By: Jonathan Toker, Ph.D.
Hyperbolic advertising was born in the pre-historic embers of economic civilization, right along with the world’s oldest profession, and has engaged in an ongoing arms-race with consumers’ credulity ever since. The latest, and most disturbing trend is for advertisers to incorrectly use scientific-sounding words and phrases, capitalizing on the general public’s scientific illiteracy in order to sell more widgets. Learning to be a critical reader and thinker can help you navigate the muddy waters of product advertising, especially when it comes to scientific topics.
I encountered one such example in reading Costco’s June 2013 edition of the Costco Connection magazine, in the article entitled “Dis-still life: Dan Aykroyd and the Crystal Skull”. Not only does Crystal Head Vodka capitalize on consumers’ scientific ignorance and fear, but they invoke the woo woo mysticism of the thoroughly debunked crystal skull myth.
The article mentions why this vodka, bottled in an eye-catching glass skull, is different from others on the market:
“…three things are traditionally added to many of your commercial vodkas, and they are as follow: glycol, a straight coolant, which was used in World War II on the Griffin (sic) and Merlin engines of the Spitfire; citrus oil, which my local pest control operator uses as a bug exterminator and then they add straight, unrefined sugar, sometimes full of microbes, and you just don’t need more sugar molecules in your alcohol.”
The excerpt is from the company website:
“The result was perfect vodka, with absolutely no additives. No glycol (an ingredient for engine anti-freeze); no citrus oil (used in its raw form as an insect exterminant (sic)); and no raw sugar. Nothing was needed, because it was abundantly clear that finely produced vodka came by its smoothness and flavor naturally. So in the end, the only things required were a glass and a pure spirit of one’s own.”
Glycol: The Engine Coolant
I had to read the above paragraph three times to let it sink in. Engine antifreeze in my other-brand vodka? How could that be? And not just any antifreeze but the same stuff used in those WWII aircraft! I did a quick Google search…other than miss-spelling Griffin instead of the correct Griffon, it was true, ethylene glycol was used as a coolant in WWII. Actually, it’s still used, in basically every water-cooled vehicle in the world today. I re-read the paragraph again, dwelling on how all those microbes could exist on unrefined sugar being added to competitor brands- thinking perhaps Mr. Akyroyd could use a little chemistry and biology lesson. It had been a couple of years since he was a scientist on “Ghostbusters” and so he can be forgiven for forgetting the importance of the letters “er”. I’ll explain in a moment. But Crystal Head does not limit their claims to their website and Costco Connection. A YouTube search for turns up several tedious videos of Mr. Aykroyd talking about the dangers of drinking other vodkas laced with additives including “glycol”, the engine coolant.
Listen to Dan Aykroyd say it in his own way:
It struck me that something was wrong. He didn’t mean glycol. All the Crystal Head Vodka literature I could find mentioned glycol. If you say something often enough, does it make it true? They almost certainly meant “glycerol”. Add an “ER” to glycol and you no longer have engine coolant, but rather glycerol, another name for glycerin, a viscous liquid that is on the GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe) and safe to consume. In fact, athletes might recognize glycerol as the nutritional supplement that made headlines a few years ago as a supplement to “hyper-hydrate” the body by storing extra water in cells. It caused stomach distress to athletes who took high dosages, but it is safe. And it is not aircraft coolant.
So what, then, is glycerol used for in some brands of vodka? It’s an “oily” ingredient that can be added in small amounts to give vodka a particular “mouth feel” as well as a slightly sweet taste. Don’t fret. There’s no engine coolant in any vodka. There never has been and there never will be. I’m surprised the vodka industry has not cried foul yet. And by the way, there’s no trans fat in vodka either, no cholesterol, nor for that matter transmission fluid, motor oil, gasoline, fracked crude, DDT, mercury, polonium or that gooey black stuff from the aliens in Prometheus. Although associating any of those with other brands would surely be as effective a scare tactic as saying they contain engine coolant. In case you were worried.
Citrus Oils: The Bug Exterminator
What about the “scary sounding” citrus oil? Well, if you want lemon-flavored vodka, you add natural lemon oil. Orange flavour? Add orange oil. Citrus oils can be extracted and isolated from the citrus rinds and while they contain a vast array of volatile substances that constitute the citrus aroma, limonene is the primary component and in diluted form, is safe to consume. In concentrated form, it can be used as a natural cleaning agent and as organic pest control. There is absolutely no danger using citrus oils to impart flavour to food products. You can do the same at home by grating the rind of an orange or lemon. You won’t want to drink pure citrus oil, but then again, you wouldn’t want to drink pure alcohol either.
Unrefined Sugars and Microbes
Typical starting ingredients for vodka are grain, enzymes, yeast and water. Sugars in the grain are fermented into alcohol by the yeast. The resulting mixture is distilled (usually several times) to purify and concentrate the alcohol, which is then watered down to the appropriate alcohol content of around 40% v/v (80 proof). Some brands may add additional sugar to enhance fermentation and modify the flavour profile. Distillation would kill and remove any microbes that may be present. Any added sugar to the final vodka would be added to create a distinct flavour for that particular brand. Most likely microbes would not survive in an alcoholic environment. The added “sugar molecules in your alcohol” is just another empty scare tactic or misinformed statement.
Purity vs. Lack of Purity
The very nature of the starting materials and production of each form of alcohol is what imparts unique flavors and characteristics of each product. People enjoy alcoholic drinks because they are “not pure”. For example, the variety and even origin of the wood used in casks to age wine imparts a distinct taste to the final product. To claim that one brand is more “pure” than another is misleading since each brand contains a vast array of small impurities in their products which afford it a distinct aroma, mouth-feel and taste. It is for this reason that tequila, distilled from agave, does not taste like Tennessee whiskey, distilled from grain mash, and why Pisco, distilled from grape skins, does not taste like rum, distilled from sugar cane. All distilled spirits are made in essentially the same way, with some being aged, thereby assuming more ‘impurities’ from the wood casks and even the surrounding environment, as many brands of Scotch are fond of mentioning, and others being bottled immediately after distillation and dilution. There is not much of a market for varieties of 190-proof Everclear, since its pure, distilled alcohol has no distinct taste or impurities to impart character. In a sense, the entire history of a dram of alcohol is carried to the final product in the form of minute impurities. These are not necessarily “bad” impurities, but rather define the product itself.
The Crystal Skull Legend
Let’s read how Crystal Head Vodka tells their version of the story:
“A controversial archaeological mystery, 13 crystal heads have been found in regions around the world, from the American southwest to Tibet. They’re dated between 5,000 and 35,000 years old, and were supposedly polished into shape from solid quartz chunks over a period of several hundred years. Although according to Hewlett Packard engineers, they bear no tool marks to tell us exactly how they were made.”
What does this have to do with vodka? The website goes on to explain:
“Perhaps because they share the raw material from which the original crystal heads were carved, they are thought to have similar spiritual qualities.”
A non-critical reader would likely accept the “controversial archaeological mystery” as fact. However, this attempt by the vodka company is just more marketing pseudo-science. Let’s compare with the facts regarding crystal skulls from more reputable sources. There is no “controversy” here, just science vs. myth.
The crystal skulls are human skull carvings made of quartz. None of the number of skulls that have been made available for scientific analyses has been authenticated as pre-Columbian in origin. The results of these studies demonstrated that those examined were manufactured in the mid-19th Century or later, almost certainly in Europe during a time when interest in ancient culture was blossoming. Interestingly, despite some claims presented in an assortment of popularizing literature, legends of crystal skulls with mystical powers do not figure in genuine Mesoamerican or other Native American mythologies and spiritual accounts. The British Museum skull was worked with hard abrasives such as corundum or diamond, whereas X-ray diffraction revealed traces of carborundum (SiC), a hard modern synthetic abrasive, on the Smithsonian skull. One popular skull, “Mitchell-Hedges” had SEM micrographs that revealed evidence that the crystal had been worked with a high speed, hard metal rotary tool coated with a hard abrasive such as diamond. Extensive research on artifacts from Mexico and Central America showed that pre-contact artisans carved stone by abrading the surface with stone or wooden tools and in later pre-Columbian times, copper tools, in combination with a variety of abrasive sands or pulverized stone. These examinations led Walsh to the conclusion that the skull was probably carved in the 1930s, and was most likely based on the British Museum skull which had been exhibited fairly continuously from 1898.
A glass bottle in the shape of a skull? Great marketing. Nothing more. Why the need to fool customers into thinking there is any valid science behind the crystal skull legend?
The production of most vodka includes one or more filtration steps to remove impurities that are produced during fermentation and carried over during distillation. Control of these impurities can create distinctive characteristics of various vodka products. Activated charcoal is usually employed, a familiar and safe method used extensively in many industries. Microscopic holes and vast surface area of carbon particles can attract and retain a variety of chemicals. In addition to the use of activated charcoal, Crystal Head Vodka also claims to perform a final filtration through “Herkimer Diamonds,” which are in fact not diamonds at all but clear quartz stones.
From the company website:
“Crystal Head Vodka is filtered seven times. In its final stages, the liquid is filtered three times through 500-million year-old crystals known as Herkimer diamonds. These quartz crystals are found in very few places in the world, including Herkimer, New York and regions in Tibet and Afghanistan. They are the most valuable and clearest of all quartz and are highly sought for their Metaphysical properties. Perhaps because the Herkimer diamonds share the raw material from which the legendary crystal heads were carved, they are thought to have similar spiritual qualities.”
From a scientific standpoint, quartz crystals are largely inert and with their closed crystal structure, afford few holes for impurities to hide within. Nor are bits of quartz finding their way into the vodka. Moreover, Crystal Head fails to offer a mechanism by which these inert quartz crystals could affect the flavor or content of the vodka. As detailed above, the claim that quartz can impart or remove any flavor or ‘essence’ is demonstrably false. It can not be false and simultaneously true in some alternative, unmeasurable sense. If an effect cannot be measured, then it does not exist.
Therefore rational review of this step would assure consumers that filtering through quartz is neither dangerous nor beneficial. If you are a believer in Wiccan or New Age belief systems, then the purported special powers these crystals offer may be of interest to you. Psychology plays a huge roll in our perception of flavor.
According the manufacturer, test tasters prefer the crystal-filtered version. Now, was that a blind or a double blind study?
Further clarification was sought on the issue of glycol from the manufacturer, and multiple emails initially remained unanswered. When a response was finally received, it contained conflicting passages including “There are different types of glycol. Some are quite bad for you and some (in small quantities) are fairly harmless. The type of glycol that some vodka producers use is in very low quantities and is harmless. It will not harm you and it is permitted to be used in alcohol. Glycerine (sic) is also used in some European and eastern European vodkas however that additive is banned in the US.” This statement simply perpetuates the ongoing confusion and mis-information at the manufacturer between glycol and glycerol, and disregards the fact that glycerin is permitted as an additive in the US. They conclude with “Crystal Head is additive free. No oils. No chemicals, no sugars.” which would imply that neither alcohol, water nor the impurities that define the brand are “chemicals”, which is a patently false claim.
Whether or not Crystal Head Vodka is a good product is irrelevant, it is an example of misleading and misinformed advertising. The marketing and pseudo-science on which this product is based doesn’t pass the smell test. Be a critical thinker and reader, and don’t look for ghosts where none exist.
Jonathan Toker is a Canadian elite-level runner and triathlete. He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute in 2001, and raced in the professional ranks as a triathlete and runner for 5 years. Dr. Toker worked as a scientist in the biotech industry for 5 years prior to launching his unique SaltStick Electrolyte Capsule and Dispenser lineup. JT would like to thank Jonathan Stewart for his critical reading and review of this article.
 Sax, M; Walsh, J.M; Freestone, I.C; Rankin, A.H; Meeks, N.D. 2008. “The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls”. Journal of Archaeological Science, October, pp.2751–2760. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007
 Aldred, L. 2000. “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality”. American Indian Quarterly, Summer, pp. 329–352. doi:10.1353/aiq.2000.0001.