rohsenow, "bourbon jacks it up a bit, but the increase in how sick people feel is not enough to affect their performance."

In the study, 95 people between the ages of 21 and 35 were served either Wild Turkey bourbon or Absolut vodka (which have roughly the same alcohol content) mixed with caffeine-free Coke, which was designed to mask the taste of the liquor. According to the study, bourbon, which is aged in oak barrels, has 37 times as many congeners as vodka, which is heavily filtered to remove impurities.

The people who drank bourbon reported more severe hangovers than the people who drank vodka, but they weren't any less alert. Regardless of liquor type, drinkers were 2% slower on a series of performance tasks the next day than a control group that didn't drink at all, according to the study, which was published today on the website of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Being 2% slower may not seem like a lot, and indeed, it's not likely to matter for most everyday activities, says Rohsenow. "But that could make a difference if they have to respond to a situation in a car, or if they're running a conveyor belt in a factory and they're slower to react to a situation where something's going wrong."

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Ray Hainer
Last Updated: December 18, 2009

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