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The Inventor of Palcohol Wants You to Know the Media Got It All Wrong

We spoke to Mark Phillips, the inventor of Palcohol, about the process of inventing his product, his background in wine tasting, and the real reason why liquor companies are worried about his invention.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
April 2, 2015, 5:30pm
Image from Palcohol label courtesy of Mark Phillips

The advent of powdered alcohol has been all over the news for the past year, both for its innovation and for its controversy. While many consumers are excited about the prospect of this new and convenient way to revolutionize alcohol consumption, lawmakers have spoken out against the sale of Palcohol—its commercial name—before it has even hit store shelves. Some states, such as Colorado, have embraced it; others, such as Texas, have fought its introduction tooth and nail. The immediate fears regard its potential abuse—will teenagers be snorting it in the bathroom between classes? Will Kid Rock fans, God forbid, try to sneak it into his next sold-out show at the Concord Pavilion?

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But few have bothered to consider the full scope of its potential benefits in a society already—like it or not—in love with getting drunk, or the possibilities of powdered alcohol beyond its obvious use as a recreational beverage. Palcohol inventor Mark Phillips has avoided the media spotlight until a few weeks ago, when Palcohol was awarded federal approval. We checked in with Mark to learn more about how he came up with this product, what he thinks it can offer the world, and why he thinks its a target for naysayers.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Mark. How are you feeling about the federal approval for Palcohol that went through on March 10? Mark Phillips: I'm feeling great about it. It's made a big difference. The states that initially banned Palcohol didn't understand the product. Now that I'm doing interviews and the word is getting out to explain the product better—and explain why banning it is a bad idea—a lot of states have chosen to not ban it.

When did you first develop the formula for Palcohol? Around 2011.

Wow. So you've been sitting on this idea for a long time. Yeah, no kidding. Most of that time has been the regulatory process. It's difficult because all of the laws are written for liquid alcohol—the hard part is to get a label that conforms to the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau]. That's the hitch that happened last April, when they approved my label and then a few days later realized they'd made a mistake. So they asked me to surrender the approved labels.

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This is where the media has got it all wrong. The federal government never revoked or rescinded the approval I received last April. I voluntarily surrendered the approval because I didn't want to have a label that had mistakes on it. Since that time, I've been working closely with the TTB to make sure we iron out all the issues.

Why do you think people had fears and concerns about Palcohol when there are so many other alcoholic beverages on the market? The liquor industry is spearheading the campaign to ban the product, so they'll come up with all the hyperbole, the exaggerations about it. It's my job to educate legislators and the public that what they're saying is not true.

Do you think that the liquid alcohol industry feels threatened? Absolutely. They're trying to protect their market shares and their products.

What did it take to prove the safety of the product in the eyes of lawmakers? Well, I'm not one to say that powdered alcohol is safe, nor would anyone say that liquid alcohol is safe, either. It's safe if it's used responsibility—that's the key thing. Some of the legislators say they're banning it for public safety reasons, but if that's really the reason, then why aren't they calling for a ban of liquid alcohol that kills tens of thousands of people a year and is misused and abused by millions?

It's a hypocritical situation there—banning one alcohol and not the other. Actually, liquid alcohol is easier to misuse and abuse than powdered alcohol. It's easier to sneak into a venue, it's cheaper and easier to get drunk off of, and it's more appealing to underage drinkers, because of the cost and access. They're really going after the wrong product.

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What's the next step to getting Palcohol on the shelves? Right now, we're working on production. That's the current emphasis, along with some effort to educate the legislatures—to hope that many states will keep it legal and regulate it and tax it, just like liquid alcohol.

Many of your critics probably aren't aware that you also have a wine-tasting website. How did your career in wine segue into the invention of Palcohol? The wine world and the segue to powdered alcohol have no relation, really. The reason for [creating] powdered alcohol is because I moved to Arizona and started to do a lot of outdoor activities where weight is a factor. I thought, Is there a way to carry alcohol without the liquid? So that began my quest for powdered alcohol—nothing to do with the wine or anything. I've had a good career in wine, a show on PBS that went on for six years, a book, and have been speaking on wine for over 20 years. But I'm kind of winding that down and moving in different directions. One is with Palcohol.

Is it possible to create a powdered wine? Oh, sure.

Do you still do a lot of work with wine? That's on the backburner, pretty much. I still speak on wine occasionally, but it's like, been there, done that. I mean, I still drink wine—I love wine. But I am more enthralled by being on the cutting edge of something then just maintaining it. Wine is something you can go in-depth [with] forever, but if you find something else to focus on, then why not?

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So there's never been anything like this on the market before? No, never. I'm not the one who created powdered alcohol. There was a patent pulled in 1972 of powdered alcohol, so I'm not the first one. It's just that their process was complicated and expensive and not commercially viable, so all I did was change it.

Were you afraid to taste it the first time you made it? I cried like a baby because I was so amazed. I'm not a chemist, but I love to solve problems.

The tough thing was trying to convince chemists that it was true. When I first contacted the chief chemist for the Tax and Trade Bureau, he said, "That's impossible." He didn't hang up on me, but he was getting close. He said, "There are some approved federal labs around the nation, about ten of them, that we trust." He said to send it to one of them, and if they say it's powdered alcohol, get back in touch. The lab tested it, and the chemist who ran it said, "Oh my God, it's true."

Where is the first market where it will be introduced? We're still evaluating that, both domestically and internationally, and also by the states that are most receptive. Obviously, we're not going to introduce it in a state that has banned it already. Colorado has legalized it, so there's an obvious one. But other states have not banned it, which is an interesting legal matter, so if it's not illegal, is it legal? If the laws don't say you can't sell it, does that mean you can sell it? There are a lot of variables involved in this whole process, and we're just trying to deal with them all and move forward.

You've mentioned that you think there are a lot of industrial and medical applications for Palcohol. This is something that I'm relaying from people that know a lot more about it than I do. Doctors and medical personnel contacted me last year and said, "We would love to use powdered alcohol as an antiseptic. When we go into remote locations or into disaster relief situations—where we have to lug stuff in—weight is a big factor. We can carry a lot more in, and help a lot more people."

When you were developing the product, did you personally do the taste-tasting? Yes, I did all the taste-testing. I'd taste-test, pass out for a little bit, and get up and get up and do some more.

I'm just kidding—I didn't really pass out. But I did it all, and I did use chemists to help me come up with the original process. The chemists don't know that, because I never contacted them under my own name and never told them what it was for. I just contacted them about one step in the process. As I started coming up with Palcohol, I did all the research on my own; I would get to a roadblock and find the chemist in the world who was the most respected in this particular situation, contact him under an assumed name, ask him how it's done, and then go back to work, and so on. So about six different chemists helped me get through the whole process, and then I put all the pieces together. It took about a year and a half to finally get it together.

Have you been contacted by people who want to try samples? Oh my word, non-stop. Hundreds of people a day want to invest in the company, work for the company, or want to try some samples. Others want to be taste-testers, want to buy it; businesses want to use it in their product, in their manufacturing process or something. Just everything under the sun.