Rob Bailey, restaurant owner, foodie, and former perpetually jet-lagged Yahoo exec, was once one of San Francisco's most exhausted bon vivants. Tired of downing sugary Red Bulls or cappuccinos with his cocktails, the 38-year-old MIT grad created Lotus Vodka, a brand packed not only with caffeine, but—eyeing the billion-dollar "enhanced water" industry —vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, and C, plus the amino acids l-arginine and l-cysteine, and ginseng. "People are watching what they consume Monday through Friday. There is no reason to stop on the weekend," says Bailey, who has seen a more than 50 percent growth in sales this year. Of course, there's a certain absurdism to watching what you eat when what you eat are the three olives at the bottom of your vitamin-enhanced martini.
The newest wave in the luxury spirits world—fighting to stay hip in hard times and now the world of post-recession chic—is healthy(ish) hard alcohol. The past three years have seen the debut of "botanical" spirits like Square One botanical, a 90-proof organic rye infused with eight organic botanicals including chamomile and citrus peel marketed as a "progressive organic spirit." Some vodkas are packed with the amino-acid metabolism-booster taurine, antioxidant-rich açai spirits like Veev are huge sellers, and some rums now come with South American guarana berry—an herbal, non-sugar-packed stimulant alternative to Red Bull. Stampede Light Plus beer, fortified with B vitamins, is soon planning a relaunch. The beer first got its start with Jessica Simpson, who touted it in ads urging beer guzzlers to "Be Smart, Drink Smart."
Critics say there's nothing smart about it—aside from the advertising campaign, which tricks consumers. "Companies are bending over backward to pretend that they're making healthier products, when it's just the same old thing—a highly processed, unhealthy product with new labels," says Michele Simon, research and policy director at the Marin Institute, an alcohol-industry watchdog group. Between January 2008 and October of 2009, 84 new alcoholic beverages with organic claims came on to the market, compared to just eight in 2007. But this segment of the market is still too small to measure in terms of overall sales. "In alcohol this is still an emerging trend," says Garima Goel Lal, senior consumer analyst at Mintel International Group. Anecdotal evidence suggests the "healthy" tag is working: Adam Seger of Chicago's Nacional 27 restaurant, who was dubbed the "Spirits Guru" by Food and Wine magazine, says sales of his creations such as the "mo-healthy-ito" were up around 50 percent over the summer.
Because the federal agency that regulates alcohol, the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau, prohibits manufacturers from making health claims, most makers takes pains to say they are not implying health benefits. Bailey, for example, is quick to point out that Lotus Vodka is a far cry from homeopathic: "Alcohol is bad for you, ours is just slightly less bad."
Dr. Sam Zakhari, director of the division of metabolism and health effects at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says that if you're choosing between a regular martini and a vitamin-infused one, go ahead and down the vodka that includes extra nutrients—just don't expect any big benefit. Though there may be small gains to drinking natural ingredients, those are pretty much canceled out by the damaging effects of alcohol, experts say. Even additives with known benefits, like vitamins, probably won't do much good, says Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We wake up and have a fortified cereal, then an Odwalla juice, an energy bar, maybe then a Lotus vodka…you may find you're getting above your daily recommended limits," he says. And though many of these spirits are fortified with vitamin B as a way to fight hangovers, Zakhari says it's dehydration and disrupted sleep, not a vitamin deficiency, that's to blame for the morning headache.
As for the other natural additives in alcohol, there's very little evidence that they provide any benefit. Bartenders mixing a cocktail with berry-infused booze love to mention the 2007 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, which found that alcohol boosts the antioxident capacity of fruits like strawberries and blackberries. Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Agriculture Research Service, which helped with the report, notes that the study merely measured the level of antioxidants in the berries, and that the berries were not consumed by humans. "There were small increases in antioxidant levels, and this was an interesting side effect of testing to kill microbial growth on fruits, but there was no testing on what would happen if you actually drank the berries," she says. Additives like açai and guarana have some documented benefit, but testing has mostly been done on animals, with no tests done in conjunction with alcohol.
Due to the lack of clear labeling on these bottles, it's often hard to tell how much of the additive you're getting, which can make all the difference. For instance, while red wine is often touted for its high levels of the antioxidant resveratrol, Rimm points out that in many cases, to get some of the purported health benefits of resveratrol, you'd need to drink an awful lot of the alcohol. "For humans to get the levels of resveratrol shown in mouse models, we'd have to drink 10 to 15 bottles of wine per day," he says. Until there is better labeling of alcohol ingredients, says Rimm, "It's consumer beware. We should focus on what we do know is the predominant ingredient—and that's alcohol."
Caffeine-fortified alcohol may be the most problematic of these enhanced beverages. A 2007 Wake Forest University study found that college students were more likely to binge drink, be sexually assaulted, commit an assault, or take risks (such as riding with an intoxicated driver) when consuming caffeinated cocktails. (The study specifically looked at sugary, caffeinated "alcopops," like the discontinued Sparks line of caffeinated beers.) Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths also found that young people could overdose on caffeine (anxiety attacks, nausea), and that the stimulants did not reduce alcohol's negative effects on motor skills and reaction times. Furthermore, the caffeine could impair a person's perception of how intoxicated they were, making drinkers more likely to engage in risky behavior.
In short, drinking alcohol in order to get nutrients is problematic, says Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, a professor of medicine at Boston University. "People should not drink wine or alcohol for their health," he says. "It's like putting vitamins in cigarettes. That's stupid."