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What Is the Big Deal about Powdered Alcohol?

Palcohol could give new meaning to the phrase “dry martini"


DRY UP: Image of a Booz2go packet, a powdered alcoholic beverage developed at Helicon Vocational Institute in Boxtel, the Netherlands (via YouTube).

Just add water. It works for instant coffee, tea and juice mix. Might it also work for your favorite cocktail? Powdered alcohol hasn’t gotten much of a foothold in the U.S. even though the idea has been around for decades. An Arizona company thinks that Americans are ready for the convenience of mojitos and margaritas that come from a small foil packet. The U.S. government thought so, too, at least for a couple of weeks earlier this month.
 
Makers of the new powdered alcohol drink mix Palcohol have to put the cork back in their champagne, for now anyway. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the Department of the Treasury, earlier this week told the Associated Press that it had on April 8 issued “in error” the federal approvals necessary for Palcohol maker Lipsmark to make and sell its product. The agency has not elaborated on its comments since, and Lipsmark claims to have resubmitted its product labels after a “minor change,” according to the Palcohol Web site. The issue is a discrepancy over how much powder each product packet contains, the company says.
 
Adding to the controversy, “the government has no authority to simply cancel the approvals,” according to Bevlaw.com, a Web site run by Lehrman Beverage Law, which specializes in the federal regulation of alcohol beverages. This means Palcohol may yet show up on liquor store shelves in the U.S.
 
The TTB approved labels for several Palcohol flavors: two beverages resembling rum and two vodkalike drinks as well as those simulating a cosmopolitan, a lemon drop and a margarita. Companies in Japan, Germany and the Netherlands already sell powdered alcohol products. In fact, Japan’s Sato Foods Industries had patented a process that encapsulated alcohol in powder form and since the 1970s has been selling its product to be used as an additive to jelly, chocolate and other foods, according to a 1977 Seattle Times article (pdf). At the time, a U.S. company tried unsuccessfully to bring to market a beverage in the States called SureShot and based on Sato’s product.
 
Lipsmark is, not surprisingly, tight-lipped about how it makes Palcohol. To find out more about how powdered alcohol works and its potential impact on those partaking in it, Scientific American interviewed “Food Matters” blogger See Arr Oh, a PhD scientist with experience in organic, inorganic and medicinal chemistry as well as biology.
 
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
 
 
When did you first become aware of powdered alcohol?
I've heard of various "liquids in powder form" for quite some time: instant coffee, tea, powdered milk, etcetera. "Powdered alcohol" is a great example of nothing new under the sun—there's patents for this that go back to the early 1970s.
 
How does powdered alcohol work?
First things first: "Powdered" is a misnomer. Unlike CBS News’s account, this powder is not "freeze-dried alcohol." Rather, it appears to be ethyl alcohol encapsulated by a fancy sugar container. Most powdered forms of liquids rely on cyclodextrins—literally small rings of sugars—to carry "guest" molecules in their inner cavities. To make the powder, you suck all the moisture out of the carrier and then just mix with ethanol. When you add warm water it dissolves the molecular container, springs loose the "cargo" (alcohol) and you get a martini.
 
How does creating a powdered alcoholic drink impact its alcohol content?
According to one patent [for “alcohol-containing powder,” filed in 1972 (US 3,795,747)], the dextrin carrier tops out at 60 percent, even in pure alcohol. Part of that has to do with space: Each carrier molecule only has so much room to adsorb [adhere to] ethanol, and this is dependent on size, shape, number of sugars and how dry it was to start.
 
What would happen if a person were to consume the powder without first mixing it in water?
Depends on how the cyclodextrin or other carrier molecule interacts with your gut. Some formulations, such as those for drug administration, rely on specific changes in pH (stomach equals acidic, intestines less so) to break apart the complex. Caffeine is readily adsorbed by the body—free ethyl alcohol, too—but I'd want to see some in vivo assays on the complex before I decided.
 
Lipsmark warns people that, as a precaution against people wanting to snort Palcohol, they've "added volume to the powder so it would take more than a half of a cup of powder to get the equivalent of one drink up your nose." What would happen if someone were to snort Palcohol or any other powdered alcohol?
I'd worry just as much about the molecular cage as I would about the ethanol. Cyclodextrins are used for fragrance molecules in detergents, and for flavorings in foods like powdered gravy. Would you snort these?
 
If you need warm water to properly dissolve powdered alcohol, what would happen to the mixture if you added a lot of ice, which would be common for certain drinks?
You'd likely get a thick suspension, comparable to horchata or almond milk. It wouldn't make for a very fun party. And after all, other than sake or warm rum, who wants hot shots?
 
Is powdered alcohol an advance in food science or a gimmick?
Gimmick. It's been done before—now it's just in sexier packaging.

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