How to Drink at High Altitude

Let’s get this out of the way: You don’t get drunker at high altitude. It’s a common misconception that when you’re up in the mountains, or way up there on a flight, you absorb alcohol faster and get drunk faster. Ray Isle, Food & Wine Executive Editor, is here to clear things up:

“What does happen is because you’re at altitude—even if you don’t get altitude sickness—you’re still not getting as much oxygen, so you often feel a little light headed and dizzy. Combine that with alcohol and you start to feel more messed up than you nomrlaly would,” Isle explains.

It’s what he calls “more of a combo platter” of altitude and the fact that you’re drinking, as opposed to alcohol actually affecting you any more than it does at sea level.

Factor in the dehydration that you might experience from drier mountain air, and the effects of alcohol the morning after will make it feel like a little went a long way. 

All this is to say that while you’re not actually getting drunker faster, the conditions affect how you feel. They also affect how you taste. 

It’s not a matter of your taste buds, but rather, your sense of smell, and that’s a problem because “flavor in any context is mostly aroma,” Isle says. “Because the air is really dry, for one thing, and your nose is all dried out and you don’t salivate as much, it’s harder to pick up aromas of wine.”

With all this in mind, Isle has a few tips for getting the most out of your mountain drinking experience, which will come in handy for anyone heading to Colorado for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which kicks off June 15.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Pounding water or any drink with electrolytes will help ease that headache the next morning, but staying hydrated will also help you taste that glass of wine (or three) that you’re sipping. When you’re mouth is dried out, you’re not salivating as much and picking up those oaky or fruity notes. So do yourself—and your future self—a favor, and carry a water bottle with you at all times.

Turn the humidifier on.

Another way to combat the dry air is by using a humidifier, or, if you have access to a bathtub, filling it up and letting the moisture permeate the air. 

Give that glass of wine a big swirl.

Don’t be shy about making a big production of swirling wine in your glass. The motion aerates the wine and releases the aromatic compounds into the air—often referred to as “opening up”—which will help your dried-out nose pick up on the aromas. 

Stay away from super tannic reds.

Tannins—those compounds that make up a wine’s structure, and leave your mouth dry and puckering, as if you’ve just had a harsh cup of tea—taste intensified at higher elevations. So Isle suggests swapping the super tannic California Cabernet for something a little softer.

Take it slow.

The mountain views might make you feel invincible, but remember that there’s less oxygen up where you are, and you might feel woozy with or without a drink. Where two drinks might make you feel lightheaded at sea level, one drink might do the trick when you’re up high, so proceed with caution. One easy way to check your pace? Drink a glass of water—or two, or three!—between every glass of booze. (Have we mentioned that it’s also important to hydrate?)

Drink bubbles, because why not?

Isle has no explanation for why it’s fun to drink bubbles up high, but he likes to, and that’s reason enough to follow his lead. If a sweeping vista, in Aspen or otherwise, isn’t cause to break out the celebratory Champagne, we don’t know what is.

Choose low-alcohol cocktails.

Low alcohol drinks will help you pace yourself, but they’ll also help you savor the moment. This is not to say Isle’s never had a martini at The Little Nell, of course, but it’s all about strategy and playing the long game at a weekend like the F&W Classic in Aspen. Try drinks like an Aperol Spritz (but you knew that already) or a shandy.

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