We point the skeptical eye at five popular beliefs about alcoholic beverages.
by Brian Dunning
April 17, 2018
Not long ago, I asked on social media for the best alcohol myths. Apparently there are more than a few of you out there who pull a cork now and then (but not you kids; you stay in school), because my feed was rendered quite useless for a day and a half due to being clogged up by all the suggestions. We're going to talk about whether it's actually useful to let wine breathe; whether it's true that it's possible to go blind from bad liquor; whether the shape of the glass actually matters at all; whether drinking through a straw gets you drunk any faster as so many appear to believe; and finally, we'll pet the hair of the dog.
Probably half the ideas you sent in, however, were about absinthe, the "Green Fairy" around which so much urban legendry has accumulated; but since we already did a complete episode about absinthe (#515), we won't repeat all that here. I also elected not to cover health-related alcohol myths, but only because that's such a huge topic and requires its own episode (or series of episodes). Instead we're going to tackle all the other big alcohol myths, beginning with:
Is it necessary to let wine breathe?
Sometimes, yes. The popular idea is that red wines (but not white wines) need to be breathed for a time before drinking, in order to let the wine oxidize, thus removing harsh tannins. That particular belief is a myth — but there is another reason you might need to let your wine breathe.
Breathing wine has nothing to do with oxidation. Although chemically it's true that letting it breathe will gradually oxidize it, wine absorbs oxygen very slowly, so slowly that it would take days to have any impact, even if you actually put the wine in a blender to get the oxygen into it. Even so, it's probably not a change you'd be able to taste anyway.
The real reason for breathing is to release volatile gases that can sometimes build up in the wine. Most of time, this isn't necessary; but if you open a bottle and have a sip and it tastes bad, the problem is almost certainly that excess sulfides built up during fermentation, often leading to other reactive compounds such as thiols. Fortunately, these can be outgassed quite easily by decanting the wine — merely opening the bottle and allowing it to sit exposes too little surface area to do much good in a short time. A few minutes after a proper decanting, or a few hours after simply opening, the wine should be fine. On average, about 1 in 75 bottles of wine have this fault; so 74 out of 75 times, breathing wine does no good.
Some wine tastes bad because it's corked, meaning contaminated with an unwanted compound called TCA which comes either from the wood of the cork, or more likely, the barrel it was aged in. Breathing corked wine won't help. But the wine can still be at least partially restored: crumble up some PVC plastic food wrap and swirl it in the wine. The wrap will remove the TCA. Chemically this is called non-polar sorbent washing. Pro tip: wines with screw tops or plastic corks are less likely to be corked.
Can you go blind from drinking bad liquor?
Yes you can, but you have to dig deep and find really bad liquor for this to be a problem. The alcohol in drinks is ethanol, which is safe when consumed in normal amounts. Methanol, however, is definitely not safe. Methanol is very toxic to your body's cells, and among the first cells to go are those in your optic nerve. As little as a third of a shot of methanol can blind you, and as little as 1 shot (30cc) can kill you.
Moonshine is the liquor most often associated with going blind. This is made by boiling a fermented mixture called a wash in a still. Water boils at 100°C, and since the idea is to produce moonshine not water, the temperature is kept below that. Methanol boils at 64°C and ethanol boils at 79°C, so the idea is to discard anything that evaporated out of the still below 79°C. An experienced distiller can do this quite safely by monitoring the temperature of the still. For additional safety, they also discard a certain percentage of the batch; for example, for each gallon of the batch, they will discard the first 1/3 pint that comes out of the still. When these rules are properly followed, you won't go blind from drinking moonshine.
However this has never been where the main danger lies. Historically, most blindnesses and deaths from moonshine have been the result of unscrupulous distillers fortifying cheap batches by simply adding methanol — still a serious and relatively common problem today in developing nations. Why do they use methanol instead of ethanol? Simply because industrial methanol is cheap and widely available.
Interestingly, if you are ever rushed to the hospital with methanol poisoning, one of the best treatments is to immediately give you lots of good moonshine. Why? Because your body will absorb the ethanol, minimizing its ability to absorb that methanol in your system.
Does the shape of the glass really matter?
Yes and no. Let's talk about the yes first.
Whether we're talking about wine, beer, or liquor, just about every variety has a particular shaped glass that you're "supposed to" drink it from. Although much of this has to do with tradition and branding, there is tangible science behind how these traditions came to be. In a nutshell, the idea is glass with a narrower rim concentrates and enhances the aromas from the beverage. At the same time, the more surface area contact between the top layer of the beverage and the glass (which conducts heat much better than the air above) causes faster evaporation of volatile compounds along that longer edge. So it is a fact that different shapes to the glass do produce a different olfactory experience as you bring the glass to your mouth. Some recent studies have even used advanced technology to measure and quantify these effects. They are unquestionably real.
And now let's talk about the no part. Are you likely to be able to detect these subtle differences? Almost certainly, for the vast majority, the answer is no. These differences, while real, are minute. They are lost beneath the noise level of the other sensory inputs in the room. At some point, this question becomes indistinguishable from the age-old vinyl vs. digital question debated by high-end audio enthusiasts. For every person claiming to notice a dramatic difference, there are ten people lying about it. This analogy is actually a good one, because while the vinyl vs. digital question is settled by the other parts of the experience — the look and smell of the album cover, the touch of the needle, the whole multi-sensory tactile experience — so is the consumption of a high-end beverage a combination of sensory experiences, additionally enhanced with pure tradition.
But search for controlled, blinded testing trying to find out whether people find certain drinks better when served in optimal glass shapes, and you're likely to be disappointed. The closest thing to research I could find was purely anecdotal — and all of it came from sellers of glassware: some who make all the shapes and sizes, insisting that it makes a huge difference; and some who make one-size-fits-all glasses, claiming that theirs is best for all occasions.
In short? Different glass shapes for different drinks has a real effect. Most people can't notice any difference, and personal preference is always going to be what works best for you.
Does drinking through a straw get you drunk faster?
In many cases, it may; but not for any sciencey-sounding reason you might have heard.
The usual explanation is that when you drink through a straw, you create suction, which is a low pressure area above the beverage in the straw. In this tiny low pressure environment, the alcohol evaporates out of the drink faster, and you inhale a whiff of vaporized alcohol directly into your lungs with each sip. Sounds plausible at first glance.
And although it is technically true, we're talking about an infinitesimally small percentage of the alcohol in the drink absorbed by your system fractionally sooner than the rest of it. This quantity is so immeasurably tiny that it could never impact your drunkenness level. It's far, far less than a single drop of alcohol.
But what does impact the speed at which you get drunk is the speed at which you drink. Usually, a drink sucked through a straw goes down faster than a drink that is sipped normally. This faster consumption is the only reason that you might ever get drunk faster because you use a straw.
Can hair of the dog cure a hangover?
It's the popular name for the home remedy of drinking more alcohol in the morning to treat your hangover from the night before, and it can sort of work for some people, but really doesn't. Allow me to explain.
The popular notion is that taking a drink in the morning does something with your blood sugar and makes you feel better. But as we know from previous Skeptoid discussions of children's behavior after a sugary drink, this is biochemically implausible. Blood sugar is not affected in either case. What is affected when you drink is your blood alcohol level, and if you feel any better from taking the hair of the dog that bit you, it's only because you might feel a bit tipsy.
Even if that makes you feel better for the moment, the alcoholic drink is not actually going to reduce your hangover, and here's why. During your hangover, your body has finished metabolizing most of the ethanol that you drank, and it's still working on the metabolizing the methanol, which happens much more slowly. Taking another drink now puts the new ethanol in line ahead of the existing methanol, as well as adding more methanol to the end of the line. Hair of the dog guarantees, biochemically, that your hangover will last longer, as it's going to set your metabolism back a couple of steps. The best you can hope for is for your hangover to be delayed.
So there we have it. You may now lord this newfound wisdom over the guests at your next cocktail party. You may mock the shape of their sherry glasses, roll your eyes at their uncorked but still full wine bottles breathing, and wink-wink-nudge-nudge them to try the hair of the dog tomorrow morning after they leave your party completely plastered out of their minds. It doesn't seem to matter how many times I repeat my usual mantra — people will always gravitate toward pop pseudo-wisdom wherever it rears its ugly head — but it can do no harm to repeat it once more: Whenever you hear anything that sounds implausible or miraculously easy or just a little bit too far separated from the laws of the universe, you should always be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Alcohol Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
17 Apr 2018. Web.
23 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4619>
References & Further Reading
Clawhammer. "Methanol: Will Moonshine Make You Blind?" Moonshine Still Blog. Clawhammer Supply, 20 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2018. <https://www.clawhammersupply.com/blogs/moonshine-still-blog/7207958-methanol-will-moonshine-make-you-blind>
Cliff, M. "Influence of Wine Glass Shape on Perceived Aroma and Colour Intensity in Wines." Journal of Wine Research. 4 Aug. 2010, Volume 12, Number 1: 39-46.
Dillow, C. "FYI: Can Drinking Moonshine Really Make Me Go Blind?" Science. Popular Science, 11 Jun. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2018. <https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-05/fyi-can-drinking-moonshine-really-make-me-go-blind>
Hines, N. "Will Drinking through a Straw Get You More Drunk?" VinePair. VinePair Inc., 7 Nov. 2016. Web. 12 Apr. 2018. <https://vinepair.com/articles/drink-straw-drunk/>
Roth, K. "Chemistry of a Hangover: Alcohol and its Consequences, Part 3." Chemviews Magazine. Wiley-VCH and ChemPubSoc Europe, 6 Jul. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2018. <http://www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/1080019/Chemistry_of_a_Hangover__Alcohol_and_its_Consequences_Part_3.html>
UCD. "Off Characters." Viticulture & Enology. University of California, Davis, 4 Oct. 2017. Web. 9 Apr. 2018. <http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/industry/enology/fermentation_management/wine/off_characters.html>
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