THE ALCOHOL – The poison whose charms we willingly submit.

There are not many things which can be taken as defining elements of the human history and civilization but there are few. Except the water and the first 6 metals used by humans namely Copper, Gold, Silver, Iron, Tin and Lead there is 8th element which is liquid.This the alcohol. Alcohol is exactly a psychoactive drug that has been consumed in drinks for most of human history. After water, alcohol is the most consumed drink in the history of humanity. Below I am going to tell you something about this charming liquid which if consumed in small doses can be actually good for your health. Unfortunately there are a lot of people which consume alcohol way more than sufficient and as result this generates other problems. So let´s see, what is this thing we name: alcohol?

Alcohols are chemically similar to kerosene: for a start, they burn, as you will have witnessed if you´ve ever ordered a flambé dessert. Usually brandy is used for fancy dishes like that because this spirit has a high percentage of alcohol: it is typically 40% and it is this that burns with a bluish flame on top of your dessert.

Pure alcohol is easy to burn too, and indeed is used as a fuel for cars. Brazil is the primary producer of alcohol made from sugar cane, which it uses as a transport fuel. The country is considered to have one of the most sustainable biofuel economies in the world, with some proportions of alcohol  being used to fuel 94% of Brazilian passenger vehicles. It is made by turning sugar cane into juice, and fermenting that with yeast. This is the same process by which both wine and beer are made: yeast consumes sugar and produces alcohol. But with biofuels the alcohol is then refined into pure alcohol. Biofuel  isn´t as popular in other parts of the world as it is in Brazil, in part because it requires lots of land to produce alcohol at the scale needed to sustain the transport systems of whole countries. So worldwide, alcohol crops are mostly grown for drinking.

Alcohol is a key component of some of the world´s most popular drinks such as wine, beer and spirits, but it is toxic. It is that toxicity which makes these drinks so intoxicating. That´s where the word comes from. The toxins in alcohol suppress the nervous system, causing a loss of cognitive functions, loss of motor functions, and loss of control. It is quite surprising that, despite these serious physiological effects, mild intoxication is so very enjoyable. In my case it causes me to become less upright, to worry less, to grin; and, at higher doses, to make fun of everyone around me and I tell people either funny or offensive things that in usual situations I never tell. Indeed nothing quite hits the spot like an intoxicating drink at the end of a long week at work. “Drink me”, a bottle of wine says, “and for a while the world won´t be the same”.

Alcohol is a general name for a  family of hydrocarbon molecules similar to petrol and diesel, but with an extra hydrogen and oxygen attached to them. Those extra atoms are called a hydroxyl group. Different kinds of alcohols come in different molecular sizes: the alcohol we drink has 2 carbon atoms and is called ethanol. It is a polar molecule, which means that there is a separation of a molecule´s electric charge. In the case of alcohols this is caused by the hydroxyl group. Water molecules also have a hydroxyl group and are also polar. This similarity is why ethanol dissolves in water. When the label on a bottle of alcohol says what the alcohol percentage (%) of the drink is, it´s telling you how much dissolved ethanol you´re about to consume. For instance in the case of the Bourgogne Chardonnay which is one of my favorite french wine, the answer is 13%.

A comparison of the chemical structure of methanol and ethanol vs. Water

The Methanol and Ethanol – both are alcohols. Methanol has one carbon atom, while ethanol has two. Both are polar molecules containing a hydroxyl group – the OH at the end. Water is also polar, and this similarity allows both methanol and ethanol to mix well with it.

Whereas one side of an alcohol molecule is similar to water, the other side, the hydrocarbon backbone, is similar to the structure of oils and the fatty molecules that coat the cells in your body. It is this similarity that allows ethanol to bypass the defenses of cell membranes and, being small, sneak through the stomach cell wall and enter your bloodstream directly. Approximately 20% of the ethanol you imbibe when you drink wine goes through your stomach wall and directly into your bloodstream, which is why you can feel the effects of alcohol almost immediately after drinking it.

Dogs also get drunk if they drink alcohol, which is  why there is a growing market for non-alcoholic wine designed specifically for pets to consume at festive occasions. Non-alcoholic wine for human consumption is also available although in my experience it bears very little resemblance. What it does do, however, is highlighting quite how much the regular wines rely on alcohol to balance the sweetness and fruitiness of the grape juice. It´s what gives wine its air of sophistication and authority. Alcohol turns grape juice into an adult drink – a poison admittedly , but one to whose charms we willingly submit.

But of course the effect of drinking wine is not necessarily the same on everybody. In my case if I only drink wine for instance in a plane while I am traveling to America in short time I feel a little intoxicated, but because I don´t eat anything for a while, I am about to become more so. Without food to slow down the progress of the alcohol through my stomach, it is making its way to my small intestine. Here it entered my bloodstream, and then encounters my liver. The liver´s job is to get rid of the toxin, but it can only metabolize ethanol at a rate of about a glass of wine per hour (depending on your size). If you drink faster than this, ethanol will enter your bloodstream at a greater rate than it can be processed, and so will be able to infiltrate your other organs, exerting its powers throughout the rest of your body. The effects of alcohol on the brain, for instance, are not uniform from person to person. They change depending on how much you drink, your mental state, and other details of your physiology. But, basically, alcohols depresses your nervous system, reduces inhibitions and changes your mood.

Alcohol affects other organs, too. It temporarily weakens the heart muscles, causing them to beat less vigorously, and  lowering your blood pressure. When blood circulates to your lungs to pick up oxygen from your breath, some of the alcohol jumps across the membranes along with the carbon dioxide being expelled from your blood. As you breathe out, the alcohol vapour becomes part of your exhalation, which is why you can smell when someone´s been drinking. Testing for the presence of alcohol vapour in someone´s breath is the principle behind the breathalyzer that the police use to test whether someone they suspect of drink-driving is, in fact, intoxicated.

While booze on the breath doesn´t smell great, the other side of ethanol, the  part that´s more similar to oil than it is to water, gives us a considerably more fragrant liquid – perfume. Essential oils distilled from plants like bergamot and orange, or resigns like myrrh, and animal-derived substances like musk, can all be dissolved in alcohol and turned into perfume. When you dab the perfume on your warm skin, the  alcohol evaporates, leaving the oils on your skin to diffuse slowly into the air, shrouding you in the scent of your choosing. All the perfumes piled high in the Departure lounges of airports are full of alcohol. If you were really desperate to get drunk, you could drink them; they´ll have the same effect on you as vodka. But you have to be careful – some of the alcohols used in cheap perfumes contain methanol.

Methanol is the smallest alcohol molecule, with only 1 carbon atom, unlike ethanol, which has 2. Two small difference changes its pharmacological activity dramatically and makes methanol far more poisonous than ethanol. One shot glass of pure methanol can cause permanent blindness; 3 glasses will kill you. This happens because, once the methanol is in your body, your digestive system metabolizes it into formic acid and formaldehyde. Formic acid attacks nerve cells, especially the optic nerve. If you drink too much of it, the degradation of your optic nerve could leave you blind – this is where the expression “blind drunk” comes from. The formic acid also goes after your kidneys and liver, where it causes permanent damage that can be lethal. Methanol is produced during the fermentation of alcoholic drinks, especially in the production of spirits like vodka and whisky, but it´s removed through the brewing process, so you´ve unlikely to encounter it in commercial spirits. If you make moonshine, hooch poteen, or any other home-brewed spirits though, you need to be careful. These drinks are typically made by fermenting starch from crops such as corn, wheat or potatoes. This results in a low-alcohol mixture called a mash, which is then connected to some pipework known as a still, heated up, and distilled into a liquor with a high percentage of alcohol. The first liquid that emerges from the still is concentrated methanol – you have to throw it away. Experienced home brewers know this, but people die every year after making moonshine for the first time. Those in search of cheap alcohol sometimes resort to drinking alcohol-based liquids that are easy to buy like antifreeze, cleaning products and perfumes. This is a very bad idea not just because these liquids taste foul, but also because, since they are not designed to be drunk, the manufacturers don´t always remove the methanol they contain. This can lead to tragic consequences. For instance, in December 2016, 58 people died in Russia by drinking a scented bath oil. It wasn´t the scented chemicals that killed them, but the methanol.

Alcohol is, of course, a relaxant and social lubricant – a drug, yes, but a legally sanctioned one that provides more benefits to society that the  problems it causes – or at least that´s the story we tell ourselves. Getting intoxicated can make people more relaxed, or it can make them more antagonistic. In either case, they also become less able to make clear rational decisions. Which makes you wonder why the dangers of intoxication are not mentioned in the pre-flight safety briefing: surely a drunk person is less safe in an emergency, and less able to make good decisions that affects others?. But then, that assumes that the briefing is really about safety, which I don´t believe it is. While drinking wine may not increase your safety, it has other uses, one of which was alluded to by the attendant: it is a traditional accompaniment to meals, where, apart from being delicious in itself, it acts as a very effective palate cleanser, making the food itself more enjoyable. One of the key flavor components of wine is its astringency: the feeling of dry, parched roughness in the mouth. Pomegranate, pickles and unripe fruit are all astringent foods. In wines, the astringency comes from tannins. Theses molecules, which originate in grape skins, break down the lubricating proteins in saliva, and leave you with a dry mouth. But still, mild astringency in drinks is pleasurable, especially when you´re drinking them with fatty foods. Fats lubricate the mouth, but while they can make a dish feel rich and luxurious, in excess they mask flavor and coat your mouth in clagginess and sickly oiliness. Astringent counteracts this fatty feeling, cleaning the mouth, removing any aftertaste from the food, and  resetting your palate to a neutral state.

Studies show that palate-cleansing works best when an astringent drink is sipped in-between bites of fatty foods; the pairing keeps the dry-mouth feeling associated with high tannins from building up, just as it makes sense to drink a red wine with steak, or a fatty fish, such as salmon, no matter what anyone says about drinking red wines with fish. People think red wine will overwhelm the delicate taste of the fish, which is why they advise white. But, in fact white wines have overlapping flavor profiles (fruity, vanilla, etc.) with red wines and so the blanket rule is not helpful. Really it´s much more important to consider a wine´s acidity and sweetness as you choose one to accompany your meal. Acidity is a measure of the sourness of the drink, while sweetness is a measure of its dryness in the mouth. Some people, for instance, prefer wines that balance the bitterness of food, so they´d want to pair their meal with a glass of something dry and acidic. For instance, a full-flavoured white Rioja goes well with a Mediterranean fish stew, while red Pinot Noir works very well with glazed ham.

In many cultures, food isn´t paired with wine, but with spitits like vodka. Spirits are very effective palate cleansers because they contain a high percentage of ethanol, often 40%, which provides astringency. The alcohol also dissolves oils and fats in the mouth, along with their associated tastes. The advantage of drinking pure spirits with food is that they  have very little flavor and so will not clash with a strongly flavoured dish such as pickled herring. The reason pure vodkas have so little flavor is because they have very little smell. Although the basic tastes of salty, sweet, sour, umami and bitterness are detected by taste buds in your mouth, the complex flavor profiles of food and drinks are detected by the thousands of olfactory receptors in your nose. Hence the importance of the bouquet of wine – this is why wine enthusiasts always smell before drinking; most of the flavor you taste really comes from the wine´s scent. It is also why wine glasses are designed to have a large bowl. This is  a vessel designed to hold the bouquet of the wine for your delight and appreciation.

When you eat, the release of smells inside your mouth accounts for most of the food´s flavor, which is why, when you have a cold, and mucus is covering your smell receptors, you can´t taste the subtleties of whatever dish you´re consuming. It also explains why wine tastes different at different temperatures: when it´s served cold, only the very volatile substances evaporate in your mouth, and so you experience the flavor profile dominated by those; but when you warm the wine up, the smell is different. The extra energy allows more of the flavor molecules in the liquid to evaporate. This changes the aroma of the wine and so its taste. One of the main reasons why red and white wine are perceived to taste so very different from each other is that they are served at different temperatures. Cool down both a red and white wine, and then drink them in a blind taste test and you´ll see what I mean. At cooler temperatures many of the fruitier flavor molecules stay in the liquid rather than contributing to the bouquet. This changes the balance of the flavor, so that acidity and dryness are emphasized, and for many this gives the experience of crispness and clarity. When  combined with the cooling effect on the palate, this can be an extremely delightful experience – a classic white wine experience. Serve  the same wine at room temperature and it tastes completely different. Now the acidity is muted by a  fruity, passionate embrace that´s not crisp, but rather warm. There is no right or wrong here – it is just a matter of what you enjoy.

For instance in one of my trips by plane from Brussels to New York, when the flight attendant serving drinks on the plane asked me what would I like to drink I asked for red wine. The red wine I was drinking on the plane was probably at about 22°C; it being a small bottle, which I had recently poured into the glass, it had had time to adjust to the ambient temperature of the aircraft. I swirled the wine around the glass to gauge its alcohol content. I was looking for the Marangoni effectwhen the wine forms tears as it flows down the glass. The ethanol in wine has the effect of lowering its surface tension with the glass so, when it´s poured, it leaves a this film. The alcohol in that coating quickly evaporates, leaving an area of liquid with a low concentration of alcohol, and thus a higher surface tension than the neighboring area. The unequal tensions pull the liquid apart, leaving a tear. The higher the alcohol concentration of the wine, the more pronounced this effect, so by looking at the Marangoni effect, you can get a sense of how alcoholic your wine is.

Red wine in a glass showing the Marangoni effect

The taste of wine owes more to its appearance (especially the label) and its cultural associations than many wine experts would like to admit. Studies show that flavor is constructed in the brain, which takes inputs not just from the taste buds in the mouth and the sensors in the nose, but also from your brain´s expectation of what things should taste like. For instance if you take strawberry ice cream, and use a flavourless dye to change its colour, making it, say, green, yellow or orange, then people who taste the ice cream will have difficulty detecting the strawberry flavor. More likely than not, they´ll taste flavours related to the colour. If the ice cream is orange, they´re likely to taste “peach”; if it´s yellow, “vanilla”; and often green will taste like “lime”. What´s perhaps most extraordinary about this, though, is that when I tried it myself, even when I knew the orange-coloured ice cream I was eating was strawberry, I still seemed to taste peach. Clearly, flavor is a multisensory experience, and as the brain constructs the taste of a food or drink using sensory inputs from multiple sources, sight is so dominant that it often overrides other sensory input.

There are many theories as to why flavor is so influenced by vision. One of the primary ones has to do with how our brain interprets fragrance. Flavor is constructed from smell, and our ability  to detect smells is approximately 10 times slower than our visual detection. We have  great difficulty identifying odours from specific molecules. This might be because single odours are recognized by multiple receptors in the nose. Even experts trained to detect particular molecular substances through smell fail to do so when these are mixed with 4 or 5 other smells. When you consider that wine has thousand of individual flavor molecules, the staggering challenge of wine tasting becomes evident. That our sense of smell doesn´t provide enough information to reliably distinguish between mixtures of odours is evident if you play a simple game.

Try this: Blindfold your fellow dinner guests one evening and ask them to identify the liquids in a series of glasses that you pass to them (try orange juice, milk, cold coffee). The rules of the game are that they may only smell the substances, not taste or see them. Some drinks are easy but most are difficult for your senses to detect correctly. After this, do not reveal the answers but instead allow your guests to take off their blindfolds and now use smell and sight to identify the substances. This is much easier now that you can bring to bear your experience of seeing and smelling that particular drink in the past. The game illustrates just how much we rely on vision to identify smell, and thus taste.

The importance of vision in appreciating wine was demonstrated most dramatically in a scientific study carried out in 2001 in France. A panel of 54 tasters were asked to judge the bouquet of 2 wines and comment on them. Both were Bordeaux wines; one was a white, made from Semillon and Sauvignon grapes, and the other was a red, made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. But the participants didn´t know that a flavourless red dye had been  added to the  white. So far the participants could tell, they were smelling 2 glasses of red. The colour completely dominated their appreciation of the bouquet of the wines. Both wines were described by the participants using words like “spicy”, “intense” and “blackcurrant”, even though one was a white wine with a  flavor profile that should not resemble these descriptors.

But no matter how we manipulate the colour of our drinks, when the flavor we taste matches what we expected based on the drink´s appearance, we tend to  enjoy it more. Similarly, the bottle from which it is poured, the cleanliness and ambience of the space we´re it, the attractiveness of the person serving us, and  – especially in the case of wine – the  association of sophistication and quality all change out drinking experience. Experiments have shown that we´ll like wine more or less depending on where the label says it was produced, and that we´ll enjoy it more if we hear something good about it before drinking – that it´s won an award, for instance. Rather a lot of wines win awards, by the way; there are many competitions where the vast majority of wines entered by the manufacturers win a commendation.

If you´re one of those people who thinks they don´t know anything about wine, and you feel bewildered when you´re handed a wine list in a restaurant, think about the unfamiliar names of the grapes, the countries of origin and the dates of production as you would specifications of a car. You may or may not care whether your car has a petrol or a diesel engine, or whether it has a 1.4-liter engine or 2.0-litre engine. These details may not be something you want to learn about. You may just want a car to get you from A to B reliably, and that´s really all that matters to you. Most mid-priced wines will do this beautifully, the A to B in the case of wines being a pleasant accompaniment to food, or a vehicle to let alcohol shift your mood, or as a way to celebrate a birthday. But perhaps you´re someone who likes their car to do more than take you from A to B. Maybe you enjoy the sensation of getting there, screaming fast around corners for instance, or alternatively having a smooth floaty ride. Some wines are a vehicle for spikier flavours than others, while some, such as “natural” wines, really push the boundaries of what you expect a wine to taste like. These are not better wines; they  are different wines, because all taste is subjective, and as with cars, (and most of life) price is no reliable guide to these experiences.

When you enjoy a wine, just like a ride in a car, you are enjoying a multisensory experience. Equally, if you buy an expensive brand of car, that´s really what you´re paying for – the brand, not the experience. Some people love having the most expensive cars, they get real enjoyment out of what that says about them as a person. It´s the same with wines. But this doesn´t mean that these are better wines or better cars, or even that the owners are more sophisticated people. Thus if having the most expensive wine doesn´t turn you on, then you´re wasting your money on €50 bottles of wine. Most mid-priced wines and many budget-priced wines have flavor profiles that are just as complex as top-priced wines – and blind testing shows this. One of the physiological effects of alcohol on the body is to inhibit the secretion of hormones that tell your kidneys to conserve water. If you don´t drink water to compensate, you become dehydrated.

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