Alcoholic beverages have come in many forms over the years, and gone by almost as many names. "Social lubricant," "liquid courage," "mother of bad-decisions"... the list goes on and on. Many of these names stem from alcohol's most noteworthy quality: it'll get you drunk.
But alcohol — and ethanol, in particular — has many interesting effects and applications that extend well beyond the walls of your local bar or restaurant. Here are ten things alcohol excels at that don't involve getting you properly sloshed.
10. Guiding evolution
Many humans exhibit a naturally addictive attraction to alcohol — but where did this attraction come from? The drunken monkey hypothesis, proposed by UC Berkeley Biologist Robert Dudley, traces alcohol's allure to Homo sapiens' high dependence on fruit as a food source. As a fruit ripens, its ethanol content increases. As a result, reasons Dudley, behavioral responses by our early ancestors to ethanol may have been the target of natural selection. "Pre-existing sensory biases associating [alcohol] with nutritional reward," he explains, "might accordingly underlie contemporary patterns of alcohol consumption and abuse."
9. Inducing homosexual behavior in flies
We recently learned that when male fruit flies are deprived of sex, they'll actually drown their sorrows in booze, as demonstrated by their preference for alcohol-spiked food over normal grub following sexual rejection. But as the video featured here reveals, the relationship between sexual behavior and alcohol consumption in flies is not a one-way street. A study conducted in 2007 revealed that getting a bunch of male fruit flies drunk and confining them to a small chamber caused them to court one another and even attempt to copulate, forming conga lines of randy males in the process. The flies' homosexual tendencies, reason the researchers, may help shed light on alcohol's ability to lower human sexual inhibitions.
8. Having no conspicuous intoxicating effects whatsoever
Alcohol may loosen the sexual inhibitions of humans and flies alike, but in at least one species of mammal, the psychoactive compound appears to have no intoxicating effect whatsoever. Malaysia's pen-tailed tree shrew could drink you under the table and still have the wherewithal to find its way home come last call; every single night, the tiny mammal consumes the equivalent of nine glasses of wine in naturally fermented nectar with no ill effects.
"They seem to have developed some type of mechanism to deal with that high level of alcohol and not get drunk," explained microbiologist Marc-André Lachance in an interview with LiveScience. "The amount of alcohol we're talking about is huge — it's several times the legal limit in most countries. So if we can figure out why these animals are able to cope with it, perhaps it could be used to develop medicines to help people deal with alcohol poisoning." [Photograph by Annette Zitzmann]
7) Nourishing children
At least it could 100 years ago. Pictured here are advertisements for Anheuser-Busch's Malt-Nutrine. At the turn of the twentieth century, the 1.9% ABV-strength beer was prescribed as a tonic for pregnant women and young children. The advertisement on the left is taken from an April 1918 issue of The American Journal of Nursing, and reads:
Anheuser-Busch's Malt-Nutrine is the recognized standard of medicinal malt preparations. It is extensively prescribed by physicians as a food-tonic for nursing mothers, protracted convalescence from acute diseases, insomnia and many other conditions. Do not confuse it with cheap dark beers.
6. Freshening up your laundry
Vodka has a strong solvent effect, which makes it particularly useful for removing stains from clothing, but it's also a pretty effective disinfectant. Pour some cheap vodka into a spray bottle (an old windex bottle will do) and you've got yourself a spray that kills odor-causing bacteria but leaves no scent whatsoever once it's dried. Different sources recommend using different concentrations (pure vodka/one part vodka to three parts water/one part vodka to five parts water), for different applications, so check around to see which mixture sounds right for you. [Photo via]
5. Brewing in your bowels
Most of us are probably at least somewhat familiar with the fermentation process by which beer, wine, and liquor are converted into ethanol, but that exact same fermentation process can actually take place in your digestive tract, as well. Usually this reaction — which takes place between yeasts found in your intestines, , and carbohydrates — doesn't have a high enough turnover rate to have any significant effect on your blood alcohol level, but there are recorded cases in Japan where patients with very serious yeast infections have gotten drunk after eating carbohydrate-rich food.
4. Inspiring piety
If you've ever been in a college dorm room or frat house, there's a good chance you've seen a poster that features the following quip: "Beer is proof that God exists and wants us to be happy." The quotation is typically attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but Franklin was actually misquoted. Here's what he really said, in a letter addressed to André Morollet in 1779:
Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.
A bit more elegant, don't you think? Either way, the gist of the quotation remains the same: booze exists, ergo God exists. And Franklin was hardly the first person to associate alcohol with a divine being; many cultures have seen beer as a gift from God(s). The Sumerians, for example, who were the first people to prepare beer in the style that we enjoy it today, would consume the drink to honor their gods — a tradition that continues in many religions to this day. Brewers in medieval England even used to refer to brewing yeast as godisgoode.
3. Making us do stupid, stupid things (when we can't have any)
We all know booze can lead to poor decisions, but a lack of alcohol can have similar effects. Case in point: a prohibition-era drink that sought to replace alcohol's inebriating effects with an entirely different kind of buzz — electrocution. A June, 1920 issue of Popular Science describes the high-voltage beverage:
"What a kick!" exclaims the drinker when he takes a sip of the most modern prohibition drink.
A wire connected with a medical coil, its free end connected with a metal container in which is a glass of water; this is the mechanism. Hold the metal container and place your foot on the side of the kitchen stove, or on any other piece of metal, take a sip of the water, and the "kick" will be very perceptible.
2. Fueling your car
People have been using alcohol (including good 'ol ethanol) as a form of fuel for ages, but lately, researchers have been finding ways to make these fuels even more efficient and powerful. In 2010, for example, Scottish scientists announced that they'd developed a brand new biofuel created from the waste product of distilling Scotch. Like ethanol, the whiskey byproduct can be mixed with traditional gasoline, but provides thirty percent more power than traditional biofuels.
1. Making you look like a pompous ass
Many of us have friends who claim to be experts when it comes to alcohol. Wine snobs. Beer snobs. You know who I'm talking about. Who knows, maybe you identify as one yourself. Just remember: you could be setting yourself up for some serious embarrassment.
In what is hands down my favorite experiment on the limitations of the human palate ever performed, researcher Frédéric Brochet invited 57 wine experts to give their opinions on what appeared to be two glasses of wine — one red, and one white. The wines were actually the exact same white wine; the "red" had simply been mixed with red food coloring.
The experts proceeded to describe the "red" wine in language typically reserved for characterizing reds, noting, for example, its "jamminess," or the flavors imparted by its "crushed red fruit." Incredibly, not a single expert noticed that it was, in fact, a white wine. So the next time you feel like waxing about the chocolatey notes in the stout that you're sipping on, or the hints of dusty cedar that you're picking up from your glass of wine, be prepared to have your exquisitely refined palate called into question — because you can bet your ass I'm challenging you to a blind taste test.