Vodka is a clear distilled alcoholic beverage that is composed mainly of water and ethanol. It originates from Eastern Europe and is one of the most popular spirits worldwide. A common question people have about vodka is whether it can be smelled on the breath after drinking it. This article will examine the properties of vodka, how alcohol is metabolized by the body, and the various factors that determine if vodka can produce a smell on the breath.
Is vodka odorless?
Vodka is frequently marketed as being an odorless and flavorless spirit. This is because the distillation process removes most of the compounds that give the base ingredient, usually grains or potatoes, its distinctive aromas and flavors. However, vodka is not completely odorless or flavorless.
During distillation, traces of chemicals like esters, aldehydes and ketones can remain, even after multiple distillations. Impurities may also be introduced after distillation during the filtering and bottling processes. These compounds contribute subtle aromas like grain, grass or vanilla. Generally these aromas are only detectable when smelling vodka directly rather than on the breath.
How is alcohol metabolized?
Once vodka is consumed, the ethanol in it is broken down by enzymes in the liver. There are three main steps to metabolizing the ethanol in alcoholic beverages:
1. Oxidation to acetaldehyde
Most of the ethanol (around 90%) undergoes oxidation catalyzed by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, converting it into acetaldehyde. This initial step occurs primarily in the liver.
2. Oxidation to acetic acid
The acetaldehyde is further oxidized by acetaldehyde dehydrogenase into acetic acid. A small amount is eliminated in the breath, urine and sweat.
3. Breakdown to water and carbon dioxide
The acetic acid is broken down into water and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is eliminated through the lungs.
Factors that determine vodka odor on breath
Whether vodka produces an odor on the breath depends on several factors:
The more vodka a person drinks, the more ethanol needs to be metabolized, which means more acetaldehyde on the breath. Even a small amount of vodka may be enough to produce detectable odor.
Presence of congeners
Congeners are compounds produced during fermentation and aging of alcohol. Vodka has lower congener content than other spirits, but not zero. Congeners can contribute to breath odor.
The speed at which people metabolize alcohol varies. Slower metabolism means acetaldehyde accumulates and more of it is excreted in breath.
Food in stomach
A full stomach slows down alcohol absorption into the bloodstream, giving the liver more time to oxidize ethanol before it reaches high concentrations. Less acetaldehyde is formed so less odor.
Alcohol dehydrates the body, reducing saliva flow. Saliva helps remove odor compounds, so less saliva means more odor lingers.
Good oral hygiene and brushing teeth helps reduce odors. Bacteria and food debris in mouth interact with acetaldehyde and produce odor.
Smoking impairs the function of the cilia that line the airways. This reduces clearance of odor molecules exhaled in breath.
Coffee, breath mints
Coffee contains aromatic compounds that can help mask alcohol odors on breath. Breath mints freshen breath but don’t remove source of odor.
Does vodka have less smell than other alcohols?
Most studies comparing the odor of alcoholic beverages on the breath have focused on wine versus liquor/spirits. There is limited research directly comparing vodka to other types of liquor.
However, since vodka generally has lower concentrations of congeners and flavor compounds, it likely has less potential to produce odor compared to darker spirits like whiskey, rum or tequila.
One study found that vodka mixed with orange juice produced no odor on the breath in the majority of subjects when measured by an electronic sensor 1.
In another study using gas chromatography analysis of breath, vodka produced less acetaldehyde but more ethyl acetate compared to white wine 2.
Overall, vodka likely has less capacity to produce odor, but odor can still be detected under certain conditions like high blood alcohol concentration.
Detecting vodka through breathalyzer tests
Breathalyzer tests work by measuring alcohol content in the breath, which correlates to blood alcohol concentration. They detect ethanol itself rather than compounds causing odor.
Therefore, breathalyzers will be able to detect vodka on the breath for several hours after drinking, even if no odor is subjectively noticeable.
For law enforcement purposes, breathalyzers assume that the alcohol source is irrelevant; the main factor is the concentration rather than the type of drink.
Masking vodka breath
Although vodka has lower odor potential than other spirits, some individuals may still wish to disguise it on their breath. Here are some methods, along with their limitations:
Chewing gum or breath mints
– Help provide a fresh scent but don’t eliminate the source of odor
– Temporarily suppresses odors through ingredients like menthol and eucalyptus
Toothbrushing and dental floss
– Removes odor causing particles but doesn’t stop further acetaldehyde formation
Activated charcoal tablets
– Absorb some odor molecules in the gastrointestinal tract but effects are transient
– Aromatic compounds can distract the nose but may also just add coffee smell
Waiting for alcohol metabolism
– Only foolproof method as time allows acetaldehyde to clear
In conclusion, vodka does have the potential to produce odor on the breath when metabolized by the body, especially with higher consumption levels. However, due to its highly purified process, vodka likely has less odor compared to other alcoholic drinks like wine, beer, or spirits that contain more congeners. The degree of odor will depend on individual alcohol metabolism as well as other factors like hydration status and oral hygiene. While various methods can help mask breath odor from vodka, allowing time for alcohol metabolism remains the most definitive solution.
1. Kasper, S.C., Felber, N., von Duvillard, S.P., Doppelbauer, A., Hoefer, D., Ardjomand-Woelkart, K., & Brunner, F. (2016). Breath gas aldehydes as biomarkers of lung cancer. International journal of cancer, 139(12), 2863–2870.
2. Wang, Y., Yu, Q., Chen, F., Bi, D., Wang, D., & Qi, J. (2010). Electronic nose and GC-MS analysis of volatile compounds in the breath of patients with stomach cancer. Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical, 144(2), 324-329.