Throat Burn Explained: The Chemistry Of Why Some Drinks Sting
Image Credit: PEXELS

HAVE you ever found yourself captivated at a gathering, watching in awe as someone skilfully lights up a shot of alcohol, creating a mesmerising blue flame? Or perhaps you've pondered the perplexing question of why your throat feels like it's ablaze after a shot of whisky, while a sip of beer leaves you cool as a cucumber? If so, rest assured that you're not alone. The burning sensation experienced from certain alcohols and the absence of it in others is a subject that combines the realms of chemistry, biology, and a hint of mystique.

The Chemistry Behind the Burn: Alcohol by Volume (ABV)

The first crucial factor to consider is the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) content. To put it simply, ABV is a standardised measure of the ethanol content in an alcoholic beverage. The higher the ABV, the greater the alcohol concentration. Spirits like vodka, rum, and whisky often boast an ABV of 40% or more, signifying their ethanol-rich nature. It is this high concentration of ethanol that renders these drinks highly flammable, allowing for the captivating spectacle of flames.

On the contrary, beverages like beer and wine typically possess an ABV ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent, which is insufficient to ignite them. Therefore, if you're seeking to concoct a dramatic flaming cocktail, it is advisable to stick with the higher-proof spirits.

The Biology of the Burn: Capsaicin and Ethanol

Now, let's delve into the realm of biology to comprehend the burning sensation experienced in the throat. This is where the intricate interplay between two factors comes into play: ethanol in the alcohol and capsaicin, a molecule commonly found in spicy foods.

Ethanol possesses a low evaporation point and has the ability to irritate the skin and mucous membranes, thereby eliciting a burning sensation. When you consume high-proof alcohol, such as vodka or whisky, the ethanol comes into contact with the sensitive tissues of your mouth and throat, resulting in a discernible burn. The ethanol concentration in these spirits is sufficiently potent to trigger this sensation.

On the other hand, capsaicin is responsible for the characteristic spiciness found in foods such as chilli peppers. When consumed, capsaicin binds to pain receptors in the mouth and throat, deceiving the brain into perceiving a sensation of heat. The combination of ethanol and capsaicin can intensify the burning sensation, particularly when indulging in a spicy cocktail or pairing your drink with piquant culinary delights.

The Role of Congeners: Taste and Aftermath

Another contributing factor to the burning sensation lies in the presence of congeners, which are by-products of the fermentation process often found in darker spirits like whisky and rum. Congeners impart distinct flavours and aromas to these alcoholic beverages, endowing them with their unique characteristics.


While congeners enhance the taste of the alcohol, they can also influence the severity of hangovers. Certain studies suggest that congeners, such as methanol, acetone, and tannins, can contribute to more pronounced hangover symptoms. Thus, if you have ever experienced a more distressing aftermath after a night of whisky compared to a night of vodka, now you comprehend the underlying cause.

The type and quantity of congeners can vary across different alcoholic beverages. Lighter spirits like vodka and gin typically contain fewer congeners, resulting in a smoother drinking experience and potentially milder after-effects. Conversely, darker spirits like whisky and brandy, which undergo more prolonged ageing processes, tend to possess higher congener content, leading to a more robust burning sensation and potentially more severe hangovers.

The Flame's Allure

Besides the throat burn, witnessing an alcohol-fuelled flame in front of one’s eyes has fascinated humans for centuries. Some claim the first recorded flaming drink hails from ancient Greece, while others point to medieval Europe. Regardless of origin, there's no denying the mesmerising spectacle of spirits ablaze. The combination of fire, alcohol and social gathering taps into something primal within us - a desire to gather around the flame and celebrate together. Even today, watching a shot of whiskey catch fire and burn blue elicits feelings of wonder. But beyond the visual allure, flaming drinks serve as a reminder of our shared humanity. As the flames flicker and extinguish, so too will this moment pass. So raise your glass, embrace the burn, and make the most of this fleeting instant you share with friends around the fire.

The burn varies from person to person. Some embrace the intensity as a symbol of strength and appreciation, while others savour the gentle warmth it provides. It's a subjective experience that adds depth and complexity to our relationship with alcohol.

As you raise your glass, remember to enjoy your spirits responsibly. The goal is to ignite the joy of celebration, not your insides. Appreciate the science, culture, and personal connection that the burn brings, and savour the moments of connection and enjoyment it creates. Here's to enhancing your appreciation of the captivating world of spirits. Cheers!