While serious liquor enthusiasts will disagree, the average drinker can’t tell much of a difference between cheap and mid-grade liquor when mixing drinks. Unless you’re a fan of drinking it straight, many people view buying premium liquor as an infrequent luxury best suited for vacations and big nights out, not for the average weekend.
A claim often made by the fans of the top shelf sauce is that cheap liquor has more impurities, and thus causes a worse hangover the next day. While this may sound like a clever marketing angle designed to convince the average drinker to drop some extra cash on the good stuff, the science shows that it actually does have a large degree of truth to it. The answer to why lies in compounds known as congeners which are found in differing quantities in all alcoholic beverages.
Congeners are a variety of different compounds produced during the fermentation process, and are largely responsible for the taste and smell of alcoholic beverages. There are many different compounds that can be classified as congeners including fusel alcohols, acetone, esters, aldehydes, and the very toxic acetaldehyde.
Out of all the various compounds that make up congeners, acetaldehyde is by far the worst. It is 30 times more poisonous than alcohol, and is one of the primary causes of hangovers.  Different studies have backed up the role of not just acetaldehyde in hangovers, but the role of congeners in general.
Many of these studies focused on the fact that different types of alcohol have different levels of congeners, and found that dark liquors such as whiskey had far greater levels of congeners, and produced worse hangover symptoms as a result. 
We now know that impurities known as congeners contribute to how severe your hangover will be the next morning, but how much more of these do cheap liquors have? Is the difference really vast enough to make it worth spending those extra ten dollars for a top shelf bottle?
Distillation Removes Congeners
The reason that cheap liquor on average has far more congeners than expensive liquor is due to the fact that expensive liquor is often distilled more times. Every time a spirit is distilled it becomes purer, and more and more congeners are removed. Cheap vodka, for example, is almost always only distilled once. More expensive vodka is often distilled many more times, Tito’s Vodka, for example, is distilled six times. If you were to compare the levels of congeners in a bottle of Vlad with a bottle of Tito’s, you would find the Tito’s to have far less.
Filtration Also Removes Congeners
Another practice used to improve the purity of liquor is the process of filtration. By running the liquor through an activated carbon filter many more impurities can be removed. Once again, the producers of cheap liquor skimp on this step, while the top shelf booze is more likely to be filtered more thoroughly.
It’s easy to discount the effect that filtration has on the quality of liquor, but if you were to run it through a filter at home and compare the filtered spirits side by side with the unfiltered, you would find a dramatic boost in quality.
If your goal is to buy the liquor with the least amount of impurities, you’ll want to avoid dark liquors off the bat. The congeners are an important part of the flavor of these liquors, so even the high quality brands will have large amounts of them.
When looking for the cleanest clear liquor, the two main factors to note is the number of distillations and how well it is filtered. Unfortunately this information is rarely advertised, so it can be difficult to tell. Be wary of assuming that just because a liquor is more expensive that it has been distilled and filtered more. For example, Grey Goose vodka is said to go through a five-step distillation process, while Tito’s Vodka is cheaper and is distilled six times. (and in my personal opinion, is a much smoother and better quality vodka.)
Try to stay away from the brands that look like they invest more in marketing than producing a quality product. Instead, look for the artisanal spirits that are crafted by people more passionate about making the best possible liquor than trying to market a “premium brand” designed to cast their product as high-class.
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