My Hangover Lesson

Wayne Curtis's Vampiro cocktail can help ease a hangover.
Wayne Curtis's Vampiro cocktail can help ease a hangover. (Dayna Smith - For The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hangovers are sort of like opinions. Every drinker ends up having one at some point, and nearly everyone feels the need to share its story, even if the story is simply, "I never should have had that last shot of [fill in the blank] last night."

Even the Bible has its say on hangovers (Isaiah 5:11, to be exact): "Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink." In fact, the literature of the hangover is so long and illustrious, I've hesitated for years to add my own opinion -- by which I mean hangover -- to the discussion.

But then, two Sundays ago, I awoke with the mother of all hangovers. The hangover, of course, might seem to be a common occupational hazard for a spirits writer. But I insist that I mostly avoid them, which my editors appreciate because I do have to get up in the morning and deliver copy.

However, as I mentioned in my previous column, I spent the week before last at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual spirits industry event held in New Orleans. There, the tasting rooms open at 10:30 a.m. and run all day. At least two or three small cocktails are served at each conference session. And then, late at night, there is the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. After five days of this, even the most diligently paced tasting regimen can go slightly awry.

On the last morning of the conference, there was a relevant session called "Paying the Piper: Your Hangover and You," presented by Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails," and John Myers, head bartender at the Grill Room in Portland, Maine. I actually didn't make the session because of my aforementioned affliction. I grabbed Curtis after the fact, and he did a nice job of reprising his presentation just for me. "Pay attention to your hangover," Curtis said. "They're complicated, and each is different. It's not just a headache and hurling."

There are basically three things at work during a hangover: dehydration, withdrawal symptoms affecting the nervous system and, of course, the toxins that remain in the body. This trifecta causes a host of symptoms, including fatigue, flatulence, insomnia, anxiety, tremors and a sensitivity to light and noise. Fun times.

Curtis ran through some common folklore for hangover prevention and whether it was true or false. Eat a big meal before going out? True. Drink a glass of water with every alcoholic beverage? True. Don't mix your spirits? True. Drink Red Bull? False. Liquor then wine, everything fine? Wine then liquor, never sicker? False and false.

And here's a fact that surprised me: Vodka gives you less of a hangover because it's much closer to pure ethanol than other spirits. Studies have shown that among those who overindulge, 33 percent of bourbon drinkers experienced hangovers, vs. 3 percent of vodka drinkers. So maybe there is some redeeming quality to the flavorless five-times-distilled vodkas I have criticized.

As for morning-after cures, no big surprises: lots of water and vitamins B and C, light exercise and a nice big meal, which may or may not include eggs (they replenish certain amino acids), cabbage or prickly pear. And of course, there's also the infamous hair of the dog, foremost among them a spicy bloody mary or a shot of a digestive bitter such as Fernet Branca or Gammel Dansk.

"The hair of the dog works," Curtis said. "It's medically proven." That's because it reintroduces ethanol (alcohol) into your system at a point when your liver is breaking down an alcoholic compound called methanol, which is more toxic than the ethanol. So it delays, rather than eliminates, the hangover. But some researchers say it also may lessen the overall symptoms the next day.

It might help one get through the morning, but as Curtis warns, "The hair of the dog is not a good long-term strategy."

Of course, plenty of upstanding citizens will tell you that the best -- the only -- way to avoid a hangover is to avoid drinking altogether. Those people are totally correct. And if they've never had a hangover, then I admire them.

My Sunday morning breakfast in New Orleans consisted of a big plate of eggs Benedict and one Pimm's Cup. (Though, after testing Curtis's recipe for the Vampiro, an alternative to the bloody mary, I think that would have been a better call). And for me, an essential hangover cure is the convivial company of equally hung-over friends, several of whom joined me at the table.

There's a reason for this companionship. Most clinical talk on the hangover issue deals nothing with the other, emotional side of the issue. For instance, I woke up that morning feeling as though I had left a little bit of my soul in the French Quarter: what author Kingsley Amis called "the metaphysical hangover." Amis's strategy in his book "On Drink"? "He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover."

One must keep the hangover in perspective. One must also make certain it doesn't happen all that often.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company