A Fungus Among Us

When in Kentucky, most of the distillery warehouses were covered in black mold. I asked one guide why they painted their buildings black (I had assumed to keep them warm) — but she basically said so you couldn’t see the mold. Turns out Bourbon country is not alone. Wired has the scoop on how neighborhoods located near distilleries around the world are infested with the stuff… stuff that no one knew what it was until just a few years ago.

AlcoHAWK Personal Breathalyzer Roundup

How drunk are you? No, really? How do you know?

If you’re a regular imbiber, it’s a good idea to test yourself once in awhile to make sure you’re OK to drive. 0.08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) is the maximum legal level in most states, but knowing if you’re over that threshold can be difficult (particularly as you get closer and closer to it).

Portable blood alcohol testers can be helpful, but many require patience and luck to get them to work properly. Here’s a look at two very different models from AlcoHAWK, one of the leaders in personal breath analyzers.

AlcoHAWK Slim Ultra fits in a pocket and is about the size of a cell phone. The unit works well… when it works. Making that happen requires blowing into the unit for five seconds, turning it on, then waiting for it to count down from 100 to zero, a process that can take several minutes. Then, more often than not, the unit signals that it has an error. You have to repeat the entire process from scratch, then hope for the best. Sometimes you need one reboot, sometimes four. We never got it to work right on the first try, but when we did finally get it going, it offered results exactly in line with the more professional tester (accurate to three decimal places) that we had to compare with. B / $50 [BUY IT HERE] (pictured)

AlcoHAWK One Test is a single-use breath alcohol tester that has pretty limited value no matter what you’ve been up to that evening. It’s a slim tube the size of a cigarette that works only once. To use it, you puncture both ends, then blow into it like a straw. You then wait basically wait until the yellow crystals inside turn green. If the level of greenness crosses the line and red dot on the tube, you’re over 0.05% BAC — and presumably you shouldn’t drive. The accuracy is questionable, and I imagine if you are drunk enough to see a lot of green crystals in here, you know you shouldn’t be driving anywhere. But at least it’s portable. C / $20 for five [BUY IT HERE]

More on Duty Free Shopping

My post “Is Duty Free Ever a Good Deal?” generated a bit of discussion, and quite by coincidence, I just found that this quarter’s Malt Advocate magazine has a lengthy look at duty free (aka “travel retail”) shopping, too.

The story can be found here on page 52 (registration required if you view too many pages), and it does back up my key point: That (at least in regard to whiskey and Europe) prices aren’t very good in duty free shops. The magazine actually has a good explanation as to why this is the case: Leasing retail space in an airport is ghastly expensive, so you can’t expect great deals in most places.

As many readers have also noted, the story notes that duty free shops are best used for shopping for products that aren’t sold anywhere else. Many distilleries offer “travel retail only” products that never make it to BevMo.

The story also has some good advice: Check the website for the airport you’ll be flying out of and you might very well find the products offered and the prices for those products right there, so you can plan on what you want to buy before you ever leave for your trip. (Oh, and the best travel retail shop for the whiskey drinker: World of Whiskies, found in various UK airports, with three outlets alone in Heathrow.)

Check out the summer 2010 issue for the full scoop!

Is Duty Free Ever a Good Deal?

International travelers, you know the drill: You can bring in up to one liter of booze without paying the duty on it. And if they have a special name for it (“the duty!”), that must be a lot of cash, right? Hence the existence of duty free shops in every international airport on earth.

But how much is the duty on wine and spirits anyway?

This took some research to uncover and I finally dug it up: Not much. About $2 to $3 per liter for most alcoholic products, after your first liter (which is automatically duty free).

Duty free shops promise to take the duty and any taxes out of the price for you, making your shopping theoretically cheaper. The catch, though, is that if you overshoot your one-liter limit, you still have to pay the duty yourself when you arrive home.

The bigger issue, though, isn’t the duty, it’s the prices. Just because a shop is duty free, doesn’t mean it will be cheap, and anyone who’s bought a hamburger at the airport knows how pricey everything can get. Duty free is no exception, and during my recent overseas jaunt I spot-checked several airports looking for deals. I found literally no wine or spirits on sale anywhere that were cheaper than I knew I could get them back home, even after taxes. And I’d have to lug a bottle halfway around the world. In some cases, the prices were much higher (like 50 euros (about $62) for a 1-liter bottle of Ron Zacapa 23 (about $40 for 750ml in the states, or $53 pre-tax for a liter).

Bottom line: Browse those Duty Free aisles to your heart’s content, but you’re probably better off shopping locally once you return home.

Q&A: Does Zinfandel Make You More Drunk?

Reader Sara writes: I hear drinking zin will get me drunk faster. True or false?

In the wine world, zinfandel has a bad reputation for making grown men and women into slobbering fools. Frankly I think the zin people enjoy this rep, but if you really look at the science of the issue, there’s not a lot to the argument.

Your average zin-basher holds that it’s the higher alcohol of zinfandel that makes it more drunk-tank-inducing. And yes, zin is almost always higher in alcohol than other varietals (especially European wines).

But in reality, the difference really isn’t all that big.

Consider a bottle of wine X that has a comparably low 13.5% alcohol level. In a 750ml bottle, that equals 101ml of pure alcohol.

Now consider wine Z (a zinfandel), with a comparably high 15% alcohol level. In a 750ml bottle, that equates to 113ml of pure alcohol. (I’m rounding to the nearest ml.)

The equivalent in “1.5-ounce shots of 80-proof whiskey” in a bottle would be:

Wine X: 5.6 shots in a bottle.
Wine Z: 6.3 shots in a bottle.

The difference: a measly 0.7 shots of whiskey. Split a bottle of zin between to people and you’re both drinking an extra half-ounce of alcohol over the course of the night, a couple of extra sips of booze.

That alone is not enough to turn a perfectly rational person into a raging alky.

But empirically, there is real evidence that zin drinkers do behave with more, shall we say, carefree abandon. Often in the form of sad public purging. Why do they do it?

My theory: Zin is an extremely easy-to-drink wine, a “guzzler” that even non-wine drinkers often enjoy due to its often bracing sweetness. It goes well with lots of food, and it’s easy to consume as a thirst quencher, so people tend to gulp it down faster than they should. It’s not necessarily the higher alcohol level that does those drinkers in, it’s the fact that they’re drinking twice as much wine altogether.

Just my opinion, of course. Now I have to get back to my Ripple.

Science: Oxygenated Booze = No Hangover

Some people swear by the “don’t mix alcohols” or “only clear alcohols” technique in their quest to avoid a hangover. Now scientists say they have a new method for limiting the negative effects of alcohol consumption: Imbuing alcohol with oxygen bubbles.

To wit:

The drinks with the added oxygen content sobered people up 20-30 minutes faster, under the influence of the rather potent alcohol they used for the trials. 20% alcohol is around the strength of fortified wine, soju, or a very strong mixed drink, so while shaving a half hour off your drunken tomfoolery might not seem a great deal, when you’re trying to fall asleep at night and combating the spins, you’ll appreciate it.

The researchers also asked what would change if someone were to drink multiple oxygen-enriched drinks over the course of the night. Would there be a cumulative effect? Again, the answer was yes: People who drank oxygenated booze had less severe and fewer hangovers than people who drank the non-fizzy stuff.

Remember, we’re talking about oxygen bubbles, not CO2, which is what most carbonation is composed of, so don’t go guzzling Jack and Coke and assume you’ll be all well in the morning.

Is It OK To Keep Champagne in the Refrigerator?

Recently a reader left a comment regarding something I said in my review of Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or Champagne that gave me pause. I said I’d left the bottle in the fridge for some months, and the commenter claimed that the “vibrations of a commercial fridge” would essentially kill the bottle.

That was news to me, so I asked the experts, putting the question to Nicolas Feuillatte itself: Should Champagne be stored in the fridge long-term? The answer? No, not really, but not because of anything having to do with vibration.

Here’s their full response from Feuillatte’s press relations representative, unedited.

I checked with a few Champagne pals, and evidently it’s good to keep in the fridge for a few weeks, but you probably shouldn’t keep it much longer than that. As you know, when Champagne is released from the producer’s cellar, it’s at optimum drinking age. Of course, many can be aged to beautiful drinking at much older ages, but that requires that they be kept cool (but not freezing cold) and in average humidity. While it’s possible to regulate humidity in a fridge, it’s less easy to keep a bottle just cool.

You’re safe up to a few weeks, maybe slightly longer, but it’s really not recommended.

As for the vibration, we’ve never heard that before. All the Champagne houses I know ship their wines overseas on a boat; I would imagine the few weeks that takes would do more damage than a fridge would over the course of a few days. That’s maybe not that scientific, but our general consensus.

So there you have it. A few weeks in the fridge is OK. A few months, maybe not. Keep it cool, but not cold. And don’t worry about the vibrations… except the good ones you get when you drink it.

2008 Wine May Offer a Bit More Smoke Than Usual…

Remember all those California forest fires in 2008? Well guess what, you might be drinking them with your next bottle of pinot:

And then, biblically, came the blazes throughout the Northern California hills but notably in Mendocino, where the 129 fires of the Lightning Complex blaze would ultimately burn more than 54,000 acres. It was, in the words of one Mendocino County vineyard owner, like “nuclear winter for several weeks.”

It also was the first time in recent memory that California vines were subjected to such smoke. How would the wines fare?

Bottom line: We’ll see, pretty soon, as 2008 reds come to market. (2008 whites are not terribly effected.) But in many cases, expect at least a hint of that smoke character in your vino…

What Web Users Want to Drink…

Today I did a fun comparison, checking out historical Google search trends for the terms gin, vodka, whiskey, tequila, and rum.

While vodka‘s win (based on average search volume since 2004) is no surprise, the fact that tequila was right behind — and has led search volume since late 2007 — was quite a shock.

Also: They apparently love rum in Sweden. (Oh, and wine and beer destroy all the spirits, handily.)

Check out the complete data here!

web search volume alcohol

[click to enlarge]