We Experimented With Powdered Alcohol So You Don’t Have To
On Monday of this week, Connecticut’s House of Representatives voted to ban the sale of powdered alcohol, supporting a bill that will go to Governor Dannel Malloy for approval. The Nutmeg State’s attack on the stuff follows statewide bans in Delaware, Vermont, Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Utah and Alaska. Senator Chuck Schumer has even advised the FDA to ban it outright, calling it “the Kool-Aid of teenage binge drinking.” Which makes powdered alcohol sound like something that’s already ravishing our Norman Rockwell-esque towns.
Except you can’t even buy it yet. Palcohol, the first commercialized powdered alcohol, doesn’t go on sale in the US until this summer. But we couldn’t let that stop us from seeing if the safety concerns raised by all these legislators have any base in reality.
I started off by playing the press card, and I emailed Palcohol to see if they would send us an early sample for our video. Here is their response:
Thanks for contacting us and your support. We are not sending samples out yet. If you are able to make some sort of powdered alcohol, be careful not to associate anything about Palcohol based on your powder as yours will have nothing in common with Palcohol. We are very serious about this. Thanks.
Chilly. So we were indeed forced to make our own, using this handy recipe posted by Popular Science last year. It calls for 100 grams of a maltodextrin made from tapioca flour and 30 grams of the strongest booze you can get your hands on. In California, the most potent spirit that consumers can legally buy is 151 proof, or 75.5 percent alcohol. In other (lucky) states the proof can get into the 190s.
Now, let us state very clearly that we truly don’t know how Palcohol’s recipe or manufacturing process works. It almost certainly utilizes a very high-proof spirit to cut down on the volume of powder needed to make a single drink. It’s also possible that instead of using a maltodextrin, that Palcohol uses a cyclodextrin. Like maltodextrin, cyclodextrin is derived from starch, but its structure has some interesting properties. It is essentially a series of sugar molecules (between six and eight of them) bound together to form a ring. The outside of the ring is hydrophilic, but the inside is hydrophobic-which makes it really good at trapping liquids inside.
That makes it an obvious choice for a company like Palcohol, but right now food-grade cyclodextrin is difficult to find for consumers and it’s quite expensive, so we went with PopSci’s maltodextrin recipe. Naturally we will re-test this when (if) Palcohol becomes available this summer. Until then, the DIY version worked well for our purposes.
The first thing we discovered was that we couldn’t get the powder to be as alcoholic as the commercial version claims it will be. This was mostly due to the fact that we were limited to a weaker spirit, and probably also because we were using a food processor instead of some sort of industrial-grade equipment which I’m sure they have. Also, I’d bet that cyclodextrin is more efficient at sucking up alcohol. Regardless! We made it work. Palcohol comes in 29g packets that are equal to one drink. Our packets were roughly 50.5g for a drink.
Because we had 42.6 percent more volume than the commercial version-which recommends mixing it with 200ml of water-we used 286.2ml of water. This definitely results in a more watery-tasting drink than the commercial version will be (we assume). We also tried the same amount of powder with the recommended 200ml of water, just to get a sense of proportion. Then I drank both as fast as I could.
It was pretty foul. It was mildly sweet, almost like powdered milk, but it had this bready flavor coupled with the unmistakable flavor of Everclear, which was our high-proof spirit of choice. It would probably be better with some additional flavoring. After all, the commercial version comes in mixed drink flavors.
So I made myself a double, added in a heaping spoonful of Kool-Aid, and pounded it as fast as I could, mostly to minimize the amount of time it spent on my palate. Chunks that refused to dissolve would get stuck in my teeth. I bit into them and all that gasoline-like Everclear flavor went and bit me right in the face. My stomach was now both full of liquid, but also of what felt like an adhesive.
It worked, though. I was slightly tipsy, and, as you can see in the video, slurring my words ever so slightly. Anyway, it was time to move on to more serious matters.
There was another problem we noticed: Unless we put the powdered alcohol into a ziplock immediately after making it, it started loosing its potency very quickly. Why? Because high-proof alcohol evaporates very quickly. If it were in a shot-glass only the top layer would be evaporating, which would make it a very slow process. But when we added it to the highly absorbent powder we effectively increased its surface area by. I don’t know how much, but a lot. Perhaps cyclodextrin or another additive in the commercial version helps stave off evaporation.
In any case, it was time to move on to some of the scarier issues.
Spiking a Drink
Here’s the premise that worried parent-groups are bandying about: Your sweet, virginal son or daughter is minding his/her own business at the library. They get up to find another book about honoring their fathers and mothers, and while they’re away, a predator adds powdered alcohol to their can of Coke. Then later they come back to prey on their victim as they are completely incapacitated. Scary!
But also stupid.
For starters, when you turn alcohol into powdered alcohol, you are increasing the volume at least two times over. This makes it trickier to conceal, and also means you have to add more stuff to a drink in order to spike it. The original liquid is just much more compact and is clearly the better choice.
Secondly, this stuff doesn’t dissolve very quickly. Our version took over five minutes of stirring to dissolve into a glass of soda, and there were still big clumps of powder in there. I’d also completely stirred all of the bubbles out of the Coke and the drink was noticeably cloudy-obviously, because I’d added a bunch of starch to it. It would have been even slower to dissolve if the drink had been cold, with ice in it. Now, even if cyclodextrin dissolves three times faster, you’re still looking at way too much stirring for this to be in any way practical. Simply adding a shot of liquid alcohol takes all of five seconds.
Thirdly, are drinks being spiked with alcohol really that huge of a concern? Someone spiking your drink with rohipnol (a.k.a. “rufies”) is a far greater danger. It takes as little one to two milligrams of that horrible stuff to make someone black out entirely. One milligram is the equivalent of 1/29,000th the volume of a single dose of powdered alcohol, which is the equivalent of one single drink, which is probably not going to make anybody pass out.
The worry that powdered alcohol makes it easier to spike a drink is utterly baseless.
Snorting the Stuff
This is another stupid one, but it’s what you hear TV news reports parrot more than any other thing. People think that teenagers are going to snort this and get rip-roaring drunk off of it. People who think that just don’t understand the science of how this stuff works. Powdered alcohol is not super concentrated, as some believe. In fact, it’s the opposite. As we mentioned before, the volume actually increases, which makes it more diluted, and herein lies the problem.
From my online research (and yes, mom, my research on this is limited to online), the typical line for a snortable drug is about 1/10th of a gram. Again, powdered alcohol will come in 29g packets. That means it would take 290 standard-sized lines to equal one single drink of alcohol. That’s insane- nobody is going to do that. Even if you did gigantic one-gram lines, you’d have to do 29 of them, and you would not be able to. Why? Because with just a little liquid it turns into glue. Inside your sinuses. Your nose would simply close up before you could even get one drink’s worth in.
In other words, there is no way that kids are going to get drunk this way. They might try, and certainly that would be no good for their lungs or mucous membranes, but they will learn quickly that they are not going to be able to consume it fast enough to even get a light buzz. There’s just no way.
To make sure I could speak at least somewhat authoritatively, I did a little bump of the stuff, and it was awful. It burned like crazy, as you might expect when putting alcohol into your nose. And bear in mind that the commercial version is more than 40 percent more potent than the one we made, which means it would be even more painful. Even doing the tiniest little bit (roughly 1/580th of a drink’s worth) caused my nose to start clogging and led to no less than two dozen strong sneezes. It was beyond dumb.
It’s very hard to argue that this stuff is any more dangerous than liquid alcohol. In fact, the opposite could be argued, because it’s harder to use. In fact, I have trouble visualizing a scenario in which I’d really want to use this stuff. Maybe I would sneak a drink or two of it on an airplane and just add water to save from paying the exorbitant markup, and because liquid is harder to get through airport security. Maybe it will make sense for hiking and camping, if the mixed drink flavors end up being any good-it would be less weight than carrying the same ABV in liquid form.
The reality, though, is that this powdered alcohol stuff really isn’t scary at all. The politicians, news organizations, and parent groups who are whipping up a frenzy over it are only flaunting an embarrassing lack of understanding of basic science. It’s not surprising, but it’s unfortunate. Personally, I’m looking forward to trying the real stuff once it hits the shelves this summer, unless the mob with pitchforks convinces the FDA that powdered alcohol is a witch.