It’s often believed that low-quality liquor has a stronger flavor and gives you a worse headache than premium brands. Drinking expensive liquor consistently reduces the likelihood of waking up with a throbbing head.
But can cheap alcohol have a more devastating effect on your health?
We consulted with professionals to learn if splurging on pricey mixed cocktails might mitigate the hangover symptoms experienced by drinkers the following day.
First, does a low price always indicate a product of inferior quality?
“Not at all,” says Gary Pickard of the Society of Wine Educators, who holds a certificate in teaching about spirits.
We tend to mistakenly believe that more-priced goods are higher quality, especially alcoholic beverages.
When comparing the cost and quality of alcohol, “many factors must be taken into account,” as Pickard puts it. The value of a product can increase significantly if it has a well-known brand name or is endorsed by a famous person, especially in recent years. And people will pay for the “cool” aspect, particularly if their “spirit” is [included] in a popular song or a commercial with a well-known face.
Pickard explains that the price of a bottle is affected by “some aspects of production” as well. For instance, the length of time a spirit matures affects its cost. However, he cautions that age doesn’t guarantee a superior nature.
According to Pickard, “Every year that a spirit spends in a barrel, a percentage of volume is lost to evaporation, known as the ‘angel’s share,'” which is a term coined by the distiller himself. Said, the longer a spirit is aged, the less of it there is compared to how much was originally stored in the barrel.
The rising cost results from this scarcity rather than any inherent value. So, remember that the price tag doesn’t necessarily indicate the spirit’s quality.
What Happens to Quality During Filtration and Distillation?
Distillation and filtering processes are often held up as a proxy for a liquor’s quality. Learn the fundamentals of both operations here.
Distillation, in its most basic form, entails boiling alcohol to remove any last trace of water. The vaporized alcohol is then recovered and cooled to a liquid state.
“Since various alcohols have various boiling points, we collect various distillates as the temperature rises on the spirit still,” explains Pickard. There are three main groups to classify them into:
- The most volatile substances (including methanol, acetaldehyde, acetone, and more) are the foreshots or heads removed from the still first.
- We’re about to enter the meat of the run. This is top-shelf liquor made from 100 percent ethyl alcohol (ethanol).
- Fusel alcohols, acetic acid, furfural, and other tails are included last. These are less flammable and have taste ingredients, but they are redistilled almost entirely before use.
The contaminants in alcoholic beverages can also be reduced by filtration. “Think of it like putting the spirit through a big Brita filter,” explains Pickard.
He notes that “brands tend to be fairly secretive about their filtration processes” or “very loud about it.” You may have heard that certain high-end vodkas are filtered through precious metals such as diamonds or platinum.
Although, “as long as some type of carbon-based filtration is happening at some level, it should knock some of the ‘rough edges’ off of the spirit,” he says.
Does Low-Cost Alcohol Taste Worse Than Expensive Drinks?
Some “recent research findings highlight that when it comes to hangovers and other such negative side effects of various liquors, if that bottle is the cheapest on the rack, chances are you may be in for a worse hangover,” says Laura J. Veach, Ph.D., a licensed clinical addiction specialist and professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Let’s look at the price of alcohol and its quality, which may or may not be reflected in the price.
1. Low-cost alcohol may have more harmful additives
According to Veach, several fermentation byproducts are created during the aging of distilled spirits. Chemicals like methanol, acetaldehydes, and tannins are examples of what are known as congeners and are not desired.
According to Pickard, these substances are most likely to blame for the ill consequences of alcohol use (such as headaches and hangovers). And some congeners are extremely poisonous. Mount Sinai reports that even a few drops of methanol in the eye might cause irreversible blindness, organ damage, or death.
“The more of these undesirable chemical byproducts [that make it into the final product], the greater the likelihood of a nastier hangover [or other unwanted side effects],” Veach explains.
Indeed, according to a study published in Current Drug Abuse Reviews in June 2010, some research suggests that alcoholic beverages with the highest congener content, such as dark liquors, result in more severe hangover ratings than cocktails with fewer congeners.
So, how do congeners affect the flavor of alcohol? Veach claims these unwanted compounds are often filtered out using more rigorous methods in more expensive liquor brands.
Pickard notes that some brands of alcoholic beverages boast that their spirits have been distilled seven, twenty-five, or one hundred times. Repeated distillation of the same liquid should theoretically result in increasingly pure distillate.
However, this elaborate distillation process is expensive, and cheaper liquor firms may need help to afford it. “If there is pressure to get more yield from a distillation run for monetary purposes,” Pickard notes, “a company may need to cut costs.” Reducing the number of distillation passes might be a cost-saving measure.
To rephrase, “widening the cut” to include more heads and tails might increase a brand’s output. However, Pickard warns that the quality will be lower and that other substances may be present. This may explain why some of the cheapest liquors may be so harsh.
However, he adds that distillers are under federal rules and that no honest company would knowingly put something dangerous (like methanol) into their finished product.
In addition, ” c congener doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” as Pickard puts it. As the saying goes, “There are wonderful congeners we rely on to provide flavors.”
As an illustration, he explains, “compounds like vanillin, eugenol, diacetyl, and hundreds of others can respectively give us flavor profiles that we are looking for,” like vanilla, clove, and butter.
“There is a concerted effort to add these flavorful congeners to the process in some products,” Pickard explains. On the other hand, some businesses choose a milder distillation procedure so that the compounds and chemicals used in fermentation don’t get lost in the final product. He explains that whiskey, brandy, tequila, and rum are particularly prone to this.
Veach speculates that the higher concentration of congeners in darker liquors (such as whiskey, brandy, and some varieties of tequila and rum) may result from a deliberate distillation decision.
“There is such wide variation in the aging process of various liquors that the consumer cannot know of the congener content just by looking at the color,” she continues.
2. Cheap Alcohol Could Have Low-Quality Ingredients
“If a producer decides to make a more cost-effective liquor, the cost of production needs to be reduced somewhere,” adds Pickard. One of the simplest methods to reduce expenses is to utilize lower-quality raw materials in the distillation process.
You undoubtedly already know that this can reduce the quality of the result. If you utilize less-than-fresh ingredients, the result will be less delicious, as Pickard puts it.
It’s possible that “subpar grains or fruits have the potential to give off more unwanted compounds and off-flavors during the fermentation process,” as Pickard puts it. There may be more harsh-tasting congeners in your alcohol, which can also lead to a hangover.
He goes on to say that mold and microbial contamination of these low-quality components is an added problem.
3. There may be more additives in inexpensive alcohol
Companies may alter the appearance and flavor of their spirits by adding synthetic flavorings, colors, and processed sugars. And this might be more prevalent in cheap liquors.
“Putting more additives in your final product might be a cheap and fast way to mask any problems producers might have with fermentation or distillation,” adds Pickard.
To ensure uniformity between batches and a deeper look, for example, “some dark spirits (where legally allowed) might choose to utilize what is known as E150, otherwise known as caramel coloring or spirit coloring,” explains Pickard.
Although food and drink colors can make them more visually appealing, they may also offer health risks, according to some studies.
Some food colors have been linked to carcinogenicity, genotoxicity, and hypersensitivity in animals, according to a review published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health in November 2013. Dyes provide little nutritional value to foods or beverages. Thus, avoiding drinking spirits with them is generally preferable, even if additional human research is needed to understand this relationship better.
Brands also add sweeteners to alcohol to make it taste better. The sugar alcohol “glycerin can be used in many spirits to add sweetness and provide viscosity,” or a “richer mouthfeel,” as put out by Pickard.
Sweeteners don’t cause hangovers, but sweets can alleviate the symptoms. They enhance the flavor of alcoholic beverages, making you more likely to drink to excess.
In addition to the constant throbbing in your head, regular use of sugary drinks can lead to systemic inflammation.
It’s true that “these little shortcuts aren’t just used by your bottom-shelf producers,” as Pickard puts it. The law allows additions and artificial coloring to be used in some of the world’s most premium spirits.
Comparing Quantity and Quality
However, Pickard and Veach concur that the quantity rather than the kind of alcohol consumed is the more significant factor in negative outcomes.
Veach writes that after a night of binge drinking, you may feel more than just a headache or a hangover the next day. You may also have a general sense of malaise, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), unease, trouble concentrating, heightened sensitivity to light and sound, increased thirst, nausea, and vomiting.
She also notes that an individual’s mental and emotional condition might be affected by a bout of heavy drinking, which can lead to feelings of depression, worry, and anger.
There may be a connection between alcohol and its impact on mental health. For instance, as alcohol is flushed from the system, “dopamine, our naturally occurring ‘feel good’ brain chemical, is depleted,” as Veach explains. This can lead to feelings of worry or unease.
The likelihood of adverse consequences increases with each alcoholic beverage consumed. However, as Veach points out, inexpensive alcohol causes individuals to drink more than they should.
In particular, she notes that “college students have been found to engage in more binge drinking when liquor shots are sold at below price points,” which increases the likelihood of traumatic injuries, including falls, sexual assaults, violence, and car accidents.
All this suggests that the method by which individuals binge on low-quality alcohol is more harmful than the alcohol itself.
The congener concentration generally associated with bottom-of-the-barrel beers is not the major source of adverse effects like hangovers, as shown by preliminary investigations, as reviewed in 2010 by Current Drug Abuse Reviews.
However, Veach warns that research into hangovers is still in its infancy and that more data is required to evaluate the impact of congeners and less expensive substances (compared to alcohol, a proven neurotoxin).
How Dangerous Is It, Exactly, to Consume Cheap Alcohol?
Sometimes a cheap beer will strike you harder than a more expensive one, but a bottle’s price doesn’t necessarily indicate how it will make you feel physically.
“Price point is not the be-all and end-all quality indicator,” as Pickard puts it regarding alcoholic beverages. “There is not a level playing field when hundreds of millions of dollars are invested annually in marketing and advertising of beverage alcohol.”
To rephrase, a cheaper bottle must be of better quality than a well-known, more costly one. “New brands generally need to price products lower to push consumer trial and gain visibility,” adds Pickard.
Even while some cheaper liquors may have more congeners, chemicals, and subpar ingredients, drinking them is perfectly safe. “As bad as some extremely cheap products on the market might be, they all undergo testing, filing, and scrutiny from governmental agencies to ensure consumer safety,” Pickards adds.
“Even if they might be rougher or harsher in nature, they are still safe for consumption, as long as it is done in moderation,” he says.
Know your boundaries and drink sensibly, whether drinking cheap beer or expensive liquor, to prevent unpleasant consequences like an angry headache.