The hottest liquor in Washington is called grain alcohol, a 190 proof clear liquid that is so powerful it carries the warning "extremely inflammable" and "use with caution."

This killer brew is popular on college campuses when mixed with Hawaiian punch and served to women at fraternity parties. More of a fuel oil than a beverage, it was among the first hard liquors to hit hard times when Americans turned to softer drinks such as wine coolers.

Now, grain alcohol is back, having shown a 200 percent increase in sales during the past two years. This time, however, the popularity has less to do with taste than the purity and intensity of the flame it produces for people who smoke cocaine.

After cocaine is processed into freebase, also known as "crack," it can be smoked in a pipe. Grain alcohol is used like lighter fluid, into which a homemade wick or torch is dipped and used to light the pipe.

The danger is obvious -- as Richard Pryor demonstrated in his movie "Jo Jo Dancer" by igniting himself with 150 proof rum while suffering from a freebase withdrawal.

In an industry that still suffers from black eyes delivered by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups, the linkage between alcohol and drugs is a source of continued embarrassment. But it should also be a concern to the community. Regardless of what we hear regarding advances in the war on drugs, those who sell alcohol know that the appetite for drugs continues unabated and, worse yet, may be corrupting American society in ways yet unimagined.

"Half of the liquor business is now geared toward drug users," said one Washington liquor store owner. "Why pick on 'freebase' users? The vast majority of our sales come from what we call 'hot wines,' for marijuana users. These are low percentage alcohol, soft to the taste with enough sugar to keep their high going. Then there's the flavored cognac for the high class coke snorters and malt liquor for the 'boat people' {PCP users}. Everybody is looking for a 'stretcher,' something to make their high last longer," he said.

Still, the link between grain alcohol and the continued popularity of cocaine bodes especially bad because smoking cocaine is perhaps the most destructive form of drug addiction that exists today.

In the wake of Len Bias' death from snorting cocaine almost a year ago, the word on the street apparently went out that freebasing cocaine was safer than snorting.

"The crack salesmen came up with a powerfully deceptive gimmick," says Dr. Ron Walls, assistant professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University. " 'Crack is cheaper and more intense -- so it must be safer, too.' That is a dangerous myth and it must be destroyed," Walls said.

To make matters worse when some people run out of crack, they drink the grain alcohol in an effort to calm themselves.

"Drinking grain has become a real problem, too," Walls said. "Just the other day I revived a man who drank so much of the stuff he stopped breathing."

One liquor store owner says the industry has been slow to respond to the phenomenal sales of grain, thinking at first that it signaled a comeback for the old punch mixes of the 1960s -- part of today's wine cooler craze. When a company came out with a drink called "Passion Punch," they were surprised to learn that it had bombed out in the areas where grain alcohol sales were highest.

"I guess it's fairly obvious now," one liquor industry spokesman said. "But we still can't prove that freebasing is the main reason sales have increased. I mean, if we really knew that, we would consider stopping the product in the community interest."

To some store owners, however, the evidence is clear enough.

"You know the ones who use it to mix with punch and those who have to buy a bottle of the stuff every other day," a store owner said. "If they were drinking the stuff, they wouldn't be walking around."