Why does whiskey burn? It’s bizarre when you think about it. You’re supposed to store whiskey somewhere cool and without direct sunlight. You’re supposed to serve whiskey at room temperature. And yet somehow when you actually drink it, it burns! It’s almost as if whiskey is so wondrous that it defies the laws of nature, inexplicably being a fiery drink.
The truth is that whiskey doesn’t burn. It merely feels as if it does. The nerve cells that alert you that something is too hot are triggered when you drink whiskey. It’s like when you’re about to ask a girl you like out. You haven’t been rejected yet, but all the feelings you usually get after a girl politely declines, explaining that she’s moving to a different country tomorrow, are already activated.
We’ll take a more detailed look at this (why whiskey burns NOT why I keep getting rejected by girls) and why whiskey gives you a warm feeling in your stomach. We’ll also look at whether the whiskey burn damages your throat. Most importantly we’ll ask and answer the obvious follow up to the original ‘why does whiskey burn?’ question which is: what can be done about it.
Why Does Whiskey Burn? The Science
Your mouth and throat are lined with a delicate mucous membrane. Part of that lining includes nerve cells called vanilloid receptor-1 or VR1 receptors which react to the temperature of food and drink, and alert you when something is too hot and can hurt you. The VR1 receptors do this by sending an electrical signal up the nerve fibre to the brain which registers the sensation as pain. You now feel the pain and if you’re sensible, stop what you’re doing.
Normally these nerve cells react to temperatures above 108°F / 42°C but they can be triggered at lower temperatures too. There are two ways this can occur. The VR1 receptors can be made to think something is activation level temperature when it isn’t, or their sensitivity can be increased causing them to be activated at a lower temperature.
An example of the first happens when you eat chili peppers. The active ingredient capsaicin tells the VR1 receptors that the pepper is 108°F / 42°C when it isn’t. You never knew a chemical compound could lie so well.
On the other hand, when you drink alcohol the sensitivity of the VR1 receptors is increased causing them to be activated at a lower temperature.
This happens because alcohol is a solvent – a chemical substance usually used to dissolve or dilute other substances or materials. The alcohol absorbs some of the moisture from the VR1 receptors so they dry out and become more sensitive. Their activation threshold is therefore lowered, and they’ll send the this-is-something-hot signal to your brain despite the alcohol being nowhere near 108°F / 42°C.
The higher the alcohol content the more it burns. This is because the higher the level of alcohol the more it dries out the mucous membrane. The drier the mucus membrane the more sensitive the VR1 receptors become and the louder they send the message.
One of the most alcoholic drinks is whiskey. Whiskey has a very high alcohol content level – at least 40% ABV – in contrast to wine which has an average of 11.6% ABV and beer which has an average of 4.5% ABV. This is why people ask why does whiskey burn and not why does wine or beer burn.
Why Does Whiskey Give You a Warm Feeling in Your Stomach?
So far we’ve only explained why whiskey burns your mouth and throat. There’s also that fantastic warm feeling in your stomach that you get when the whiskey arrives there.
This is due to the fact that alcohol dilates your blood vessels which increases the blood flow to your hands, feet and skin. This makes you feel warm.
Be careful. Too much alcohol can cause your blood vessels to dilate permanently or constrict and spoiler alert: neither of those is a good thing.
Does the Whiskey Burn Damage Your Throat?
Let’s put it this way.
Alcohol is a solvent – I might have mentioned this. It absorbs moisture from the delicate mucus membrane that lines your mouth and throat, drying it out. I might have mentioned this too. Put another way this means that when you drink whiskey, you’re harming said protective mucus membrane, which isn’t something that can be labelled, ‘a good thing’.
It’s no surprise therefore that drinking a lot of whiskey over time can destroy the protective mucous barrier and permanently damage the tissues of the mouth, throat, voice box, food pipe and anything else in that region. It could even play a role in the development of throat cancer.
Of course, the risk is highest for those who drink the most amount of alcohol and while I can’t guarantee that if you drink moderate amounts of whiskey (whatever ‘moderate’ might be precisely) you’ll be perfectly fine, I am going to tell you that there are some health benefits to drinking the above and still undefined moderate amounts of whiskey (which you can read more about here – when I get round to writing about them) and that one of the said health benefits is to decrease the risk of cancer (because whiskey contains a high concentration of ellagic acid – the micronutrient that could slow the growth of cancer cells) all of which confuses matters terribly.
I suppose the solution is to be normal and sane. Which applies to everything in life really.
This means we’ve also explained – though unintentionally so – why I keep getting rejected by girls.
How to Drink Whiskey Without the Burn
Unless you were just super interested in understanding the scientific and technical reasons why something that shouldn’t burn does, asking how to drink whiskey without the burn is the obvious follow up to the original ‘why does whiskey burn?’ question.
Since the answer to why does whiskey burn is because the alcohol increases the sensitivity of the nerve cells that alert you when something is hot, so that they’re activated at a lower temperature, the answer to how to drink whiskey without the burn is to reduce the impact of the alcohol.
Here are five ways to do that although disclaimer: if your whiskey has a very high alcohol content level, some of these ways will not reduce the burn sufficiently and you shouldn’t be drinking it undiluted, so please use your common sense. If you don’t have any common sense, please learn some here.
- Drink Whiskey in a Cocktail
The easiest way to reduce the impact of the alcohol is by drinking whiskey in a cocktail where the taste of the whiskey is obviously diluted by the other ingredients so it’s burn will be reduced. There are lots of great whiskey cocktails and they’re a good way of getting introduced to whiskey if you don’t like drinking it by itself.
On the other hand, this answer is a bit of a cheat because it doesn’t help you deal with the burn when you drink whiskey neat.
- Don’t Inhale Before Drinking
Since breathing in just before you drink whiskey draws the alcohol vapors to the back of your throat and the delicate mucus membrane that lines it, if you don’t do that the whiskey will burn less.
Before you drink, inhale or exhale partially – it depends where you are in your breathing rhythm, but the point is to have some breath in your lungs. Your lungs shouldn’t be completely full or completely empty. Take a sip of whiskey and then exhale. Wait a few seconds before inhaling.
- Use a Proper Whiskey Glass
This means some type of nosing glass which is tall-ish with a wide bowl, long narrow neck, thin stem and broad pedestal.
Glencairn Whisky Glass
Nosing glasses let air get to the whiskey allowing it to breathe. Some of the ethanol will evaporate before you drink, reducing the whiskey’s burn. With other types of glasses less ethanol evaporates, so you can expect the full power of the alcohol to hit the back of your throat when you drink your whiskey.
- Dilute Whiskey With Water or Chill It With Ice
Diluting your whiskey to 35% ABV will reduce the level of the alcohol. Obviously, with less alcohol the burn will be reduced. It’s that simple.
Chilling your whiskey with ice cubes also reduces the impact of the alcohol. The ice cubes lower the temperature of the whiskey which diminishes its intensity, and the burn of the alcohol is reduced. As the ice cubes melt they also dilute the alcohol, reducing the burn further.
- Acclimatize Yourself to the Alcohol
The previous approaches to reducing the impact of the alcohol have been by one way or another, reducing the amount or intensity of alcohol that reaches your throat. This approach is different however, because it reduces the effects of the alcohol on you.
You’re not reducing the burn but acclimatizing yourself to it so that it doesn’t affect you.
This could be as simple as using the first smell and taste of each whiskey drinking session to acclimatize yourself to the burn of the alcohol or training yourself over a couple of weeks to become used to it. It could even be both. It will depend on your personal tolerance level.
Acclimatizing yourself with the first smell and taste of each whiskey drinking session is done as follows:
Nose your whiskey gently so that your nostrils don’t get singed by the alcohol. Open your mouth slightly as you inhale to let the alcohol fumes escape. Nose your whiskey again. Now you’ll be used to its strength and will be able to smell some of the whiskey’s aromas.
Similarly, when you taste your whiskey, drink a little sip first so that your mouth can also get used to the alcohol. The first sip will taste overwhelmingly of alcohol but with the second sip you’ll get more of the whiskey’s flavors.
Acclimatizing yourself over the course of a couple of weeks is done by repeatedly exposing yourself to the alcohol until you become used to it and will react to it less.
There are two ways to do this. The first is by pouring yourself a whiskey, diluting it until it only burns a little and then drinking it. Do this for two weeks adding less and less water each day, until you’re drinking whiskey neat – meaning without any mixer, additional flavor or dilution.
The second technique for acclimatizing yourself over the course of a couple of weeks is to drink whiskey every day until it stops burning.
To be clear: This process should take a couple of weeks. If you’ve been drinking irresponsibly for 20 years and have caused the previously-mentioned health problems, you can’t claim to still be trying to acclimatize yourself.
Why does whiskey burn? It doesn’t. It only feels like it. The nerve cells that are activated when you eat or drink something that’s too hot are also triggered when you drink whiskey, because the alcohol increases their sensitivity causing them to be activated at a lower temperature. This means that drinking a lot of whiskey over time can cause permanent damage.
The follow up to the ‘why does whiskey burn?’ question is what can you do about it and there are five things: drink whiskey in a cocktail, don’t inhale before drinking, use a proper whiskey glass, dilute whiskey with water or chill it with ice and acclimatize yourself to the alcohol.
Why does whiskey burn? It doesn’t. It only feels like it. It’s a shame that the same thing doesn’t apply to some other questions, like: why does whiskey cost so much?