The infamous hangover—no, not the movie, although I believe that was the subject. Anyone who imbibes probably has experienced this illustrious follower of good and bad times. I am not here to tell you how to avoid a hangover, because that’s a nobrainer— don’t drink! And if you drink too much, one tends to be inevitable. One hangover may be milder than another, but that’s beside the point. You still have one, and you’re not happy about it. But let’s say you’re curious exactly what it is about drinking that causes a hangover. Well, that’s explainable.
A primary ingredient of alcohol is ethanol. Ethanol is flammable, which could be why it causes dehydration; and it is volatile, possibly why it causes nausea. Well, there you have two causes of the hangover. Oh, but you have the answer to that: Drink more water and eat fatty foods. Those may ease the hangover, if you reach that point. The story could end here, but you already knew these things, and you want more info.
You may have heard of a “congener” as part of alcohol. Wikipedia puts it, plainly: “In the alcoholic beverages industry, congeners are substances produced during fermentation. They include small amounts of chemicals such as acetone, acetaldehyde, tannins and other higher alcohols (e.g. propanol and glycols). Congeners are responsible for most of the taste, aroma and color of alcoholic beverages. It has been suggested that these substances contribute to the symptoms of a hangover.” There’s that nasty word again.
Another explanation in Wikipedia: “In addition, it is thought that the presence of other alcohols (such as fusel oils), byproducts of the alcoholic fermentation also called congeners, exaggerate many of the symptoms; this probably accounts for the mitigation of the effects when distilled alcohol, particularly vodka, is consumed instead. A 2009 study provided evidence that darker colored liquors, such as bourbon, cause worse hangovers than lighter-colored liquors, such as vodka. The higher amount of congeners found in darker liquors compared to lighter ones was indicated as the cause.”
There it is. Vodka, the anti-hangover alcohol! Right? Well, no, but it has a lesser effect on hangover symptoms versus other forms of alcohol. This also explains why vodka has little or no flavor. Its name can literally be interpreted as “little water.” Fewer congeners, fewer flavors, fewer effects.
Vodka can be made from almost any ingredient that yields starch, but let’s stick to the main ingredients: potatoes and grains. Skyy is made from rye, while UV Vodka distills theirs from Yellow #2 corn straight from the Midwest; they claim there’s nothing better from which to make vodka than Midwest corn. Chopin distills their ultra-premium vodka from potatoes grown in the Podlaise region of Poland. Ultimat, which claims their vodka to be the “world’s most distinctive,” distills theirs from wheat, rye and potatoes. What this says to me is that whether potatoes, rye, corn, wheat, barley or whatever starch-yielding plant it may be; whether it’s distilled in Russia, Poland, Sweden, Finland, France or the United States, the water that is used to cut the vodka might have an effect on its flavor.
You can’t talk about vodka and not mention Stolichnaya. Stoli uses water from artesian wells in northeastern Moscow on the banks of the Yauza River. UV Vodka gets its water from deep aquifers in Princeton, Minnesota, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Finlandia Vodka claims to respect, admire and protect the Finnish water that is naturally purified by the perfect filter, a glacial moraine that was created during the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago.
The term “impurities” gets thrown around a lot in the world of vodka marketing. One way to get rid of the impurities is through distillation and filtering, which removes them by boiling, but also tends to raise the alcohol content. Then the alcohol content needs to be cut down to an acceptable level by adding water at the end of the process, which potentially adds more impurities. Companies have found a way to use this as a marketing tool, however, saying that their product has been distilled or filtered several times.
Now, there is merit to distilling and filtering vodka. A great example is found with Skyy Vodka. They quadruple distill and triple filter through what they claim is a state-of-the-art industry revolutionizing process. Skyy also uses reverse osmosis to remove impurities from the water that is added, so they produce vodka with the least amount of impurities versus the other leading brands (verified through independent research). The independent test showed Skyy at .8mg/l of impurities versus Stoli at 5.7 mg/l. Oh yeah! And Skyy is made in America! Absolut Vodka claims to remove all impurities by distilling the vodka hundreds of times through a unique continuous distillation process. The test showed 1.1mg/l of impurities.
So, is there a difference in vodkas based on all of this information? My answer is yes, certain vodkas are better than others based on the measures put in place to create a quality product. Now, I am not going to single them out. What I do like to say is that if you are going to drink a Bloody Mary, a Screwdriver or some other mix that is bold, then don’t spend a lot of money on expensive brands. The mix will kill all the purification process by adding impurities back in it. But if you drink vodka neat or with clear mixers, then look for a better quality vodka.
We didn’t find a cure for the hangover, but we weren’t really looking for one anyway, because I don’t recommend reaching that point. What we found is that there are certain impurities in alcohol that will make you feel worse than others, and vodka just happens to be the one with the least amount of those impurities. BUT, it does still have alcohol. So plan ahead, always drink responsibly and plan for a sober driver if you are out for a night on the town.