The Best Liquor To Minimize Your Chances Of A Gnarly Hangover

If you tend to wake up with a bad headache after enjoying some bourbon cocktails the night before, but don't feel as crumby after several vodka sodas, it's not just your imagination. There's a scientific reason why many of us feel worse after drinking brown liquor, compared to clear spirits. The culprit is likely congeners: molecular compounds that give alcohol its flavors, aromas, and color, but also contribute to how crappy you feel afterward.

That's right — it's a myth that sugary cocktails are the primary cause of hangovers, or that drinking beer before liquor will "make you sicker." Hangovers are mainly caused by dehydration, but there's evidence that congeners can make them worse. The term "congener" covers a broader category that includes compounds like methanol, tannins, fusel oil, and more. These molecules are produced during the fermentation and distillation process, in addition to pure ethanol alcohol, the base of all alcoholic liquids.

Together with ethanol, congeners cause inflammation as the human body breaks them down. That inflammation makes up the building blocks of a hangover. True, a ton of sugar in your cocktail could influence how you feel the morning after, but the base of a drink is far more influential. One or two drinks with a high congener level can give you a hangover more quickly than three or four that are low in congeners. Generally speaking, the stronger a drink's flavor and color, the higher the congener content — but this isn't always true.

In search of low-cogener liquor

Since congeners contribute to a drink's color and taste, you can probably guess that strongly-flavored, richly-colored alcohols almost always contain more. To avoid a congener-induced hangover, choose vodka over whiskey, or white wine over red. However, since congeners are a byproduct of ethanol production, some high-proof spirits can have a lot of them, even if they're clear in color. Silver tequila, for instance, contains a bunch of congeners. We all know that stronger liquor gives us worse hangovers, but congeners can also be responsible for this effect, not just pure ethanol alcohol.

Beer contains some of the lowest congener concentrations in the whole alcohol kingdom, and wine is also on the lower end, though darker reds can climb up a bit higher. In the world of spirits, vodka has the smallest concentration of these hangover-inducing molecules, while gin and light rum are also reliably lower on the scale. 

Another trait to pay attention to is how many times a liquor has been distilled. A higher number of distillations means there are fewer residual congeners left in the bottle. Some studies also suggest that mixing vodka with orange juice, such as in a classic screwdriver cocktail, helps to counteract the congeners in the alcohol. Using this fruity mixer more often could help you out, if you now suspect that you're sensitive to these tricky molecules.

Other ways to protect against a hangover

Avoiding congeners can be helpful for those of us who are sensitive to alcohol, but for all alcohol-enjoying folks, limiting your intake is the best way to avoid a hangover. The next most important thing is to stay hydrated. Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after a night of imbibing. You might want to restore any lost electrolytes, too, so grab a sports drink or another type of electrolyte-infused beverage – just watch the sugar content.

While there are a lot of myths about hangovers, one oft-repeated truth is that you should never drink on an empty stomach. Consider snacking throughout the evening, and don't avoid breakfast the next day just because you're feeling a little queasy. While it's somewhat true that fatty, greasy foods can help slow the effects of alcohol when eaten beforehand, some plain crackers or bread might be more digestible the morning after. To branch out some more, try eating foods that boost your hydration.

Getting a good rest is another important factor, though this can be difficult if you're tipsy. Try to get a good amount of sleep after a party, even if it means sleeping in. If you still end up with a bad head-pounder, regardless of these protective measures, you might want to go easy the next time you feel like celebrating, and avoid those congener-heavy liquors.