The Science Behind Powdered Alcohol, the Latest Way to Get Drunk

You'll soon be able to buy alcohol in powder packets. Snorting is not recommended.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: Palcohol

Update: Well, that didn’t last long: The Associated Press is reporting that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has, at least temporarily, revoked Palcohol’s approvals because they were “issued in error.” Palcohol’s parent company told the AP that it is still seeking government approval. Robert Lehrman, a lawyer who specializes in the alcohol industry and who originally broke the news about Palcohol’s approval, suggested to the AP that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau may have gotten some backlash from Congress, which wouldn’t be surprising in the least. We’ll keep following the story.

Last week, the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved Palcohol, a powdered alcohol product that you can either use to turn water into a presumably not-that-delicious marg or to snort if you don’t care too much about your brain cells.

It’s the first time a powdered alcohol product has been approved for sale in the US, but not the first time someone has devised one, and such products have been available in parts of Europe for a few years now. Now you may be wondering, as I was, how the heck do you go about powdering alcohol?

As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of chemistry involved, but the process doesn’t seem overly difficult; we’ve known how to do it since the early 1970s, when researchers at the General Foods Corporation (now a subsidiary of Kraft) applied for a patent for an “alcohol-containing powder.” 

Basically, carbohydrate powders—in this case, certain sugar derivatives—can be used to trap ethanol. When stored in a sealed container, it’ll remain as a powder, until it’s put in water or some other liquid (margarita mix??). 

“It has now been discovered that certain carbohydrate materials, when suitably modified with respect to physical form, will, in the presence of significant amounts of water, absorb large quantities of alcohol to form stable, flowable carbohydrate powders containing up to 60 percent by weight ethanol,” the patent request suggested. “Significantly, certain of these alcohol-containing powders will readily dissolve in cold water to form low-viscosity, clear, colorless, alcoholic solutions.”

In other words, powder + water = booze. According to the patent, when the powder is sealed correctly, it’s “stable for extended time periods.” Take it out, and all the ethanol vapors will seep out, leaving you with a flavorless, alcohol-less powder. The patent also notes that the “alcohol content of the products is sufficiently high to ignite and support combustion and the products may be used as flaming agents for appropriate desserts,” which is a fun little bonus.

So, that’s how you make powdered alcohol, but perhaps the more important question is, who is gonna drink it? Kids, probably.

A team of students actually developed alcoholic powder in the Netherlands a couple years back specifically to market and sell it to kids under the age of 16. 

Here's a news story (in Dutch) about a group of students who created powdered alcohol. 

Palcohol's old website, which has since been scrubbed since it got government approval, seems to be marketed to people who don’t have a whole lot of money, want to drink clandestinely, or are pretty reckless. (So again, kids probably.)

From its cached website

1. What's worse than going to a concert, sporting event, etc. and having to pay $10, $15, $20 for a mixed drink with tax and tip. Are you kidding me?! Take Palcohol into the venue and enjoy a mixed drink for a fraction of the cost … 7. Let's talk about the elephant in the room….snorting Palcohol. Yes, you can snort it. And you'll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose. Good idea? No. It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly.”

The new version of the website suggests that snorting it is “not a responsible or smart way to use the product” and says that the formula is also going to be altered so that snorting it is a really bad idea. 

To take precautions against this action, we'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. You would feel a lot of pain for very little gain.”

Palcohol plans on selling its, uhh, powder, starting sometime this fall, in six flavors: vodka, rum, cosmopolitan, mojito, margarita, and lemon drop. Given that whipped cream alcohol, “alcoholic water,” and single-pack jello shots are all things you can buy at the store, maybe powdered alcohol will remain A-OK with Congress and the government. But I wouldn’t bet on it.