The Basics Tips & Tricks

What's Healthier: Clear or Dark Spirits?

Wines sport organic labels. Beers run low-carb, low-cal ads in which drinkers go for a run and somehow have enough post-brew coordination to hit a softball.

But, when it comes to the harder stuff, how do you know how healthy your drink is? It turns out, a spirit’s color says a lot about what it’s containing. Besides alcohol.

That’s because, while all distilled spirits are clear when collected from their stills, letting the alcohol mature in wooden casks gives darker spirits their signature color, explains Craig Bridger, The Macallan Brand Ambassador. The process also imparts flavor and congeners.

Congeners: What You Need to Know

“Congeners, in the spirits industry, is a term used to mean flavor compounds derived from the raw materials or developed during fermentation or maturation,” Bridger says. “A vodka with a lot of rich fruity congeners would not by definition even be a vodka. And a whiskey stripped of all its congeners would be about the most disgusting thing you’ve ever tried to drink. A ‘neutral’ spirit like a vodka must have very few, if any, congeners. But those same congeners provide the basis for flavor in the world of brown spirits.”

The body reacts to these organic molecules in a variety of ways. In one study, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, when participants drank equal amounts of alcohol in either vodka or bourbon forms, 33 percent of bourbon drinkers reported next-day pain, while only 3 percent of vodka drinkers complained of hangovers.

Why the difference? Because bourbon typically packs 37 times the congeners contained in vodka, explains lead researcher explains Damaris J. Rohsenow, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. But the science is murky: Some congeners are cleared from the body before hangovers set in and some whiskey congeners, particularly butanol, are believed to protect the stomach lining from damage, meaning they may actually fend-off hangover-related nausea, Rohsenow says.

How the body reacts to congeners, be it good or bad, depends on the individual, says Stuart J Finkelstein, M.D., a California-based internal medicine and addiction medicine specialist. “Some people tell me they can drink clear alcohol without a hangover and others say the opposite. It’s entirely due to individual body metabolism.”

Calories, Carbs and Antioxidants

While all spirits are carb-, sugar-, and fat-free, some shots are still more caloric than are others. A single gram of alcohol contains seven calories, so the higher the alcohol content, the more calories, explains dietician Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., assistant professor of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Central Washington University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

For instance, a 1.5-ounce shot of an 86-proof whiskey contains 105 calories, while an 80-proof vodka or gin contains 97. It’s not much of a difference, but you get the idea.

It’s also worth noting that whiskey does have a higher level of antioxidants than clear liquors, Pritchett says. Whiskey is rich in ellagic acid, which the American Cancer Society claims may slow the growth of tumors. It may also erase wrinkles, per research published in Experimental Dermatology. Still, just because a spirit is high in antioxidants doesn’t mean your body actually puts them to good use, she notes. (We’d volunteer for that study.)

In the end, dark and light liquors are much more different in flavor than they are in nutrition, and your drink’s health effects really depend on what you pair your spirits with.

“Often times the mixers can be calorie bombs or loaded with sugar, such as soda or tonic water,” says Pritchett, who notes that 12 ounces of tonic water contains 132 calories and 32 grams of sugar—about the same as a soda. Yikes.

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