Our favourite poison

After recently writing a few posts seemingly promoting alcohol, I thought it apt to bring some balance with a brief description of what this particular alcohol, ethanol, does to the body and more worryingly, the mind with any benefits it may have.

We’re not that special in drinking alcohol for pleasure, it’s been about for a while. Eating fermented fruits was probably the beginning.  Then actually saving lives when water wasn’t drinkable or available: beers, gins, Mead, and wines.

You always remember having too much of your tipple when you have a crippling hangover. Most of this is just dehydration; you’ll remember going to the toilet a lot the night before – alcohol stops a hormone being produced in a little gland called the pituitary gland in the brain (vasopressin or antidiuretic hormone) which would normally tell the kidneys to keep some water.

The reason you’re still drunk for quite a while after you stop drinking, and why that hangover keeps hurting is because the stuff that breaks down virtually everything you eat and drink, transforming it into something useful, the magical enzymes, can only work so fast! If you did any biology in school or even chemistry, these biological catalysts speed up chemical reactions, and they’re quick, but when you’ve overwhelmed the poor guys with half a dozen Jaegerbombs half way through the night, it’ll take a while. Everyone’s different of course, which is why everyone is different with how much they can process alcohol; if you read my last post, you’ll know about DNA. Well, this is one factor in how much of these enzymes are produced, and at least half a dozen other factors controlling how much of this little ethanol molecule gets into your bloodstream.

It doesn’t take long for the little bugger to get to work – if you’ve got an empty stomach it’ll pass through the stomach lining meaning it’ll work its way to the brain quicker. This is where most of the ethanol’s effects take place. It’ll work its way across the brain, like I’ve described before, as it inhibits normal functions like behavior, inhibiting risks like social anxiety!

We seem to like to drink, linked to the good feeling we get from it at a basic chemical level – a little chemical in the brain called dopamine. It’s released by nerve cells so it’s called a neurotransmitter and it reinforces behaviors that cause it to be released. It’s also a part of addiction including to narcotics, explaining why people can so easily become addicted to alcohol. There’s that warming feeling we seem to get with alcohol: it makes the blood vessels in the skin come to the surface, so you’ll be nice and cozy on the outside. The problem is, this is the body’s mechanism for cooling down; hypothermia is an unfortunately common occurrence having had a lot of alcohol.

This infographic details nicely the effects of alcohol: physical, psychological and almost econographical.

There are the commonly publicized advantages of drinking some forms of alcohol. A generic benefit of moderate alcohol intake is a reduced risk of dying from heart disease, but I’m pretty sure not smoking and getting regular exercise would be a better way to achieve this. Red wine is often quoted as being healthy, which with high levels of polyphenols is sort of true, but again in moderation. These wonderful class of molecules are found in highest concentrations in red wine compared to other alcoholic drinks. This comprehensive article describes why a glass of red wine with your dinner should be encouraged!

Historically gin was a ‘healthy’ drink, much like beers were, being safer than drinking water in a lot of places, not to mention the tonic’s antimalarial properties undoubtedly saving many people. The defining ingredient of gin, the juniper berry, has loads of health benefits, like antioxidant and antimicrobial, which may help reduce effects of aging (e.g. wrinkles) and infections, respectively. However, I’m not sure there are necessarily any studies to show whether the concentrations required to have an effect would be completely outweighed by the drawbacks of alcohol consumption! Just have a regular portion of blueberries – they’re a sure-fire way to get your fix of health benefits. If you are choosing to have alcohol, gin is certainly a good drink to have if, like me, you’re diabetic: it’s low in both calories and sugar. Read all about gin here.

I don’t think I’d be outlandish to suggest to drink alcohol in moderation – as part of a healthy diet, seeking medical advice if on medication etcetera, etcetera. Get some good advice here. So enjoy a little alcohol, and perhaps if you’re drinking red wine or gin, you’ll live a bit longer. Like anything in excess, alcohol isn’t healthy, so be responsible!

The science of gin

Time for a drink? Maybe today’s one of those rare occasions where it’s not raining, perhaps it’s actually warm and the yellow thing in the sky makes an appearance. If it’s a pleasant evening then gin is what you need to match it. Gin and tonic maybe? Gin has had a huge renaissance just in the past five years; in Scotland alone there’s been a few brands gaining huge support and many more being set up. One of the main reasons for its popularity for producers is its relative simplicity and speed in making; many whisky distillers have chosen to make gin whilst they’re waiting at least three years for their batch to be ready. If you’ve ever been to a gin distillery you’ll have heard the history of gin, and it is quite interesting; the word itself coming from the dutch “geniver”. Living in Edinburgh it has also been interesting to learn about the local history of gin.


All the different gins across Scotland – there’s quite a few!

To start making your gin, you need some neutral grain spirit. It’s the basic, tasteless, odourless highly pure alcohol used for making spirits like vodka and gin. They come from grain crops that are fermented. Next, you’ll need some botanicals: legally you’ll need juniper berries. It’s the most important and defining ingredient. They grow wild in Scotland but are protected; they’re often imported from other countries like Greece and various places in Europe, southwest Asia, and North America. Juniper is part of the pine family and that’s what it tastes like. It’s been used for hundreds of years for medicinal properties: diuretic, antiseptic, stomachic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antirheumatic. They all come from an oil inside; specifically there’s terpinen-4-ol that makes your kidneys filter more, which will make you need the toilet more often (diuretic); there’s amentoflavone that’s found in a few other plants and has a number of properties like antimalarial and anticancer, as well as inhibiting enzymes that metabolise some drugs (in the liver). If you get cold sores a lot, chemicals called desoxypodophyllotoxins might inhibit the virus that causes them (herpes simplex virus) – so drink up! Or just use a normal cream that definitely works… Other parts of the berry – the resins are tars – can be used for topical treatments for things like psoriasis. A really useful little berry then. Find out more about Juniper

Other botanicals add depth of flavour, bind flavours together and add special characteristics. Coriander, angelica, citrus peel and orris root are common ones used. There are a few different ways to infuse the botanical flavours into the gin, the infographic below describes them. You’ll probably add a bit water at some point soon to help everything mix properly. It’s heated and the first to be cooled, the “heads”, aren’t pure and aren’t collected. The product will be about 80% pure, once the product falls under about 60% again it’s not collected. After it all, there will just be the water and what’s left of your botanicals. The stuff that’s not collected for the final product can be scrubbed and the pure alcohol recovered to use again. Your final gin will be roughly 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) if you’re going for Navy Strength, closer to 60% ABV. There’s a bit more to it than that but that’s basically it.


The molecules important in all gins

A good tonic water will complement your gin nicely; the quinine gives a bitter taste and balances it all nicely. Then once you’ve got your bottling and PR sorted, you can go ahead and sell your gin! To get your “perfect serve” you’ll need to match whatever botanicals you have with the contents of good quality tonic, then a garnish of fruit or herb that will complement it too. It really makes all the difference. So you can say it’s for medical reasons, or just because it’s just really refreshing, either way, have a gin. If you want a proper review of any gins, head over to Juniper Daze – Steph’s even got a gin of the month going on!


The science of cider

Now that we’ve all experienced at least one day of sun so far, I think it’s fair to start planning some relaxing days in the garden just soaking in the warmth, vitamin D and drinking a nice cold beverage. Such a situation calls for cider. The cold, crisp, sweet and fizzy drink is the perfect refreshment. It really is unparalleled in its ability to quench and relax on those warm days. Sure there’s beer but I don’t like beer. There’s wine, but you need a lot of liquid to replenish and feel satisfied. Maybe a cocktail if you can be bothered with all the faff, or a long spirit based drink for a simple solution. But cider, oh cider. It has a complexity of flavour that makes you feel as though you’re drinking something special. You can just sit with a nice pint and feel like you’ve achieved in your life. In hindsight, this post should really have been sponsored by a cider brand… but ah well, I’m new at this.

Away from my self-indulgent delusions of being an eloquent advertiser, let’s get down to some definitions to get us started. Cider is basically fermented apple juice maybe some sugar; usually, there has to be a specific percentage of apple juice to call it cider. Fermentation involves yeast and sugar which provides alcohol (ethanol specifically) and carbon dioxide.

From the beginning then, you get some apples. Good start. It’s not usually your bog-standard apples though, it’ll have to be ones that would normally not be that pleasant to eat. Have you ever tried a crab apple? Different properties make apples more suitable for fermenting – if they are particularly acidic, sugary and high in compounds called tannins (bitter and astringent tasting compounds). Once you have your perfect apples and maybe some extra ones to add sweetness at the end, you need to get them pulped and pressed to get out the juice. If you filter it, it’ll be a clearer cider, or leave it for a cloudy one, depends on what your preference is. Next to ferment it. It would happen by itself by natural yeasts just in the air, but that not very predictable – who knows what kind of cider you’d get from that. Predictable fermentation would use a yeast like Saccharomyces bayanus which is the most common for wines and ciders, you can buy it pretty cheap, just like bread-making yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae for bread, by the way). If you want a dry cider, leave the fermenting going until all the sugars have been used up, otherwise take out the yeast a bit early for a sweeter taste. This is done at pretty low temperatures, colder than room temperature, which is unusual since yeasts like things a bit cozier at maybe 30 degrees. But this low temperature makes things happen a bit slower which seems to benefit cider getting the best out of your apples. You’ll need to leave it a while to mature, all the flavours develop and you can add any extras like fresh apple juice if you want to mix things up a little. Bear in mind adding more sugar to make it sweeter would probably start the fermenting again so you could add artificial sweetener. I’d just keep it natural and see what happens. With all your carbon dioxide being produced it should have some fizz once you bottle your cider, then you can get it chilled and enjoy! Phew. It’s not that complex a process but a lot of tweaks to make to get the taste you’re looking for. See the infographic below for a nice summary of the process and all of the molecules involved in making a tasty fruity pint.

The main molecules involved in a pint of the good stuff
The UK is arguably the best place to get a good pint of cider. There’s a lot of big brands and the recent resurgence in popularity means there’s even more choice from loads of smaller brewers. We’re pretty lucky. Everyone’s got their preference, I’m not too keen on a dry cider but it’s got to have plenty flavour. Magners is probably what I’d aim for, the right balance I think. And as I’m sure all the purists will tell you: if it’s not apples, it’s not cider. If it’s pear it’s perry and if it’s any other fruit, alcoholic fruit wine?

Example of the variety of apples used in making cider
Unfortunately, if you’re going to drink alcohol and be diabetic, cider probably shouldn’t be your first choice. With all the sugar it’s not to treat you nicely. Up to five teaspoons of sugar are in a pint of cider and not much other nutritional value just calories. There are some antioxidants in cider, about the same as in red wine; I think antioxidants are overrated but they do have value and a genuine function in the body clearing up toxins. With all that sugar though there’s not really much benefit from it: it’s bad for drinking if you are diabetic and drink too much and it could make you diabetic. If you’re drinking responsibly though it’s not too bad. If you are gluten intolerant at least cider is a tasty drink.

sugar content
A few (albeit American) examples of the nutrition of cider compared to popular beers
Below you’ll see an informative wee graphic describing the effects of alcohol on the organs and how alcohol is processed. It’s well known how alcohol can affect the liver and this is because it’s the main site of alcohol metabolism. There are a few enzymes that deal with alcohol and it gets metabolized into something toxic in the first place, but then quickly into something that can be broken up to get rid off. Of course, these enzymes can only work so fast and the alcohol in the bloodstream starts to inhibit brain function, starting from the back. That’s why you get disorientated and stumble as the alcohol gets into the medulla, cerebellum then the big bit, the cerebrum as the alcohol starts affecting the senses, slowing down processing of information we get from the eyes, ears, and nose. Movement slows and responses slow as alcohol hits the motor cortex and then memories in areas like the hypothalamus until you eventually black out as basic processes shut down. The area of the cerebrum controlling behavioral inhibition is affected making most people more social… although some are just annoying. Alcohol affects a lot of processes in the brain, the chemistry of the brain can change dramatically in the presence of alcohol. When you’re taking benzodiazepines they work by increasing the effect of the inhibitory system of the brain – a chemical called GABA. It promotes sedation and relaxation. So when combined with alcohol it can relax you to a dangerous level when heart rate decreases a bit too low to do its job and pump blood enough. I think we all know how important pumping blood is…


So when you’re relaxing in the sun this summer, just think what that pint of cider is doing to your brain and how it was made. By this point, you’ll probably have lost your inhibition and will explain it all to your friend!

Disclaimer: please always drink sensibly – get some good info at Drinkaware