Buzz: Huh? How can that be? My mother used to spike our hot cocoa when we'd been out in the snow.
Marnie: It's true that spirits make us feel toasty-warm, so we instinctively give people strong spirits when they're cold. But that's dangerous, because alcohol actually lowers the body's core temperature.
Buzz: Wait till I tell Mom she's had it all wrong.
Marnie: Well, she's not alone in that. The illusion is convincing because it operates on multiple levels. The glow of warmth we feel in the throat after drinking whiskey is really an irritation of tissue, similar to the the "burn" of chili peppers, not heat per se. But the source of the counterintuitive effect is that alcohol makes our blood rise toward the skin's surface. We see this in the flush of color some people get drinking alcohol.
Buzz: Like my buddy Pat, you mean. His cheeks look like brake lights when we're at the bar.
Marnie: Yes. But, pulling blood to the surface sabotages the body's defenses against low temperatures.
Normally, our hot blood gets pulled to the center to be conserved at the core against the cold. The warmth of extremities and exposed flesh is sacrificed to insulate essential organs. Our skin also starts to shiver when chilled, to generate warmth through motion.
By flooding the skin's surface with warm blood, strong spirits disable both means of self-protection. Whiskey might make you feel warmer, Buzz, but those shots put you at greater risk of hypothermia.
Buzz: That's a pain in the flask.
Marnie Old is Philly's highest-profile sommelier. More at marnieold.com. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Daily News Assistant Managing Editor Gar Joseph.