The Hangover Cure

A review of alleged remedies, ancient and modern

Consider the arc of the standard debauch. The hero (you) starts off from home on an adventure. You come upon a chalice brimming with a magical elixir. You drink deeply from it. Soon you discover you’ve acquired superhuman abilities, among them fluency in off-color jokes and newfound skills involving a spoon and your nose. But in time the potion exacts a price through clever sorcery, leaving you alone and stranded amid a bleak landscape. Desperately, you yearn for familiar comforts, much as Odysseus pined for Penelope at her loom. You thus embark on another quest, seeking a second elixir to counteract the first.

The search for a hangover cure—the elusive “second elixir”—has captivated humankind for centuries. Those it hasn’t captivated include medical researchers: one survey found that of some 4,700 medical papers published since 1965 on alcohol intoxication, a mere 108 dealt with hangovers. (This despite the fact that, according to another study, hangovers result in $148 billion in lost productivity in the U.S. each year.) Where science falls short, however, folklore cheerfully takes up the slack. In fact, the hangover cure may be the last remaining bastion of the folk cure in modern medicine—nearly everybody swears by one ancient nostrum or another.

One I’ve tried was allegedly prescribed by Galen the Greek, a prominent physician of the second century. He recommended wrapping your head in cabbage leaves. This does seem to have a positive effect, although possibly because those who come upon me are quick to dispense ridicule, which, for unknown reasons, speeds one’s recovery. Other folk remedies include physical activity (cold shower, manly exercise, sex) and a wide variety of comestibles, often in nasty combinations that seem designed to distract you from your plight. Pliny the Elder, for one, suggested owl’s eggs. A popular European palliative is the rollmop, a pickle rolled up taco-style in a herring filet.

But one of the most enduring folk cures is “hair of the dog”—so named after an antique and charming belief that one can avoid rabies by applying to a dog bite some hair snipped from the offending cur. (As a hangover euphemism, the term dates at least to 1546.) The counter­intuitive use of alcohol to treat a hangover has, by most accounts, a basis in medical fact. The science is too complex to delve into here, but it involves temporarily disrupting the conversion of previously consumed alcohol into toxins. Think of the morning bracer as a rodeo clown who momentarily distracts the bull as you lie in the ring, buying you a few seconds to crawl to safety before he charges after you again.

A great many morning cocktails have emerged from this tradition, resulting in some of the best-named drinks, including the Corpse Reviver, Zombie, Suffering Bastard, and Fog Lifter. Many of these are quite palatable any time of the day, except for the Fog Lifter, a 1960s-vintage concoction from the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas that involves brandy, Pernod, cream, and an egg. Otherwise, these restoratives essentially return to the modern cocktail’s roots from around 1800, when a little alcohol, sugar, and medicinal bitters were served after dawn to start the day properly. Only later in the 19th century did the cocktail evolve intractably from a morning ritual to an evening one, thereby forcing a detour in the hero’s journey.

But not for everyone. I’m quite partial to an old morning standby, the Bloody Mary, a drink first mixed in Paris before it crossed to New York after Prohibition. In 1948, the cocktail writer David Embury singled it out as “a classic example of combining in one potion both the poison and the antidote.” It contains vodka for the hair of the dog, salt and fructose to aid rehydration, and potassium and vitamin C to offset depletions. The high-density ballast of the juice itself settles the stomach.

It’s also liquid comfort food—the minerally taste of tomato juice, the sweet-dry smell of celery, the Hello! of the horseradish all summoning calming memories of childhood and helping reorient me toward home. What’s more, sipping one carves out a small period of grace—the hero sitting alone under his celery bush—during which I can reflect on my exploits, learn from my experience, emerge a wiser person for it, and be better prepared for the next adventure. Except, of course, for the parts about learning from experience, becoming wiser, and being better prepared. But isn’t that what New Year’s resolutions are for?