Friday Weird Science: Bourbon or Vodka? Pick your poison

Mar 22 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Most everyone who drinks has had some variation on this conversation with other drinkers:

Person 1: Let's go out and get margaritas!!!
Person 2: Ugh, beer for me then, tequila does horrible things to me.
Person 1: Well I can't do beer, clear liquors are the only way I never get a hangover!

...and so it goes. It seems like everyone has their drink of choice, and often one of the factors involved is how bad it will make you feel the next day. Maybe wine gives you migraines but bourbon goes down smooth? Maybe beer is your favorite and vodka leaves you hanging? It seems like everyone has their own choice and the choice is highly individual.

But actually? Not quite so individual as you might think. Because yes, people have done science on this.

Evan_Williams
(Hangover in a glass or your new best friend? Stay tuned! Source)

Rosenhow et al. "Intoxication With Bourbon Versus Vodka: Effects on Hangover, Sleep, and Next-Day Neurocognitive Performance in Young Adults" Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2010.

We all know that hangovers make you feel like crap. But are they dangerous? Well, that depends. Many people when badly hungover feel kind of like they've been run over by a truck, and I don't know that that's a good condition for, say, operating heavy machinery. Is it the headache, the nausea, the fatigue? Or is there an actual cognitive effect of hangover?

And of course, the important question: when it comes to liquor, which ones make you sicker?

Not all liquors are created equal. Bourbon is the color and flavor that it is not just because of the alcohol, but because of "congenors" other chemicals that are present in the mix and which get left behind for a little bit after the alcohol itself goes away. These are some rather unsavory sounding chemicals which include formaldehyde, fesel oil, and methanol (all natural doesn't mean clean!). Compared to clear old vodka, bourbon has 37 times the congenors. And what does that mean for hangover?

The authors of this study were trying to figure out what the neurocognitive effects of hangover were (if you can distinguish them from the nausea and the headache), how the different kinds of alcohol affected sleep, and whether vodka or bourbon made you sicker.

And what does this mean? Party time in the lab!*

They took 95 college students over the age of 21 ("college" is relative, they had to be between 21 and 35), and paid them $450 for their time (which is AWFULLY good work if you can get it). They attended three overnight sessions. The first was just getting used to the sleeping equipment (we're going to put electrodes ALL over your head. Sleep well!) and the neurocognitive tests. On the next two nights, they would receive either bourbon (Wild Turkey), vodka (Absolut), or neither, in chilled caffeine-free coke (somehow, the fact that the coke was caffeine free makes the drink sound more lame). The drink was made so you presumably couldn't tell the difference with what you were getting (If you mix the coke with decarbonated tonic water you can fake a bitter taste). The subjects had an hour and a half to drink and reach a blood alcohol content of 0.11% (well over the legal limit). During this time they got snacks. I hope there was also entertainment.

Then the participants slept over. The morning after, they took the "Acute Hangover Scale" (yup, there is one of these. I think we should all use it more often. "Dude, how did it go last night?" "oh man I am SO hungover I must be at least a 5..."), and a battery of cognitive tasks, usually involving a lot of attention.

Unfortunately, most of the placebo group was well able to tell they were NOT getting the spiked drinks. But while they had a few drinks, the blood alcohol level they got only scored an average of 1.5 the next morning on the Acute Hangover Scale.

Even so, the participants who got alcohol were not at their best when it came to cognitive performance. Their reactions times were slower, and they couldn't perform as quickly in general (say, in a finger tapping test).

And it turns out that both the bourbon and the vodka produce equal effects on how people perform while hungover. They both suffer about the same in performance...but the bourbon drinkers actually do SUFFER more, bourbon made people feel significantly more hungover, even though they don't suffer in terms of performance. It could be that the higher levels of congenors in the bourbon contributed to this (though they didn't test that by adding some of the congenors to the vodka, which would have been pretty cool).

So whether bourbon or vodka, you're not at your best the next morning. But bourbon packs the bigger subjective punch. I'd raise a glass to science, but I don't think I need the hangover.

Rohsenow, D., Howland, J., Arnedt, J., Almeida, A., Greece, J., Minsky, S., Kempler, C., & Sales, S. (2010). Intoxication With Bourbon Versus Vodka: Effects on Hangover, Sleep, and Next-Day Neurocognitive Performance in Young Adults Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 34 (3), 509-518 DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2009.01116.x

*Note: I have in fact been in a human alcohol research lab (and some animal ones as well), and I have to say that, while there are comfy chairs, it's not a very party atmosphere.

5 responses so far

  • Vasha says:

    Hm, I kind of have to take issue with the hook you used to open this article -- as if people disagreeing about which liquors have worse effect on them had been proved futile by the experiment. You didn't say how much variation there was within each group in the study, only that there was a difference in the average effect between groups. You can't expand that to say that bourbon is definitely worse for everyone, always. I do agree that people's hindsight self-reports aren't reliable, but this experiment doesn't conclusively prove any individual's self-report wrong.

    • scicurious says:

      It's true, it hasn't been proven. Certainly they haven't looked at other kinds of liquor as well as beer. But I do find it interesting that someone actually studied the subjective effects of different kinds of alcohols on hangover, it's the sort of thing you'd never think of studying.

  • Vasha says:

    I agree, it's an interesting study. I was just injecting a note of caution about conflating average differences between groups with differences between individuals -- and now that I reread your article you didn't do that very much. Thanks for giving this study some airing!

  • Charles says:

    I believe the study would have been better if you had included another study and gave the bourbon participants from the first study vodka on the second study and vice versa. Then you could have compared the results on each individual.

  • Vodka of course. Any ways thanks for sharing your blog. I learned a lot from it after reading it.

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