Day 882: Smoking Your Smirnoff & Other Sciencey Drinky Things

originally published May 31, 2014

As an experienced recreational imbiber of liquid giddiness, I’d like to think I have evolved to the point where I’m ready to infuse a little science with my drinking. I have mastered my threshold of vomit-inducing over-consumption, and when the mood is right I’ll even remember to balance my ethanol intake with a hangover-quelching dose of water. I know my limits, and I seldom glide past happy-drunkenness into slobbering-wreckdom.

I’m already aware that rum is made from sugar cane, vodka is made from potatoes and grains, and beer is made from pure and unrefined liquid manna. I’m proud of the fact that I actually drink alcohol for the taste, though the accompanying enhancements to my charm and wit are nice too. But I want to know more.

Why does alcohol have this magical effect on our physical beings? What is the scientific community working on to enhance my drinking experience? Why did I have to drunkenly sing six Air Supply songs at the karaoke machine during my last office Christmas party?

It’s the weekend and I’m whetting my appetite on words about booze until the clock displays a less shameful hour to start drinking. I’d better hurry.

The otolithic membrane is this sciencey glob of stuff in your inner ear. It’s filled with little hairs and a viscous goo called endolymph. When you tilt your head, the endolymph bends the hair cells, which transmit the info to your brain that your head is tilted. When alcohol begins tap-dancing in your bloodstream, that viscous goo gets less dense. This makes the hair cells bend a little easier, conveying false tilting messages to your brain-meat and messing with your balance.

This phenomenon can also cause your eyes to swirl around to compensate, thus providing the glorious bed-spins that haunted too many nights of my younger days. There are a few ways to prevent this – don’t drink alcohol, for example. If you aren’t ready for that kind of madness, try mixing your hooch with sugar soda instead of diet. Sugar slows down the emptying of the stomach, which slows down the walloping effects of drunkenness. Also, don’t light up a late-night, post-drinking doobie. The cannabis will smack those little hairs around even more and you’ll be spinning like a wobbly dreidel for hours.

Take it from the voice of experience – smoke before you drink. Of course, only do this in Colorado or Washington state, unless you have a prescription; if it’s illegal it must be morally wrong, right?

The nigrostriatal pathway in the brain, which is the same little neuron conduit that gets hampered in sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease, is also affected by alcohol. This is your motor control center, the part of my brain that I blame for my inability to play golf (though I suspect complete and total disinterest also plays a part). When you drink, your metabolism in the nigrostriatal pathway increases, which triggers the reward sensors in your brain to become more active. This is why we tend to gesture more wildly when we drink. This might also be why I become a substantially better (albeit clumsier) dancer.

Isn’t science fun? It’s also a fact that one drink before bed will improve your overall sleep. Drink more than that and your sleep architecture will be messed up when the booze leaves your system. The body oozes out about 0.01-0.02 percent blood-alcohol per hour, so if you’re sitting just over the legal driving limit of 0.08, you’re looking at maybe four hours before your body has purged the drink. That’s when your sleep patterns might get jostled.

We all know the long-term effects of continuous alcohol abuse – I’m not going to meander down that dark, cautionary path. Instead I’m curious about Palcohol, a brand of powdered alcohol that was accidentally approved for sale in the United States by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for just under two weeks last month. These are capsules you can take orally if you enjoy being drunk but don’t like the taste (which is weird), or you can dissolve them in water to make your own beverage.

The ATF approved Palcohol for sale on April 8, only to rescind it on the 21st because – whoops! – they didn’t mean to do that. It was a bureaucratic error. There is concern that kids could get their hands on Palcohol and use it discreetly, as could government drone workers who engage in lengthy writing projects <cough, cough>. But the real worry is that people will snort it, thus getting drunk instantaneously and potentially damaging their nasal passages.

Would people actually do that? Snort powdered booze? Well, there are many who smoke it.

This is an actual thing. Using an open-flame heater, or alternately an asthma nebulizer, alcohol can be transformed into a gaseous state for inhalation. There was – no, sorry, there is – a device on the market called AWOL (Alcohol With Out Liquid) that mixes alcohol with oxygen to create small mist droplets, which can be inhaled like a lungful of ignited kush. There are others too – the Vaportini utilizes thermal vaporization for smooth vodka breaths. Mmm. Flavor country.

The positive effect of inhaling your liquor is the more immediate rush of drunkenness it provides. Also, it’s a fun little novelty that will add a dash of memorable strangeness to your next summer shindig. The downside is that it’s hard to regulate the right amount of smoked hooch you pull into your bloodstream, which means you might rocket right past 0.008% into dangerous territory without even knowing it. And your body’s automatic response to alcohol poisoning – puking your unholy guts out – won’t do a thing if you’ve been smoking the stuff.

But then I’ve heard of women (okay – girls) putting vodka-soaked tampons into their innards for a quick rush. Could we get any weirder than that?

You have clearly reached a milestone of bewildering personal choices once you’ve selected to cram a hose in your rectum and pour alcohol through your back door. This is known as butt-chugging, and it makes the people who smoke and/or snort their booze look sane and without need for immediate counselling by comparison. Once again the alcohol is hitting your bloodstream like a school bus plowing into a phone booth made of popsicle sticks. And once again your stomach is powerless to reject the excess booze in order to keep you alive.

These kids today. Except it’s not just kids. A 58-year-old machine shop owner in Lake Jackson, Texas, died from this in 2004. He was an alcoholic, but had a nasty sore throat, which made it tough to gulp back his daily dose. His wife helped him out by pouring two full bottles (that’s about three liters) of sherry into his butthole. That is a serious commitment to one’s addiction, and I suppose to the bonds of matrimony. The guy died, and his wife was charged with negligent homicide.

Look, it’s the weekend, it’s practically summer, and the temptation to snarf back a heap o’ the good stuff and diluting one’s endolymph to make the tiny little hairs inside our ears bend and weave like hippies at a Phish concert is there. But be responsible. And just drink the stuff – don’t mess with perfection.

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