Tippling Tips

Can you please solve all our alcohol-related mysteries?

We tend to define human progress in terms of personal wealth or the amount of open space bulldozed by developers. But a mere glance at history texts reveals at every turn some unknown feature rearing up to stall the advancement of our species--the mysteries of fire, disease or grade inflation, for example. It is in conquering the mysterious that humanity progresses toward perfection.

Naturally, the Burning Question crew wants to help in this regard.

First, however, we must clarify something. When readers send questions, we generally treat them with the utmost respect, reading every envelope before tossing it into the corner where our wastebasket used to sit. (We threw it out by accident some time back and haven't found a suitable replacement.) Not long ago, while searching desperately through the pile for envelopes containing cash, we came across several alcohol-related inquiries. Here, we realized, was our chance to make a contribution to human progress while simultaneously drinking ourselves blind. Thus this week's question--Burning Question crew, can you please solve all our alcohol-related mysteries and thus push the human race one step closer to perfection?--is actually a compilation of several individual questions.

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We wanted to make that clear to avoid any messy retractions by the Pulitzer Prize committee.

Beer before liquor, never sicker. Is that true?

No, according to Dr. Carlton Erickson, professor of pharmacology and director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center at the University of Texas (his business card comes in poster form). Successful hangover prevention requires a lot of water, some antacids, a little aspirin and some time. There is no scientific evidence that drinking in stages accomplishes anything but slurred speech and bad judgment. "A lot of that stuff is due to a placebo effect," Erickson says. "People will say it and it may work for someone, and then they'll believe it." Research suggests that 30 to 50 percent of U.S. residents respond positively to placebo treatments simply because they believe them to work. "It's a very powerful effect," Erickson reports.

Experienced bartenders also scoff at these aphorisms. "It's quantity that matters, not what you're drinking," explains Julie Niemann, bar manager at Joe's Crab Shack in Grapevine.

This particular phrase comes in many forms. A few versions even contradict the others. Niemann, for example, remembers it as "liquor before beer, never fear." Chris O'Hagan, Dallas' aficionado of all things alcoholic, advises novice drinkers to "always go up in proof" if they wish to avoid headache and stomach-content containment problems.

Does lighter color alcohol mean less hangover?

Yes, lighter color booze--vodka, tequila, white wine, etc.--actually delivers less of a morning-after kick than the darker stuff.

Brownish drinks such as cognac or whiskey contain fusel oils and minor alcohols that tend to be poisonous in large quantities. In smaller amounts they cause hangovers. "Plus there are unknown causes," Erickson adds. "Aging in oak barrels picks up oak components, and there may be something in there adding to the hangover effect."

But, he cautions, "the main reason is the alcohol."

Which is correct, whisky or whiskey?

"It depends on whether you're Protestant or Catholic," claims Dallas drinking man Mike Cantrell.

Actually, he's partially right. The spelling depends largely on national origin, with Protestant Scotland using whisky and Catholic Ireland adding an e. England and the United States follow the Irish spelling, while Canada adopted the Scottish version. This is an important question. Wars start over such trivial incidents as a soccer game, a severed ear or the surprise bombing of a major naval base. It's not inconceivable, then, that whiskey could launch nations against each other.

Adding to the confusion, individual distilleries sometimes break from their country's accepted spelling. "The original spelling was with a ky," claims Bill Samuels, president of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky, an American product. "In the 1830s the English and Irish adopted key, but the first American whiskey was ky because more of the people who made it were of Scottish descent, as I am." The earliest account of whiskey production exists in Scottish records from 1494, two years after an apparently hangover-free Columbus discovered the New World.

"A lot of people come in and don't realize you can spell it two ways," says Whisky Bar owner James Slaughter. Roughly two-thirds of the whiskeys at Whisky Bar are whiskys, something to contemplate over a Bushmills (key) or a Dalmore (ky).

What is rye?

Don McLean did barflies and rummies a great disservice when he sang "good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye."

Rock lyrics have never been a font of historic accuracy. And grammar, don't get us started (think about Jim Morrison's line "you know they are a liar"). But McLean's error is particularly grievous because it deals with alcoholic beverages. You see, rye is a whiskey.

Scotch whiskys and Irish whiskeys (see previous question) are made primarily from barley malt. Canadian distilleries combine corn, wheat, barley and rye to produce their whiskys. But American distilleries label their whiskey based on the type of grain used in the mash. If rye grain makes up 51 percent or more of the mash used to produce a whiskey, it is called rye.

Of course, it's an academic question. Few people actually order rye whiskey. "Usually people that ask for it are from Canada and they want Canadian whisky, not rye," reports Rodney Caprio, bartender at Cool River. "We only carried one brand here, and in my three years I sold only two shots."

Why do we use "proof?"

According to the Cumberland Mountain Community Services Board in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, deep in the Appalachians, the word "proof" is a remnant of that romantic era when backwoods still operators pawned barrels of iffy alcohol onto tavern owners--in between feuds, of course.

In order to prove the alcohol content, the tavern owners poured some of the drink over gunpowder and ignited the concoction. Other stories involve a mixture of water, alcohol and gunpowder. The gunpowder flashed at roughly 100 proof or about 50 percent alcohol.

"Saloons would buy whiskey in barrels and it was supposed to be proof, and gunpowder was their way to check it," Samuels says. Early in the 19th century, hydrometers eliminated the need for gunpowder proof. "Jim Beam--my godfather--used to tell the gunpowder story, but he was talking about his grandfather's time."

Nowadays, Americans designate proof as twice the alcohol content by volume, with a proof spirit containing 50 percent alcohol. The more precise British measure proof as 12/13 the weight of an equal portion of water at 51 degrees Fahrenheit, making 100 proof 48.24 percent alcohol by weight or 57.06 percent by volume.

The Burning Question crew prefers to just take a few swigs from the bottle. If we don't wake up until Monday, it's proof enough for us.

Why does alcohol make members of the opposite sex look better?

For once folk interpretation and scientific reasoning agree: Alcohol doesn't make the opposite sex look better; it just impairs a person's judgment, reduces inhibitions and slows reactions--sometimes until the next morning.

"Alcohol loosens people up, makes people talk," reasons Jeff Haubner, hanging out at Whisky Bar. "And once you start talking, well, some shit will stick." Lori Burzynski, knocking back beers at The Gingerman, agrees. "Because you're drunk, your senses are all screwed up," she slurbs. A slurb, by the way, is Burning Question slang for a quote taken from someone under the influence.

Sometimes senses become so skewed that odd things occur. For example, Angelika Swearingen, bartender at Milk Bar, recalls when a drunk man began flirting with a couple of mannequins propped up along the wall. Fortunately for that particular lush, alcohol depresses the brain's memory function.

Some people, however, still hold on to the idea that alcohol distorts our perception of appearance. "Women get drunk so they can become more attractive more quickly," Cantrell slurs after a few drinks. "Wait, I got that backwards. We get drunk so they can be more attractive."

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