Hangovers have plagued us since at least biblical times, but a spate of new remedies available at city drugstores promises to banish them for good. One, called Chaser for Wine Headaches, claims to squelch the pain associated with an exuberant evening of wine drinking; others, like RU-21, purport to prevent the all-around ennui that results from a particularly vengeful night on the town. And a new study published last month in Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that there may be some scientific validity to at least one brand's boasts.
"As both a drunk and a saloon keeper, I think it's the greatest thing since chopped liver," laughs Jeremy Holin of Jeremy's Ale House, the South Street Seaport watering hole that sells its Eye Opener Special, a $1.75 32-ounce Styrofoam bucket of Coors available from when it opens at 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. He calls the pills "God's gift to the working man." Holin, who has yet to try the new remedies, has offered to conduct an unofficial experiment at his bar.
One brand Holin might consider testing is Chaser, a pill made from charcoal and calcium carbonate that works by absorbing congeners, the impurities in alcohol that impart character and flavor. A competitor, RU-21, promises to stop hangovers by metabolizing alcohol and its by-product acetaldehyde. Both products claim terrific results, cost around $7 for about two evenings' worth, and require you to take an initial dose with your first drink, followed by a succession of pills. Neither brand interferes with the immediate effects of alcoholmeaning you'll still get drunk if you toss back enough stiff ones.
Which may explain why Esquire's cocktail writer, David Wondrich, was presented with a package of RU-21 by a "guy who was shockingly hammered" at a Bon Appétit party earlier this year. Wondrich has yet to take the pills. "He didn't exactly inspire me," explains the professional barfly. Another acquaintance recently tried Chaser at a birthday bash after he was handed a free sample near the Astor Place cube. Given that the pills now line the shelves and checkout counters of most city drugstores, it's not surprising that they're popping up at parties around town.
Still, many drinkers the Voice spoke to seemed reticent to try either brand. Some cited the effort involved in swallowing so many pills: Chaser requires a minimum of two (but you'll probably need more). RU-21 instructs you to take a pill with every drink.
"It might work if they were shaped like pretzels," laughs Jimmy Duff, co-owner of Bellevue Bar, a heavy-metal dive in Hell's Kitchen where, before the smoking ban, the matchbooks used to quote Ozzy Osbourne: "Sobriety fucking sucks."
The pills also require forethought. People don't set out to get soused, especially if they have work or some other pressing obligation come morning. Taking the pills becomes some kind of admission that you lack control. "If you're monitoring something that closely," says celebrated mixologist Audrey Saunders of Bemelmans Bar, "then maybe you have a bigger problem than just a hangover."
Since RU-21's launch in May of last year, sales of the Spirit Sciences product have jumped 200-fold, to about $2 million a month, says CEO Emil Chiaberi. And according to marketing director Carl Sperber, Chaser has been a top seller at Walgreens and GNC. "Young adults are our prime demographic," says Sperber. "That's who thinks Chaser's cool." Chiaberi counts "anybody who drinks alcohol" among RU-21's customer base, which he says mainly consists of women looking to feel shipshape after a few glasses of wine. Sperber says Chaser counts men as its majority consumers.
"Both companies claim to have great data," says Jeffrey Wiese, an associate professor at Tulane University's Health Sciences Center who has published several studies relating to hangovers. "But neither has had independent investigators. You'd like to see that." Since they're marketed as dietary supplements, the new remedies fall outside FDA jurisdiction, unless they make claims to "cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent " hangovers on their labeling, according to an FDA official.
Currently, the only over-the-counter drugs FDA-approved to be marketed as hangover cures include analgesics, antacids, or stimulants, like Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief, a mix of caffeine and aspirin that "relieves your pounding head and gives you a burst of energy," according to the product's website.
The current boom in the business of treating hangovers can be traced to a June 2000 study that Wiese co-authored, in which he came to some shocking conclusions after reviewing all the hangover literature to date. Not only did hangovers cost the United States upwards of $148 billion a year due to absenteeism and shoddy job performance, but contrary to common belief, there was no evidence that hangovers prevented more drinking. Rather, they seemed to encourage drinking, usually in the form of eye-openers like the Bloody Mary.
And a recent study by Wiese in the June issue of Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that hangover pills like Chaser that target congeners, may have some scientific value. While investigating the prickly pear plant's preventive hangover properties, Wiese found that hangover severity is linked not to the amount, but to the type, of liquor consumed. "Subjects who drank alcohol high in congenersscotch, bourbon, tequilahad higher symptoms," explains Wiese.
But if you've ever had the pleasure of indulging in one or several bathtub martinis, you know congeners aren't the only variable contributing to your morning malaise. As David Wondrich puts it, "Gin doesn't have a lot of congeners, but boy howdy, I've had some hangovers on that." Alcohol and acetaldehyde are also prime suspects, but not the only ones. "Even if it is congeners," agrees Wiese, "you still have dehydration and poor sleep."
That the scientific basis for the hangover is still shrouded in mystery may explain why so many remain skeptical of the current cures' claims. "It's like Viagra," says Wondrich. "For thousands of years, people have been promoting a sure potency solution, but when it came, people knew it." Or maybe excessive drinkers just need a pill that improves their judgment. As Jimmy Duff says, "One that keeps you from waking up next to ugly people the next day."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.