Five Scientifically Surprising Facts About Booze

People sharing drinks love to lay out the facts of life, love, and, of course, liquor. Wouldn't it be even better if this cocktail science were actually right some of the time? Here are five bits of booze trivia that smart drinkers can use to blow their buddies off their barstools.

It's the weekend, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Drinking don't make you dumber.

Alcohol Is Medicine

Yeah, alcohol is antiseptic, and wine's tannins are good for your heart. But it goes further than that. Alcohol is considered medicinal by US and European pharmacopeias. According to "A Handbook of Useful Drugs" by State Medical Examining and Licensing Boards:

Internally, (ethanol) is a narcotic, excessive doses depressing and paralyzing the central nervous system. Small doses produce euphoria, stimulate respiration, moderately dilate the cutaneous and splanchnic vessels, and modify the circulation... Alcohol is employed as a diffusible stimulant, diuretic, diaphoretic and hypnotic.

Score! It's also used as a solvent and a means of administering medications. But it's not all wine and medicinal roses. They note specifically that in the majority of cases it's "apt to do more harm than good." Well, whatever. If a doctor could just prescribe a daily glass of Lagavulin, maybe the insurance company will cover 90 per cent of the cost.

Alcohol Can Catch Fire At Any Time

Ever wondered what ABV alcohol must be for it to catch fire? Of course you have, you pyro. In ye olde days whiskey was tested for authenticity and alcohol content by pouring some over a small amount of gun powder. If the whiskey burned off and the powder ignited, it was considered "proof". Generally speaking, that meant approximately 49.5 per cent ABV. In reality, though, there are a number of factors that change what the flash point is -- the point at which it will ignite, not necessarily burn steadily.

See it's not really the liquid that's burning. It's the vapours that the liquid emits. Higher proof equals more vapor. And the temperature of the solution is an equally important factor. 40 per cent ABV vodka or whiskey generally won't catch fire at room temperature if you hold a match to it. If you hold a lighter's flame to it (especially a butane torch) for a few seconds, though, it will ignite temporarily. This is because lighter's flame is heating the booze a little, and thus generating more vapour. If you were to carefully heat up the vodka to a higher temperature, it would produce a lot of vapour and that same vodka will catch fire and continue to burn energetically. (Note: Do not try to do this in the microwave, over an open flame, or really at all. You could definitely accidentally blow yourself up.)

This scales down even to much lower proof solutions. For instance, in cooking, if you add wine to a hot pan, it will flame up spectacularly, despite being only about 12 per cent ABV. Conversely, even 100 per cent pure ethanol will not ignite if it is 12.7°C or lower.

There Are Four Septillion Cocktails Floating In Space

Back in 2006, astronomers began finding great clouds of alcohol floating through the far reaches of space. Some of these clouds span approximately 288 billion miles. That's a lot of hooch. Unfortunately, most of that alcohol is methanol. Here on Earth, methanol is a biproduct of the distilling process, and it is very poisonous indeed. Good distilleries get nearly all of the methanol out of their booze. During prohibition the US, a lot of people died because many bootleggers just left the methanol in the distillate (it's cheaper and easier that way).

That's OK, though, because there is a lot of ethanol in the space booze, too. How much? Nobody knows for sure, but it has been estimated that there are well over four septillion ounces. In other words, that's four trillion-trillion drinks, galactic hangovers not withstanding. The role of these gaseous alcohol clouds is not entirely understood, nor is it known for sure how the alcohol got there. What is known, though, is that they play a large part in stellar nurseries, i.e. where stars begin to form. That's right. Thanks to alcohol, a star is born.

Alcohol Lowers Your Body Temperature

Ever been really cold and decide to throw back a shot of brandy to warm yourself up? Feels nice, right? But guess what, it doesn't work the way you think it does. In fact, alcohol actually lowers your core body temperature. It just makes you feel warmer. The body lies!

When feel cold, blood is actually moving away from your skin in order to keep your vital organs working by maintaining your core temperature. Alcohol causes the superficial blood vessels in your skin to dilate, opening the floodgates for blood to return. Sounds good, right? But when that blood returns from your cold extremities, your core has gotten colder, which then lowers your overall temperature. This can lead to a greatly increased risk of hypothermia, which can be fatal. So, when you're really cold, and will continue to be cold in your environment, booze is a bad call.

Champagne Has Thrice The Pressure Of A Car Tire

Ever carry a bottle of champagne to a party, pop it open, send the cork flying and champagne a-spilling? That's because there is some serious pressure in that little bottle -- up to 90 pounds per square inch (psi). To put that in context, an average car's tire has about 30psi. That's why champagne bottles are shipped with a muselet. Bonus trivia -- that's the name of the wire cage that keeps the cork from flying off.

When champagne was first being developed it was nicknamed le vin du diable, or "the devil's wine" because of exploding bottles and flying corks. This is because, with champagne, fermentation continues after it is bottled. Champagne corks have been proven to shoot off at speeds upwards of 72.4km/h (though some claim much faster speeds). That's 20.1m/s! That is easily enough to lose an eye, which is why you always want to make sure the bottle is pointed in a safe direction when you open. Grip it tight, and you can use a cloth to keep your hand from slipping. I have witnessed a flying cord break a 10cm chunk off of a wooden door trim. Scary stuff.

So, now you know are full of fun facts. Go forth and amaze your friends. If you have some other good ones, please share them in the discussion below. See you next week for another Happy Hour.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Tischenko Irina


    I think it would be far more beneficial for you to write an article about the disastrous effects that alcohol can have on the brain.

    Oh, and if you need a wine or beer every day after work, you're an alcoholic.

      and you're a boring kill joy.
      Leave us "alcoholics" to our peace.

      By definition! if you NEED wine or beer after work, you are definitely an alcoholic. However Alcoholism is a serious matter, lets not muddy the waters by calling everyone who enjoys a drink after work an alcoholic. If it is not negatively effecting your life, you are not an alcoholic. Usually it is hard to see whether your drinking is negatively effecting your life, but just because someone enjoys a drink with their dinner doesn't mean they are alcoholics.

      Bwaaahahahahah! What a load of hog wash! Alcohol abuse is bad but don't feed people misinformation.

      In fact, there is growing evidence and support for the possibility that alcohol production might have been the real catalyst that really kicked off the engines of civilization. That little wonder we call farming, might not have been for food, but for booze.

      I am not an alcoholic, i'm a drunk...alcoholics go to meetings lol

    here's a surprising fact about alcohol. It's legal and weed isn't. A drug that can turn a normal person into a fightmongering asshole in just a few drinks. Or having you say something you'll regret (we've all been there I'm sure). I've never seen a stoned person who want to kill anyone else in a fit of drug induced rage. I've seen alcohol destroy many lives around me though....yet it's perfectly okay to buy. Same with cigarettes. One of the biggest killers on the planet. Perfectly legal over the counter but try to grow your own and get two years in prison and a $50,000 fine. WTF?

    Shit's all backwards in this world.

      for the record, I smoke and drink but I don't smoke weed for fear of losing my job for onsite testing. Like I said.....backwards.

    Laphroaig scotch whisky was used as "medicine" back in the days of prohibition due to it's peatiness.

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