I Put 4 "Healthy" Alcohols to the Ultimate Hangover Test

When considering all the nuggets of wisdom that I retained from my college experience, alongside the value of an internship, the defining works of the expressionist movement, and "how to build a media plan" exists a long list of alcohols to avoid at all costs. I liken the handful of truly dreadful hangovers I went through from the ages of 18 to 22 to some of the great lectures I witnessed: all necessary experiences for a better-adjusted adulthood. (I don't touch Jäger for this very reason.)

I've long since graduated from hangover avoidance 101. I know that sugary cocktails are a fast track to nausea, for example, and that for me personally, there really is some truth to the whole wine-before-liquor adage. But as more "healthy" alcohol options continue to hit our wellness-obsessed market, I've wondered if maybe it's time to dive into an advanced course. Organic wines are better for the environment, sure, but is there really truth to the notion that they can curb a headache? And are adaptogenic beverages really worth all the hype?

The punch-drunk holiday season seemed as good a time as any to find out, so I set the stage for a little experiment. I got my hands on four "healthy" beverages that have a reputation for mitigating hangovers, ranging from organic vodka to biodynamic red wine. I'd devote a night to each alcohol without any deviation, with a three-drink rule. That way, I'd know I was consuming roughly the same amount of each. Because reaction to alcohol is so dependent on personal constitution, I recruited friends on each of the four evenings to imbibe with me, drink for drink. The next morning, I rated my hangover on a scale of zero to five (five being the apocalyptic, sunglasses-indoors, never-drinking-again kind of misery).

The results were telling, to say the least. Keep reading to see which drink won out.

Tequila

True story: Bourbon was my drink of choice before I met my boyfriend, who prefers sipping on organic tequila. In fact, it was his insistence that it helps him avoid hangovers that inspired this entire endeavor in the first place. As it turns out, his statement is far from outlandish: Added sugar is often the culprit behind a god-awful next-morning, and quality tequila is made only with 100% distilled agave—making it one of the lowest-sugar spirits out there. The disclaimer, of course, is that pure tequila generally comes with a heftier price tag.

But I've adopted the habit as my own, probably because I don't drink enough, in general, to really see my bank account take a hit. While I won't pretend that I woke up feeling stellar after downing three servings of 123 Anejo (my tequila of choice), drinking a glass or two of water was enough to make me completely hangover-free. (I'll take it.)

Hangover level: 1.5/5

 

Organic red wine

As a resident of the perennially trendy (and progressive) Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, I feel lucky to be at one of the epicenters of the biodynamic wine movement. Many of my favorite local restaurants boast an impressive list of organic wines, often from female-operated vineyards. (Hip storefront Vinovore has built an entire business on this "lady winemaker" MO, for what it's worth.)

I digress. While I'm a fan of organic wines for their earthier, more complex flavor and general lack of additives, one of their purported benefits is that the hangovers they facilitate tend to be less pronounced than those wrought by traditional wines. (You know the one: the dull but pronounced headache that feels as though a gnome is gently knocking on the inside of your temples.)

"Many mass-produced wines contain tons of chemicals and additives, some of which are not easily processed by your body, while natural wines are pretty much just fermented grape juice," says sommelier and organic wine expert Heather Gordon. She compares it to choosing between a McDonald's cheeseburger and a thoughtfully prepared grass-fed patty. You can probably guess which one is more likely to make you feel bloated and sluggish.

Gordon qualifies that drinking any kind of wine is going to give you some kind of hangover. It's just a matter of feeling slightly better. And frankly, that sums up this portion of my "healthy" alcohol experiment: While knocking back my third glass of a particularly juicy red at one of my favorite restaurants, Botanica, I knew there was no chance in hell that I would escape without a headache—biodynamic be damned.

Sure enough, it wasn't exactly easy getting my butt out of bed for an early meeting the next day. But even as I blearily downed two giant glasses of water, I also knew that I would have been downright miserable if I had opted for a $5 bottle from the grocery store. So… there's that?

Hangover level: 3/5

Clear liquor

Since gin and I haven't been on speaking terms since New Year's Eve 2014, I immediately set my sights on vodka for the next portion of my experiment. By the way, while it was most definitely a high school compatriot who first told me that clear liquor would give me less of a hangover, there's actual science to support that notion: Apparently, the compounds found in darker spirits (including those pesky tannins) tend to exacerbate that next-morning headache.

I should admit that I had low hopes for this one since even the smoothest vodka in the world reminds me of hoovering shots of the cheap stuff in college. But the folks behind Purity, a cult-fave organic varietal, were kind enough to donate a bottle to the cause, and it went down easier than I expected as I readied myself for a night out. At the bar, I finished things off with a well vodka soda that lacked in the taste department but served its purpose as my third and final drink. 

The next morning was fine—not fantastic and not awful but hovering somewhere slightly above average. I certainly felt sluggish but not entirely worse for wear, and my dull whisper of a headache dissipated entirely once I got some water in my system and stepped outside to take my dog for a walk. So perhaps the moral of this story isn't necessarily that vodka causes a slight hangover but that fresh air and hydration are often all it takes to feel better.

Hangover level: 2/5

 

"Euphoric" Tonic

For the final leg of this highly scientific endeavor, my friend Ayesha volunteered herself as a second guinea pig—which was just as well since this next beverage was the most experimental of the bunch. I've been fascinated lately by the rise of nootropics, which are "smart drugs" that often utilize potent botanicals (like adaptogenic herbs and CBD) to enhance brain function. CBD, for example, interacts with receptors in the brain to help mitigate our natural pain response. 

Kin is a very buzzy brand that is capitalizing on this emerging science with its potent (and highly effective) blend of botanicals, which fosters a slightly buzzed feeling of euphoria. While the brand is moving away from any comparisons to traditional alcohol, it still felt like a compelling wildcard to throw into my own healthy beverage lineup. 

So on an evening when we were both scheduled to attend the same event, Ayesha and I started the party at my house by knocking back a couple servings each of Kin with the vow that we wouldn't drink any actual alcohol for the rest of the night. Within 30 minutes, we were both remarking on how good we felt—a gleeful, energized kind of buzz that set the tone for a really fun few hours out. And it must be said: It was so nice to stride past the huge line for the bar.

In truth, I was expecting to feel entirely normal the next day. It wasn't a real drink, after all. So I was shocked when I woke up feeling not just passable, but truly great: energized, happy, and ready to tackle the day in spite of a 2 a.m. bedtime. It was like the ultimate anti-hangover—and for what it's worth, Ayesha reported similar results. 

The non-alcoholic beverage didn't give you a hangover? you're thinking. GroundbreakingI know. It's a conclusion that's painfully obvious at best. But for those of us who might be partaking in Dry January or thinking about cutting back on our alcohol intake, in general, I think it's certainly worth highlighting a beverage that doesn't just offer a healthier way to enjoy yourself while drinking it but also allows you to truly thrive the next day. So, yes—groundbreaking.

Hangover level: 0/5

Next up: six small ways to practice self-care during the workday