“tastes like the casual cruelty of the universe”


I have been working with lab alcohol for decades. I’ve got liters of the stuff. When we’re using it in the teaching labs I might sometimes make a feeble joke about how I don’t want to catch any of the students taking a snort, but I can tell that no one is ever tempted. It’s a fierce-smelling chemical that you’re not going to want to try.

It’s 95% alcohol, which is the same concentration as a product you can buy at the liquor store, called Everclear.

Sad to say, I have tried Everclear. My seriously, tragically, horribly alcoholic grandfather would drink the stuff, and he once gave me a sip. Just a sip! That was enough. I guess I have no taste for an industrial solvent.

Not even my grandfather would drink it straight, though. He’d add a spoonful of brown sugar to his glass.

Eww, I just shuddered involuntarily at the memory.

Comments

  1. mnb0 says

    I’ve seen people drinking 90 % alcohol in Suriname; the local name is Palm. Both hands are shaking; the left hand takes the glas with rum, the right one a glass of water. The latter is needed to wash away the first immediately.
    No way those people enjoy the drink.

  2. ealloc says

    By chance, tomorrow is tasting day for my umeshu + everclear preparation after a 1-year steeping time. I made it on a whim after finding ume plums in a grocery store and used everclear because I didn’t have any shochu/white liquor. It’s 4 parts 95% everclear, 6 parts water, plus the plums and sugar. Hope it’s good after seeing the video, it’s a pretty orange now at least.

    What is vodka/shochu but diluted everclear? I’m not sure I have enough taste to distinguish.

  3. brucej says

    Hmmm, who drinks that stuff straight? It IS, however an ingredient in my Dad’s Glögg recipe, which very very much does NOT taste like “The casual cruelty of the universe”

    That’s the hangover the next day …

  4. PaulBC says

    I had Stroh 160 proof (80%) rum many years ago, and it was smoother than you might expect. (I have limited experience with Everclear and would prefer not to speak of it. Very nasty stuff.) Bourbon is something I can easily drink straight, even the higher proof versions. Best to avoid though.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    back in my college years we got one chem major to raid the university lab for pure Ethanol (being for lab use only, the label said). He used it to spike party punchbowls as far less was needed and put the cost of the spike on the university’s tab.
    I tried mixing with OJ for a “pure” screwdriver, using half the amount the recipe called for in vodka. One screwdriver blew me away, almost to blacking out drunk, much more than using a whole Fifth of Vodka.
    No hangover the next day, confirming the rumor that hangovers do not come from the alcohol itself, it’s all the ketones that give each kind their unique flavor. It was so overwhelmingly powerful it was a once-only trial, and never went back and tried again. oh-whoa.

  6. PaulBC says

    ealloc@2

    What is vodka/shochu but diluted everclear?

    Or is Everclear just a high-proof vodka? (cue Philosoraptor).

    I don’t get the excitement over vodka, particularly the number of times it’s filtered, etc. OK, you want pure ethanol. I get it. Also, I think a lot of people want a quick way to spike their favorite soft drink without changing the flavor profile. (I’m not proud. I too have drunk spiked Swiss Miss.)

    Costco “America vodka” is a pretty good deal at $12.99 for 1.75l. I have experimented with different infusions. The one I like best is fresh ginger. Crush it and leave it in the vodka a week or so and then filter it through a cone coffee filter.

  7. avalus says

    II once tried 99,9% pure alcohol (ungalled and intended for high purity chmical analytics).
    Was very terrible.

  8. blf says

    I’ve never(?) heard of the stuff. Ye Pfffft! of All Knowledge has this tidbit: “Sale of the 190-proof variation is prohibited in some states, which led Luxco to start selling the 189-proof version.”

    Also:

    Ethanol cannot be concentrated by ordinary distillation to greater than 97.2% by volume (95.6% by weight), because at that concentration, the vapor has the same ratio of water to alcohol as the liquid, a phenomenon known as azeotropy. The 190-proof variation of Everclear is 92.4% ethanol by weight and is thus produced at approximately the practical limit of distillation purity.

    And also, ealloc@2 asks, “What is vodka/shochu but diluted everclear?”
    Apparently the company, Luxco, which makes the stuff agrees with you: “Rather than consuming Everclear directly, the company says it should be diluted by mixing it with water (to make vodka) […].”

  9. JoeBuddha says

    I was told by a somewhat reliable source is the quickest way to break up a college party is to put Everclear in the punch. Never tried it myself.

  10. says

    I use it as a process chemical for wet plate photography. Here in Pennsylvania its very hard to get approval to but lab grade ethanol and it’s heinously expensive. So I used to drive down to Maryland and smuggle Everclear by the case.

    In Virginia they sell a version that has as much water in it as vodka. That shit made me ruin a whole batch of chemistry. Literally, “brand dilution”

  11. leerudolph says

    JoeBuddha@9: “break up” more or less clearly implies that one would be doing it unbeknownst to the people at the party. In which case I think that, morally if not legally, one would be committing assault on them, or worse.

  12. garnetstar says

    Being a chemist, I can tell you that “ethanol”, as we call the 95% stuff, isn’t a drink. It’s a solvent, and it’s highly flammable.

    You want to be careful, too: it used to come with traces of benzene, a carcinogen, in it. I would think that they can’t sell that version as Everclear, something to drink, but you never know. Benzene is still in gasoline (don’t breathe the fumes!), but that’s not sold to be drunk.

    avalus @7, the “absolute” (100%) ethanol you tried doesn’t have, and never has had, traces of benzene. So you’re in the (Ever)clear!

  13. djwtwo says

    I also use it for wet plate photography, since it’s more readily available than trying to buy it as a reagent online.

    I do also buy it with the eventual intent to drink it, but only because I use it to make limoncello. Does a great job of extracting out oils and flavor compounds, and then I dilute it significantly with a sugar solution to make something drinkable, and not leave it as jet fuel.

  14. PaulBC says

    blf@8

    “Rather than consuming Everclear directly, the company says it should be diluted by mixing it with water (to make vodka) […].”

    But you can get the same amount of vodka cheaper and don’t have to mix it. Of course, if you’re smuggling it into a dorm room, I guess you want it compact to conceal easily. Also, it’s one of the few beverages with a high enough concentration to make hand sanitizer.

    The killer app for Everclear in my recollection was “bug juice” punch. You get the most cheap-ass concentrated flavored drink syrup you can and you spike it. I wasn’t drinking at all when I knew people who did this. The one time I had Everclear (many years ago) I was already in bad shape and I mixed it with grape juice. Big mistake. I’ll pass in the future. (But I need to be careful around higher quality liquor because I will overindulge).

  15. garnetstar says

    BTW, I’ve learned by experience that I must write on my syllabus that tasting the lab chemicals is forbidden.

    One young idiot wanted to taste dimethylsulfoxide, DMSO (don’t even ask. Would you be willing to drink something called “dimethylsulfoxide”?) He’d heard that it tastes like oysters. I told him, if he wanted to taste oysters, to eat oysters. Also, that’s I’d kick him out of the class if he tried tasting anything.

    Pretty sure that he did it behind my back, though.

  16. Thomas Scott says

    If you want to taste DMSO just rub it on your hands. You will be tasting it in about 30 seconds.

  17. PaulBC says

    I remember something about DMSO and found Wikipedia backs it up “DMSO has the unusual property that many individuals perceive a garlic-like taste in the mouth after contact with the skin.” That’s pretty cool, but yeah, I’ll pass.

  18. PaulBC says

    cervantes@14 I may be wrong, but I thought they distilled it to reduce the amount of water and stopped when they hit the intended proof.

  19. garnetstar says

    @16, that’s correct! I didn’t tell the chemical-curious student, though.

    And, sorry, I got things backwards above: it’s abolute ethanol that is distilled with benzene, and contains traces of it. So, everyone else, except for avalus (:, is OK.

  20. wzrd1 says

    I tried 190 Everclear to make vanilla extract, to deficient effect. I needed to cut it 50% by volume for extraction to be effective. I suspected the result would be a failure, so I had distilled water on hand.
    The net result was a yield of two fifths of excellent vanilla extract after 30 days of steeping and daily agitation. The extra fifth was gifted to a chef, who greatly appreciated it.
    The best place for it is in a lab, if a higher concentration is needed, molecular sieves and vacuum extractors are readily at hand. I’ve no use for it, as it is lousy as rocket fuel – it’d need to be diluted by 50% water to protect the combustion chamber.

  21. says

    I’ve used DMSO in fixatives — it helps get good penetration into the tissues. And yeah, I’ve experienced the garlicky flavor. That’s a signal that you’d better improve your lab technique.

    Also, way back in the 90s, it was popular (but difficult to get) as a medicinal. Put on your Ben-Gay, then rub in some DMSO to make it more effective. There was some awful ‘news’ program that was lauding its efficacy (it might have been John Stossel pushing it), and it had my dad asking me to bring him some from the lab. I was mean and told him no.

  22. davidc1 says

    Pah ,all this stuff you are rabbiting on about ,no drink is as strong as the home brew my brothers made in the early 70’s
    I am sure it used to growl when they tried to cork it .
    I read somewhere that the final casualties the Red army suffered in the Battle for Berlin were caused by troops drinking wood alcohol .Or something like that.

  23. Dean Pentcheff says

    @PaulBC — Regarding the process for making vodka, I don’t know definitively, but I do have personal experience that leads me to belive it’s high-proof ethanol that gets diluted. I was on a biological collecting trip in Mongolia some years ago, and we needed (ideally) 95% ethanol for preservation. Through some ambiguous negotiations, we ended up at a mysterious steel door in an alley in the industrial district in Ulaanbaatar and had some jugs handed out the door as cash went in the door (honestly, like a bad movie, complete with creaking hinges). The ethanol tested out at 95% or so. For the next two weeks we preserved specimens in the field with the stuff, and got terribly familiar with its aroma. On return to Ulaanbaatar, we were invited to dinner with the U.S. Consul (yah, really — clearly not much goes on at a diplomatic posting to Mongolia). The first toast of course was with the local vodka (Chinggis Khan) — exact same aroma. At that moment the lightbulbs lit: we’d bought the ethanol from the back door of the vodka factory. Ever since then I’ve assumed that vodka manufacturing creates high-proof ethanol for ease of storage and dilutes it down for sale.

  24. says

    @Dean #23: I believe it’s the most common method these days. Although I suspect it has more to do with purity and consistency than volume.

    For 99% and above it’s common to distill it with benzene (toluene should also work), and that stuff is pretty darn hard to remove. I doubt it’s harmful but it won’t taste nice.

  25. PaulBC says

    Interesting about vodka. It seems like one of the biggest scams in the hard liquor market. I prefer brown liquors anyway (I guess I just really like the taste of oak sap). A gin and tonic seems right for certain occasions. Vodka showed up in my “pandemic drinking” because it’s a cheaper option. I tried Burnetts from Trader Joes and as well as the aforementioned Costco American Vodka, which is a better deal but you have to buy a lot. I have no idea what possesses anyone to buy a premium vodka.

  26. says

    Yep. The process is described here:

    Distillation and rectification

    4 The liquid ethyl alcohol is pumped to stills, stainless steel columns made up of vaporization chambers stacked on top of each other. The alcohol is continuously cycled up and down, and heated with steam, until the vapors are released and condensed. This process also removes impurities. The vapors rise into the upper chambers (still heads) where they are concentrated. The extracted materials flow into the lower chambers and are discarded. Some of the grain residue may be sold as livestock feed.

    Water added

    5 The concentrated vapors, or fine spirits, contain 95-100% alcohol. This translates to 190 proof. In order to make it drinkable, water is added to the spirits to decrease the alcohol percentage to 40, and the proof to 80.

    Read more: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-5/Vodka.html#ixzz6uUW4TfSX

  27. PaulBC says

    Through some ambiguous negotiations, we ended up at a mysterious steel door in an alley in the industrial district in Ulaanbaatar and had some jugs handed out the door as cash went in the door (honestly, like a bad movie, complete with creaking hinges).

    Breaking Bad, Mongolian Edition. Could you get methylamine?

  28. R. L. Foster says

    When I was in the Navy we would dump 2-4 bottles of Everclear into a large tub of fruit punch. Mind you, this was at Camp Lejeune and I was serving with the Marines. I think that answers any questions you might have.

  29. PaulBC says

    R. L. Foster@28 You don’t have to be a marine. That was how they did it at Penn State circa 1983.

  30. says

    At work (composites manufacturing) we used >90% “technical” alcohol as a cleaner and solvent for years. Now for “technical” grades of solvents they’re not really careful with removing contaminants. And it has 5% methanol in it to make it undrinkable. But leaving aside the methanol, the thought of drinking that stuff gives me the shivers.

    W.r.t. “lab” techniques, that used to be pretty rough in our industry. Over the years we’ve had basically every solvent that’s now banned like dichloromethane and trichloroethylene. Especially the trichloroethylene vapor degreaser bath was very popular. No matter how greasy or dirty your hands were, that vapor would clean them in seconds. Of course it would sting quite a bit if you left your hands in too long. Those solvents would basically destroy surgical gloves within seconds, which tells you enough! More recently we’ve had trouble convincing especially old hands to stop washing their hands with acetone.

  31. drken says

    Ugh. I hate working with DMSO. Use enough and the whole lab starts to reek of it. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to taste it. As for Everclear, in college we once made a (lined) garbage can of PJ (purple jesus) using Everclear and Kool-Aid for tailgating. Having the big reservoir of booze is quite social as people will come by to help you finish it. But, I think the only reason to use Everclear instead of Vodka is because it seems cool to use this highly flammable, high proof spirit instead of something more practical. Besides college students, I think the primary customer base is end-stage alcoholics.

  32. PaulBC says

    rsmith@30 A large part of northern Mountain View is TCE-contaminated from the early semiconductor industry. They made a big breakthrough understanding the location of the plumes maybe 10 years ago (I forget) when they realized it had been transported by storm drains. I am glad I don’t live there. I think I’m pretty safe south of El Camino on land that went straight from orchard to houses in the 1950s.

  33. says

    Back in my twenties, we would use everclear only with a very sugary mixer. Like a shot in a half gallon of Hawaiian Punch. Split between four of us. We were broke, and stupid.
    Another thing we would do is make a normal pitcher of drinks, and add just a splash of 151 rum to it, just for that little extra kick.

  34. says

    The completely other side of the coin: Many years ago I worked in a food lab in the UK. We had a still for our distilled water, and every so often a guy would visit (from Customs and Excise?? It was LONG ago!) and take a swig from its bottle. I do not know if he was just checking that we weren’t being naughty, or if he was hoping we were.

  35. says

    drken@31: Maybe not tasting. But I’ve actually had to explain to people that trying to identify unlabelled chemicals by sniffing them is generally not the best of ideas. And that smell (or lack thereof) is not a reliable indicator of the dangers of a substance.

  36. says

    95-96% is a common concentration of ethanol as this mix forms an azeotrope.
    Absolute ethanol (around 99%) you can achieve by distillation with benzene or other additives that form an azeotrope with a little lower boiling temperature.
    You can also get spectra pure ethanol where any traces of the additives were removed.
    But to be honest over 75% ethanol it dehydrates your mouth enough that everything concentration above it will taste the same and don’t ask me how I know that.

  37. microraptor says

    I know of a few mixed drinks that use Everclear as a base, all of which are defictionalized versions of a mixed drink from the Battletech miniatures game.

    I don’t drink so I’ve never actually tried them, but I’m told by people who have that it’s important not to let it hit your tongue.

  38. nomuse says

    My friend made the comment some years back, “Never drink anything where the ice settles to the bottom of the glass.”

  39. drken says

    @rsmith #38: I once tried sniffing a 1 Kg jar of NaOH pellets, not my best idea. It didn’t really smell like much of anything and it was the last thing I was able to smell for a few days. Good thing for me olfactory neurons grow back.

  40. hemidactylus says

    I had tried moonshine (well flavored varieties with fruit, cinnamon and stuff). Potent stuff.

    But seriously…what’s wrong with mere beer? Why the high octane liquor? Death wishes?

  41. hemidactylus says

    Have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?

  42. Rob Grigjanis says

    hemidactylus @43:

    what’s wrong with mere beer?

    After a five mile run on a hot day? Nothing!

    Why the high octane liquor?

    I have no idea why anyone would drink any spirit neat with more than about 40% alcohol. The great thing is that you can dilute it. I like the subtle bite of vodka when it’s mixed with OJ (not too much) and water to a final strength of about 15% alcohol. I reckon about 2.5 oz of Everclear would do just fine on the occasional evening.

  43. dangerousbeans says

    I once had some good quality, home made 95%+ stuff. it was surprisingly smooth. my guess is that a lot of the harshness is due to poor purification, along with a quick and dirty fermentation. why make something that tastes smooth for cheap booze or an industrial solvent that only has to be 95%

  44. unclefrogy says

    many years ago I worked for an industrial maintenance company that supplied temporary workers to do maintenance on plants and facilities. One job was working in a refinery / chemical plant were they made Butane and gasoline in the parts we worked on shut downs and turnarounds another part of the plant made alcohol , they also de-sulfured during their processes and pumped the sulfur across the street to someone else.
    In out of the way corners could be found “sample bottles” that were used to take sample back to the lab.for testing, they were hidden by someone so they could drink it on the job mixed with something. that place was dangerous enough without drinking I did not engage. i did smell it though it was alcohol alright I do not know how they made it. I am glad I did not work there very long nor in that industry any longer.
    uncle frogy

  45. says

    unclefrogy@48: Not drinking that was probably a wise choice (for several reasons). It could very well be that a chemical plant uses their destillation columns for different products at different times. So there might well be contaminants in the ethanol if it is a “technical” grade.

  46. Ice Swimmer says

    I have tasted 96 % alcohol, it feels like it evaporates in your mouth, doesn’t really taste anything apart from burning.

    Here in Finland it’s illegal to sell for human consumption anything over 60 % ABV and alcohol taxes are very high. However during late 1990s and early 2000s one could import any strength alcohol if it was stated to be a beverage. So our southern neighbours, Estonians (who have significantly lower alcohol taxes than us), started to sell a 96 % version of their Viru Valge viin (vodka) tailored for us Finns to buy and later when the Finnish powers-to-be tightened the definition of alcoholic beverages to be limited to <= 80 % ABV, the Estonians sold various 80 % vodkas (one brand was Hundijala Vesi = Wolf’s Foot Water) which resulted the Finnish govt to lower the limit to 60 %.

    Additionally the 96 % grain alcohol (called pirtu, from Neo-Latin spiritus fortis) has been a popular article for smuggling and bootlegging. Back in 1920s and 30s during the prohibition, German and Estonian pirtu were smuggled to Finland on a large scale.

    Between the end of the prohibition and sometime in 1970s, doctors could prescribe non-denatured spiritus fortis for skin disinfection. This loophole was abused, until they started to crack down on the practice.

    Also, at least in 1990s pirtu probably coming from Baltic states or Russia was illicitly sold as Dutch or American grain alcohol (with fake brand names like Royal, American Corn Tradition and even Royal American).

    The really hard-core alcoholics here will drink denatured ethanol including camping stove fuel and windshield washer fluid. Also, I know of one case of a person regularly drinking (at work, a pulp mill) phenolphtalein indicator solution (which is mostly alcohol).

  47. rcurtis505 says

    When my friend’s dog drank antifreeze, the country vet sent me to the liquor store for Everclear, which was then administered IV. Yes, this is approved treatment for ethylene glycol (antifreeze) ingestion. The alcohol will saturate the enzymes (alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase) that convert the glycol into oxalic acid, which is toxic to the kidneys.

  48. says

    PaulBC@33: It was before my time, but I heard the stories about how industry dealt with chemicals in the bad old days. And halogenated solvent like TCE don’t biodegrade well; the chemical bonds are too strong. But there is some hope. In 2016 IIRC they found some bacteria that could actually break down chlorinated solvents.

  49. rockwhisperer says

    I live in California, which banned Everclear long ago. My husband was into collecting coins as a kid, re-engaged with that hobby in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and experimented with solvents to clean dirty coins without rubbing. We took my aging parents on a trip to Reno, and while they played in the casinos (ugh), Husband and I went searching for Everclear. Someone told us that grocery stores carried it. Looked in the cleaning supplies, looked in the household section, unfamiliar store, totally lost, finally asked employee. He told us it was in the liquor aisle. We found it, I read the label, and asked, “Wait, people DRINK this?” My previous experience with strong drink had been the occasional rum drink (mai tai, anyone?). I was a white wine drinker when we shopped for Everclear.

    It turned out to be an ineffective solvent for cleaning the gunk on coins. I’m not sure what he uses now, though he rarely acquires ones that need cleaning.

  50. says

    rcurtis505@52: It seems like one of those ideas on the borderline between brilliant and crazy. Given that ethanol in a wound stings, it kind of makes me wonder how it would feel to get an everclear IV? Not that I’m curious enough to volunteer for it, that’s for sure!

  51. PaulBC says

    rockwhisperer@55 I agree that Everclear makes more sense as the name of cleaning product than a drink. They could have started out by advertising it as very high proof vodka. I wonder why they didn’t.

  52. mcfrank0 says

    In the block program I participated in during my freshmen year we were assigned to teams to work on special project.
    One team chose the distillation of ethanol, and explained why you could never get better than 95% pure by distillation and stated that to get to 100%, you needed to use a glacial process.
    As part of their demonstration, they set up tiny plastic cups in rows across the table with progressively purer distiallations, finishing off with samples of the glacially pure alcohol which we sampled.
    The relatively small difference between the 190 proof and 200 proof samples was striking. I swear the pure ethanol evaporated before it ever hit the back of my throat!

  53. spinynorman8 says

    LOL it’s main use is for jello shots, not straight shots.

    Anyway, one of the first lessons you need to learn when working in a lab is how to tell the different grades apart, b/c they have different uses…as well as additives (such as benzene in 100%) that can render them non potable (poisonous, actually):

    Upshot: DO NOT DRINK denatured 95% or 100% ethanols.

    https://bitesizebio.com/13518/which-type-of-ethanol-should-i-use/

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