This aversion most people have to cheap booze seems logical: Truly bottom-shelf hooch, common wisdom holds, both tastes nasty and can leave you with a particularly wicked hangover. So, the logic runs, really bottom-barrel drinks—such as any "well" drink at the bar, or anything sold in a large, plastic bottle beneath the name-brand stuff at your local liquor store—probably take a higher overall toll on your body than affordable, but average beverages. (Think: a pitcher of Budweiser, or a ten-dollar bottle of wine, or a shot of Georgi’s gin.)
That logic may not be entirely sound, though. There have been surprisingly few studies on how the varied ingredients and production methods that define different alcohols might lead to different effects in the body, says Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researcher Laura Veach. (Most research to date focuses on how ethanol more generally affects the body.) What we do know, though, suggests that cheapness may at times hint at how hard a brew will hit our bodies, but that it is overall an unreliable predictor of physical impact.
Granted, in many places, the cheapest drinks on the market are reliably homemade liquors, like America’s moonshine. These liquors can go for as low as a seventh the price of even affordable brand-name products. Always produced without oversight, and at times by people with little skill or care, or in unsanitary conditions, homebrews risk contamination with distillation byproducts, like methanol, that careful distillers remove. (Worth noting: There is now a thriving craft industry of regulated artisanal “moonshine,” which does not fall into the same came category as these illicit homebrews.)
Toxins like lead can also leech into the brews from dirty or inappropriate equipment. (Lead contamination is the most common issue, recent research indicates, in illicit American moonshine.) Some unscrupulous producers also spike their liquors with things like embalming fluid, paint thinner, or rubbing alcohol to give it a kick that makes consumers believe it is stronger. As such, drinking dead cheap DIY booze runs the risk of giving you the worst hangover of your life—or damaging your optic nerves, destroying your pancreas in one go, or generating a long-term illness. It could just flat-out kill you in one night, too.
In many nations, you run the risk of consuming dangerous homebrew liquor without knowing it, as criminal outfits or shitty retailers refill brand-name bottles with unregulated hooch to undercut those selling the real stuff, or make a higher profit margin charging legitimate rates. As of 2015, whiskey maker Jack Daniels suggested that up to 30 percent of all labeled booze in China was actually filled with “fake” liquor. But while moonshine is still widely available in the US, with cops seizing hundreds of gallons whenever they try to make a bust on just one illicit distiller, refilling bottles and other means of passing it off as regulated liquor is exceptionally rare. As such, if you’re buying a homebrew, you likely know it. And given that moonshine is almost synonymous with a risk of going blind in American culture, you likely have an idea of the risks inherent in it.
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Federal food regulations in the US, and broad industry respect for and compliance with them means that any legal cheap booze you buy—anything from a bar or store, unless you’re clearly buying it under the counter—will almost certainly be safe from the risks associated with moonshine. It will also all be, by federal standards, equally safe for consumption. Import controls likewise guarantee the relative safety of foreign brews coming into the US.
Of course, federal regulations aren’t everything. America notoriously allows food producers to use dyes, hormones, and other substances that other countries deem unsafe. We also have a higher threshold for acceptable levels of known toxins, like arsenic, in our food and water. It is reasonable to suspect that the synthetic flavorings, processed sugars, and even literal antifreeze we allow in many alcoholic beverages may make them more damaging, or at least worsen our hangovers.
But most studies to date, Veach says, focus on the common harms associated with any type of alcohol (over)consumption: heart and liver damage, increased cancer risks, and lowered immune system functioning and fertility, to name a few. These harms are often traced back to ethanol, the key intoxicating agent in booze. We just don’t know, Veach says, if other items in or differing processes used to make certain drinks may tweak general alcohol risks, or lead to their own less apparent risks. “More research is needed in this important area of focus,” she says.
Even if you just accept the idea that lower quality ingredients or poorer distillation methods may lead to increased health risks, though, price is not a great proxy for those possible risk factors. Effective marketing, rather than quality, notoriously determines the price for most liquors. Wine prices are also infamously capricious, often decoupled from quality. Even fancy beers run the risk of contamination with the same unregulated potential environmental hazards as cheap beer.
One of the few agents we do know of in booze besides ethanol that may exacerbate some of its risks may be decoupled from price as well. In recent years, researchers have determined that congeners, impurities created in the distilling process, are associated with a worse self-reported hangover. (The mechanisms by which congeners work, and their full potential effects, cautions Veach, remain unclear.) Generally, the darker the drink, the higher its congener levels likely are.
“Expensive brands would have many believe that the better distillation methods” they use “remove more congeners and are therefore a superior product,” Veach says. So, the claim goes, a higher-end whiskey might lead to less of a hangover than a lower-end one, or even cheap, clear vodka, because it is more skillfully made with purer ingredients. But right now, this is nothing more than marketing, Veach stresses; we don’t know enough about congeners and the strength of their effect at differing levels to evaluate that claim.
Given that the average bourbon has 37 times the congeners of the average vodka, though, it seems likely that even the highest quality of the former may cause a worse hangover than the lowest quality of the latter. And again, the highest and lowest quality brews in both of those categories might not track to price.
In truth, the real risk of cheap booze probably isn’t what’s in it, but how people tend to drink it differently than they do more expensive offerings. “Many studies, both in the US and globally, show much more consumption when alcohol prices are cheaper,” says Veach, “and with greater volume and rapid intake of alcohol, the greater the risk to one’s health and well-being.”
To oversimplify, the more expensive the alcohol, the more likely one is to limit their consumption out of price conscientiousness and to savor a drink—to get their money’s worth of a luxury. The less expensive, the more likely one is drinking it to get smashed quickly and effectively. Many facilitate this rapid consumption with mixers, especially when a cheap liquor does have a nastier taste for whatever reason. But mixers, especially if they’re energy drinks or sugary, mask the alcohol content and effects of a drink, Veach says, making it easier to over-consume. And some research indicates that carbonated or sugary mixers may lead alcohol to pass through your digestive tract faster than normal, leading to more rapid intoxication and a worse hangover.
That risk of overconsumption is probably the real culprit behind most negative experiences with cheap booze. It is possible that cheap drinks, on average, contain worse ingredients and are made using inferior techniques that may lead to a worse hangover or other negative outcomes. But, as Veach notes, “due to the lack of research comparing cheaper beverages versus more expensive beverages… there is insufficient evidence to conclude that more costly alcoholic beverages are somehow physically less harmful.” Some may even be better for you than an expensive alcohol that rides on marketing rather than quality and is packed with congeners.
Alcohol is complex like that. And despite all the scientific attention it receives, it is sill in dire need of more research. So long as you drink moderately and with adequate pacing, though, you should be fine no matter what you consume—so long as it’s not clearly dangerous bathtub gin.
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