News & Politics

Powdered Alcohol Is No Good for Getting Hammered. So Why Does DC Want to Ban It?

Judging by the legislation he’s inspired, you might think Mark Phillips, president of the Lipsmark Company, had invented some deadly new drug. He didn’t. Instead, he created a product that drink-lovers and science nerds have been hoping to make for years—powdered alcohol. And even though it hasn’t yet hit the market, 25 states have banned it, and the District may be next.

Should you ever be able to find any legally, Lipsmark’s Palcohol will be a small packet containing 29 grams of powder equivalent to approximately one drink’s worth of alcohol. Add it to 200 milliliters of water (or juice, soda, what-have-you), give it a rigorous stirring, and enjoy. That’s the theory, anyway–no one besides the folks behind its creation has actually tried it yet.

The Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved Palcohol in mid-March of this year. Since then, states including New York, Virginia, and Maryland have banned or temporarily banned its sale on the grounds that it will be a danger to society.

New York State Senator Joseph Griffo brought up his concerns about powdered alcohol in a press release earlier this summer: The product, he wrote, is easy to hide, attractive to young people, and increases the risk of substance abuse. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law earlier this month.

But what about here in relatively libertarian DC? Will the people of the District soon be sipping alcoholic versions of KoolAid on the Mall? Not likely.

In a piece of legislation transmitted to the DC Council on June 12, Mayor Muriel Bowser urged the council to “take prompt and favorable action” to make changes to a number of alcohol-related laws, including one to “prohibit the possession, use and sale of powdered alcohol products.”

District Councilmember Mary Cheh says she is inclined to support such a ban. “For me, it’s the costs versus the benefits, with the one benefit being it makes it more convenient for adults to drink liquor wherever they want,” she says. “The costs seem more severe, especially in enabling the underaged population. It just creates a potential for mischief.”

“Mischief” in this case mostly translates to the potential for underaged drinking and spiked and concealed drinks, plus the perceived snortability of the product. On its website, Palcohol tries to shut down these concerns.

For starters, they stress the fact that Palcohol will be sold only where other liquor can be purchased. “A buyer must be of legal drinking age to buy it,” the website reads. Underaged drinkers presumably won’t have an easier time buying powdered alcohol than they do getting the wet stuff.

Spiking drinks isn’t easier, the company says. “A shot of liquid alcohol is 1/4 the volume of a shot of powdered alcohol…Liquid alcohol dissolves 30 times faster in a drink.”

And don’t think about snorting it: “You can’t get drunk from snorting powdered alcohol because there’s too much powder, and it’s very painful to snort. It’s cheaper, faster, and less painful to get drunk on liquid alcohol.”

Phillips’s company has released very little information on how the product is made (“If we told you, we’d have to shoot you,” the website reads), but Paul Adams, a senior editor at Popular Science, has made and tested a powdered alcohol recipe of his own that he believes is similar to the technique used by Palcohol.

For the less science-inclined, it should be noted that alcohol itself cannot be transformed into a powder form. Instead, measured amounts of high-proof, traditional liquid alcohol must be added to powder that it can bond to. Adams’ recipe calls for a substance called tapioca maltodextrin. “Each little grain of powder is very fuzzy on a molecular level,” says Adams, “so it has a lot of surface area to bond on to the alcohol molecules. When you pour alcohol on to it, each little grain of powder clings on to some alcohol and sort of holds it in place.”

Palcohol’s recipe may differ slightly in the choice of base powder (“they might use some kind of beta-cyclodextrin,” which is tougher to obtain over-the-counter, he says), but the outcome is the same: a lot of powder for just a single shot of alcohol. In reality, it would make a pretty poor intoxicant, and the company doesn’t market it as a way for consumers to get hammered. Instead, Lipsmark’s director of communications Lynne Barbour explains, its intended purpose is to allow an adult to enjoy a drink (note the singular) “when liquid alcohol is too heavy,” such as on a camping trip, or otherwise inconvenient. “Several bakeries want to use Palcohol to make ‘adult’ bakery goods where liquid alcohol won’t work,” Barbour says.

Adams sees few advantages in using powdered alcohol over the liquid form besides it being a fun party trick. “It’s totally novelty,” he says. “I think they were hoping to sell it on the basis of wacky novelty rather than any real usefulness. And it seems to be sort of backfiring because everyone is banning it instead of getting excited about it in a positive way.”

So you can’t snort it, you can’t spike someone else’s drink, and it won’t get you truly sloshed. Maybe Palcohol is not such a threat to society after all. That, however, is for the DC Council to know and for us to find out. “Mayor Bowser has been very clear on her position and would like to see a ban,” says Joaquin McPeek, communications director for the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “But that will be addressed in the fall.”

Correction: This post originally referred to Joaquin McPeek as the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.