Which Drinks Give You the Worst Hangovers, According to Scientists
You’ve heard the warnings from older and “wiser” drinkers: Red wine will give you the worst hangover of all time. Or, maybe the bubbles in Champagne are to blame. No, wait, it’s tequila. Tequila is definitely the culprit.
Rather than listen to hearsay, we asked experts in food science and enology (the study of wine) to weigh in on these myths and clear up some misconceptions.
It’s All About Congeners
All alcohol is dehydrating, which means all of it can cause hangovers. But hangovers do range in severity depending on the type of alcohol, thanks to congeners, which are byproducts of fermentation. These contribute to a drink’s flavor and color, but are very difficult for the liver to break down, and cause hangover symptoms like headaches.
“Yeast produces these chemicals during fermentation, and a brewer or winemaker doesn’t have a lot of control over the amounts of them, which is why beer has very little amounts,” says Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, an enology professor and wine chemist at the University of California, Davis. “But distillers do have a lot of control—they can either exclude congeners totally or include them to affect the flavor, color and aroma of the spirit, and that’s part of the craft.”
Distillers achieve this by managing the heat in the still, causing some congeners to evaporate and others to stay depending on the temperature level, or by distilling the liquor multiple times, filtering out congeners. This is why, for instance, Irish whiskey distilled three times may taste lighter than double distilled Scotch whisky.
Some congeners are pleasant tasting and others taste foul, so the distiller has to control what gets removed and what stays in the bottle. Vodka and gin are distilled to remove all of the congeners entirely to yield a neutral flavor, whereas congeners are purposely left in darker spirits to add depth of flavor and dark color.
“Brandy has the highest amount, followed by dark alcohols like whiskey and red wine,” says Czarena Crofcheck, Ph.D, a food science professor at the University of Kentucky. “Their high levels of fusel alcohol make them much harder for the body to metabolize.”
Blame It on the Bubbly
Congeners aren’t the only factors that contribute to the severity of a hangover. While congeners exist in small amounts in sparkling white wines, the infamous Champagne hangover has more to do with the bubbles. “The carbon dioxide in Champagne helps the alcohol get absorbed into the bloodstream faster,” Waterhouse says. While the same can be said for all boozy carbonated beverages, sparkling wine has a much stronger carbonation compared to soda.
This, in combination with the fact that Champagne is often guzzled upon entry to a party before food is served, can lead to a pretty nasty hangover. Even if you pace yourself later in the evening, if you drank half a bottle of Champagne on an empty stomach at the start of the night, the damage is already done.
Sugary Drinks and Cheap Booze Aren’t at Fault
A common myth is that the sugar in mixed drinks leads to harsher hangovers, but in reality, we can only fault sugar for making our cocktails too darn tasty.
“The body is actually really good at processing sugar, compared to alcohol, so sugar doesn’t affect a hangover,” Crofcheck says. “It’s just that sugary drinks are so much easier to drink, so you can lose track of how much you’ve had and push it too far.”
The same goes for well liquor: A bottle of cheap liquor isn’t going to make your hangover any worse than the expensive stuff. “Cheap vodka will still have no congeners, so the myth of well drinks causing worse hangovers is probably just because people are drinking more of it at one time since it’s cheaper,” Waterhouse says.
Beer Before Liquor, Never Sicker (It’s True)
You can’t blame your hangover on the fact that you mixed too many different types of alcohol in a single night. But you can blame it on the order in which you picked your poisons.
“When you start drinking, you’re going slower and your body is able to process it pretty easily,” Crofcheck says. “But the more you drink, the harder it is for your body to keep up. If you start with beer and end with shots, your body can’t process the hard alcohol as easily. But if you go in the other direction and drink harder alcohol in the beginning of the night when your body can process it the fastest, you’ll be fine when you move to beer later at night.”
Crofcheck adds that, “As you get more intoxicated, there’s a point when your judgement becomes impaired and you want to keep going, but it’s harder to do that as quickly with beer because it fills you up so much.” In short, follow the wisdom of the old rhyme: “Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before liquor, you’ve never been sicker.”
The One Safe Bet: Everything in Moderation
If you know you need to rise bright and early the morning after going out and cannot risk a debilitating hangover, Crofcheck says that beer is the way to go, while Waterhouse says white wine or congener-free spirits are your best bets. But this isn’t to say that you have to stick to a strictly vodka-based diet or pour your brandy bottles down the drain. Like all good things in life, the key is moderation. Both scientists agree that drinking slowly, staying hydrated, eating a good meal and getting enough rest will keep a hangover at bay, no matter what you’re drinking. But if the hangover does strike, don’t sweat it—we’ve got you covered with plenty of cures to make the morning bearable.