Everyone has that one drink they swear gives them the worst hangovers. Some people dread tequila. For others, it’s red wine. Still others tremble at the sight of gin. But does it really matter? Isn’t one drink the same as another? At the end of the day, alcohol is alcohol isn’t it? Well, if you’ve ever had really cheap whiskey, or really cheap red wine, you’re probably saying “no, no it is not” you would be right!
The difference come in the form of something called “congeners”. A byproduct of fermentation, there are countless varieties of congeners, all with their own effect. Some change an alcohol’s color, some give a pleasant flavor, and some a foul one. One of a distiller’s most important skills is their ability to control the congeners in their liquor, to ensure they get the flavor and color that they want. For a whiskey maker, that can mean quite a lot of congeners in the end product (typically less so for a higher quality product); for a vodka maker, it should mean close to none.
But what does this mean for your headache in the morning? Well, besides providing color and flavor, congeners also provide a bit of a challenge for your liver. These compounds are tough to break down, and give your liver a rough go of it. As a result, the next morning ends up...not quite as nice as you might like. So which drinks have the most congeners?
A general rule of thumb is if the alcohol is dark, there are congeners in there, and if it’s clear, there aren’t. Vodka has particularly low levels of congeners, which is also why vodka is clear and can have such a neutral flavor; on the reverse side, brandy and tequila have been found to have the highest levels of congeners, followed by red wine. Bourbon, rum, whiskey, and scotch are all over the place, and vary considerably from distiller to distiller, age to age, but generally all have a moderate level of congeners.
At the end of the day, any drink can cause a hangover, and any drink can cause a severe hangover. That said, it tends to be the case that some kinds are more likely to lead to a severe hangover than others, and that difference largely comes down to congeners...so maybe go with a bottle of white if you’ve got an early appointment in the morning.
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