Madame Barfly: Well Booze or the High Road? When you’re young and/or broke it can be tempting to drink the cheapest booze around


We’ve all heard the rumors about the havoc cheap booze can wreak, but is that even true? Can you drink inexpensive alcohol all night without head-pounding, toilet-hugging consequences?

The downside to drinking cheap alcohol is considerable: principal among the drawbacks are bad taste and hangovers. Certain my tongue could tell the difference between a bar’s cheapest “well” alcohol and the most expensive liquor, I headed to Packards in Northampton. I, with a partner of course — bars in Massachusetts cannot legally serve more than one drink per person at a time — ordered two vodka tonics on either end of the spectrum. I asked the bartender not to tell me which was which, but to remember what he poured and mark it with a straw. The bartender was skeptical I’d be able to tell the difference between the bar’s well vodka — something called Nikolai — and award-winning Belvedere, suspecting the addition of tonic would hinder my palate.

He was wrong. They don’t let just anyone be Madame Barfly.

I sipped from the single-strawed option and it tasted clean and smooth. There was a lack of flavor — a telltale sign of a good, pure vodka. I knew before even tasting the second one that the beverage I had contained the more expensive vodka.

I reluctantly turned to face the double-strawed drink. It had more of the burn often associated with cheap liquors, like a subdued rubbing alcohol. That burn, many say, is more tolerable than the miserable hangover it leaves you with the next day.

Determined to find out if the stories about discount liquor are fact or urban legend, I spoke with University of Massachusetts Amherst food scientist Eric Decker. I asked him if there is something hangover-inducing in cheaper booze that does not exist on the top-shelf.

Decker said that yes, it is more likely that cheap liquor will make you feel worse the next day than the expensive stuff, but not always. And it’s not just the alcohol that makes you sick the next day.

Decker explained that anything in liquor that is not alcohol is called a congener — a type of compound many scientists associate with hangovers. Congeners come in hundreds of different forms — active amyl alcohol, for instance, is a more desirable congener that gives beer flavor. Congeners are formed during the fermentation process from amino acids. Vodka has the least amount of congeners — generally the darker the booze, the more congeners it contains. Some congeners are treated by the body as poison, hence the headache and vomit. Decker says it remains unknown which congeners are responsible for producing an aggravated hangover. Hangover research isn’t easy to do due to ethical and health issues.

Of course, even if a theoretical liquor was made of 100 percent alcohol — most are in the 70 percent range — and completely lacked congeners, it would still leave you hungover, Decker says, because of the dehydration factor.

Decker confirmed my suspicions — steer clear of the bottom-shelf boozes. Because the lowly liquors are often distilled fewer times and therefore contain more of the still-suspect congeners, they increase the likelihood, he said, of an exacerbated hangover.

That brings me to another point — watch for distillation counts. Tito’s brand vodka is a great example of a liquor with a lower price point that is distilled just as many times as many of its more expensive competitors.

It seems hangovers are in large part personal — different ingredients, forming different congeners, aggravate different systems. So, if you’ve found a liquor that plays nice with your stomach, stick with it. I find I have fewer next-day regrets with a Tanqueray and tonic, my “old faithful.” Most people have one.

As a gin drinker who is familiar with the industry, I find there is more of a market for bottom-shelf vodka and tequila than other liquor types. That then lowers the standard for vodka and tequila, meaning you’re more likely to see a no-name vodka or tequila as a well option because there are simply more of them to choose from. If one of these is your booze of choice, you should be especially careful about ordering from the well. I wouldn’t order a well drink without knowing what that well liquor is.

That said, don’t be too quick to turn your nose up at the well. Classier joints are starting to clear the bottom-shelf boozes from their wells and replace them with more middle-of-the-road liquors, like Tito’s and Milagro.

The golden rule: If it’s dirt cheap and you’ve never heard of the distiller, don’t drink it. Middle of the road options, like Tito’s vodka, Tanqueray gin, Maker’s Mark whiskey, and Milagro tequila are all safe options, in my book, that won’t set you back too much or leave you hating life the next day.•

Contact Amanda Drane at

Amanda Drane

Author: Amanda Drane

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