Downtime

Who First Plucked the Hair of the Dog?

A complete history of drinking through your hangover.

A man drinks a beer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by George Marks/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This essay is excerpted from Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, out now from Penguin Books.

Throughout history, people have done all sorts of weird things involving animals in the hopes of curing a hangover. It is said that the epic drinkers of Outer Mongolia pickled the eyeballs of sheep, horse wranglers in the Wild West made tea out of rabbit shit, and my Welsh ancestors roasted the lungs of a pig—all very literally. But the most common remedy has always been figurative: to pluck a hair of the dog that bit you.

That catchy metaphor goes back to at least around 400 B.C., when Antiphanes wrote these words (or at least their equivalent in ancient Greek). And they appear to be riffing on something even earlier:

Take the hair, it is well written,

Of the dog by which you’re bitten,

Work off one wine by his brother,

One labor with another.

Thanks to Antiphanes’s contemporary Hippocrates, the forefather of both the Hippocratic oath and homeopathy, it was a concept popular to all forms of medical treatment: fight fire with fire, yet do no harm. A tricky combination, but one that people have been attempting forever. And of course, it wasn’t just

hangovers that were treated with alcohol. Hippocrates devised an elaborate system of wine therapy, prescribing different types for different ailments and incorporating it into the regimen for almost all chronic and acute illness.

Galen the Greek, who served in the court of Marcus Aurelius, brought Hippocrates’ methods to the Roman Empire. Prolific as Pliny, he published 2.5 million words in his lifetime, much of it about wine therapy. Amid a hundred other wine-soaked remedies, he used it to treat the wounds of gladiators, and apparently not one of them died from infection—from decapitation, disembowelment, and hungry lions, sure, but not from infection.

By the 11th century, medieval healers were still looking to Hippocrates, Galen, and other ancient doctors whose teachings had been translated by monks into Latin and compiled into the great medical tome Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum. This compendium of all medical knowledge prescribed wine and other alcoholic beverages for everything from indigestion to insanity. And it tells you exactly what to do should you exceed the recommended dose. “If you develop a hangover from drinking at night, drink again in the morning. It will be your best medicine.”

And of course, booze was the least questionable ingredient in many curative elixirs. The Dispensatorium Pharmacorum, a medical dictionary from the mid-16th century, contains recipes that combine wine with ingredients such as the ashes of scorpions, dog excrement, and wolf’s liver. And an article from The London Distiller in 1667 explains how to make an apparently well-known tonic from a crushed human skull: “Take the Cranium-Humanum as you please, break it into small pieces … then put string fire to it by degrees, continuing until you see no more fumes come forth; and you shall have a yellowish spirit, a red Oyl, and a volatile salt.” The resulting liquor is supposed to help with “the falling-sickness, Gout, Dropsie, infirm Stomach; and indeed strengthens all weak parts, and openeth all obstructions, and is a kind of Panacea.”

If, however, your hangovers tend to be accompanied by tinges of remorse, you might want to avoid getting drunk on crushed human skull. But then again, there’s always this for the morning after, from Andy Toper’s list of ancient hangover cures: “In Old Europe it was widespread to cultivate moss inside a skull, dry it, powder it, then snort it”—a bit of the skull that bit you.

It is also possible that, at certain times and places in history, whole towns, cities, and civilizations never got a chance to be hungover—they just kept a slight buzz going all day, then into the next, apparently without a lick of guilt.

Today, it is this aspect—the degree to which your hangover makes you feel guilty—that may decide what kind of hair of the dog you choose: a warm, stale beer; a spicy Bloody Caesar; or one of countless cocktails invented specifically for this purpose. Such concoctions tend to come in two overarching categories: sweet, soft soothers meant to ease you back to baseline with something milky, fruity, relaxing and restorative (these have names like Morning Glory, Milk of Human Kindness, and Mother’s Little Helper) or short, sharp shocks intended to twist your system into sobriety with bitterness, blinding heat, and/or gag reflex (Khan’s Curse, Suffering Bastard, Guy Fawkes’ Explosion).

Historically, this second variety could contain anything from anchovies to ammonia, garlic to gunpowder. As Clement Freud (sounding more than a little like his overly analytical grandfather) puts it, such tonics also “sublimate any guilt feelings” by subjecting an already remorseful bastard to a more precise moment of suffering: “Liquid cures of this type,” he opines, “owe much of their effectiveness to the popular belief that anything that tastes really disgusting must actually do you good.”

But guilt feelings aside, does a hair of the dog make practical sense? Sure it does, and always has. Even the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. admits that “the observation that alcohol readministration alleviates the unpleasantness of both AW (alcohol withdrawal) and hangovers suggest that the two experiences share a common process.”

But in regard to “readministration,” those in such institutes also warn you should never, ever do it, lest you turn into a certified drunk. In 2009, Dutch researcher Joris Verster published  a paper addressing precisely this. “The ‘Hair of the Dog’: A Useful Hangover Remedy or a Predictor of Future Problem Drinking?” was based on a survey of Dutch undergrads. It revealed, among other things, that those who used alcohol as a morning-after treatment consumed approximately three times as much alcohol and that those who did so more often had “a significantly higher lifetime alcohol dependence diagnosis.” But of course, there’s an aspect of chicken-and-egginess to all of this. And also, Verster’s paper never did tackle the first part of the question: “A Useful Hangover Remedy?”

The hair of the dog may, in fact, work in ways we never imagined. In Proof, Adam Rogers’ excellent recent book about the science of alcohol, the author suggests that “ethanol might help with a hangover because it stops the body from breaking down methanol.” As Rogers explains it, ethanol is the magical essence of alcohol, while methanol is a nasty molecule that, at low levels, sneaks into most alcoholic drinks and, at high levels, might just kill you. Broken down, it becomes the poison known as formaldehyde. While recognizing that some studies dismiss its effects, Rogers concludes that “one piece of evidence is suggestive: the relative efficacy of the ‘hair of the dog’—drinking more booze.”

Book cover of Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure.

From Hungover by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall.