Dr. Jim Beam, DDS



One of the advantages of working at home is that I have more opportunities to talk to my neighbors, who often stop by with interesting news. The other day, a bear got into someone’s chicken coop; not long before that, a stray bull was wandering around in the adjoining field. But the most intriguing recent tidbit came from a neighbor who told me that he gargles with bourbon instead of mouthwash.

“You what?” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I was looking at the mouthwash in the store a while ago, and I thought, ‘Hey, this stuff is basically expensive alcohol with a bunch of weird additives. Why not just buy a bottle of whiskey and be done with it?’”

Now here was an appealing proposition. First of all, how often does one get to combine the pleasures of hard liquor with virtuous feelings about personal hygiene? Secondly, as the overcommitted parent of a toddler, the prospect of drinking while accomplishing something else sounded like the highest form of efficiency.

I should say that my neighbor has a Ph.D. in biology and is, as far as I can tell, eminently sane. He’s also a teetotaler, so he spits out the bourbon. (Seeing my disappointment, he added, “But I don’t see why you’d have to.”) And he doesn’t rinse in the morning, especially if he has to talk to other people. (“Wouldn’t make a good impression.”) He figures his nightly swishes beat mouthwash on several counts: cheaper, no weird additives, and as good or better at killing bacteria.

Sounds too good to be true. Is it? In our efforts to serve you better, the Last Word On Nothing Consumer Affairs Division decided to investigate.

Our enthusiastic testers compared a Leading Brand of Alcohol-Containing Mouthwash (a “therapeutic mouthrinse” approved by the American Dental Association) with a Leading Brand of Middle-Shelf Bourbon.

Price: The mouthwash costs $4.45 for 500 mL, or .89 cents/mL; the bourbon sells for $6.54 for 375 mL, or 1.74 cents/mL. So much for a good deal (though bourbon, at 80 proof and up, does give you more alcohol for your money than mouthwash, a mere 40 or so proof). Winner: Mouthwash.

Weird Additives: The mouthwash contains the active ingredients eucalyptol (the main ingredient in oil of eucalyptus), menthol (ditto for oil of peppermint), methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen), and thymol (oil of thyme), and the inactive ingredients water, alcohol, sorbitol solution (an artificial sweetener also used as a laxative), flavoring, poloaxmer 407 (a surfactant), benzoic acid (a preservative), sodium saccharin, sodium benzoate (another preservative), and FD&C green no. 3, or Fast Green FCF, a somewhat questionable food dye.

The bourbon, according to our resident expert Mr. Boston, is distilled from a mash of grain containing not less than 51 percent corn, mixed with barley and either wheat or rye. Obviously, bourbon’s the simpler, purer choice! But wait: the natural products of said distillation process, according to researchers from the Technical University of Munich, are 40 percent alcohol and 60 percent … other stuff. The German researchers, The New York Times reported, started by reducing bourbon to a sludge.

Of the 400 to 500 or so compounds in the sludge, Dr. Schieberle identified 28 critical compounds that seemed to give the most flavor to the bourbon, including beta-damascenone, which give the taste of cooked apples; lactones, which provide coconut flavors and eugenol from the oak barrels, which give clovelike flavors.

When the 28 compounds were added to the alcohol and other compounds, the result was a pretty good bourbon.

So what are those 370-plus other compounds in the bourbon sludge, the ones that aren’t so tasty? (More research is, clearly, needed.) You’re not drinking the mouthwash, presumably, but if you really want uncomplicated ingredients, you may want to experiment not with bourbon but with some homemade mouthwash. Or you could just forgo “therapeutic mouthrinses” entirely: some dental experts say that for both curing foul breath and keeping gums healthy, brushing and flossing are far more effective than any mouthwashWinner: Draw.

Antibacterial Powers: While ethyl alcohol does have modest antibacterial abilities, essential oils are the main bacteria-killing ingredients in mouthwash. According to Matt Doyle, a scientist for Procter and Gamble — which makes alcohol-containing and alcohol-free mouthwashes — alcohol is added primarily to dissolve the oils, and keep your mouthwash from separating like salad dressing. (Yuck.) In fact, alcohol may dry out the mouth, keeping saliva from washing away nasty bacteria. And bourbon, again according to Mr. Boston, contains traces of sugar from its oak aging casks, which are charred to bring natural sugars to the surface — good for that old Kentucky flavor, not so good for dental hygiene. (The stuff technically known as Cheap-Ass Bourbon may also contain residual sugars from incomplete fermentation.) Winner: Mouthwash.

Intoxication Potential: The mouthwash is 21.6 percent alcohol by volume, bourbon at least 40 percent by definition. Even if drinking mouthwash weren’t a Really Bad Idea, bourbon’s the better choice for a nightcap. Winner: Bourbon.

The official LWON conclusion: Bourbon is, sadly, no substitute for mouthwash. But since mouthwash may be only marginally useful, why bother with the facade? I’ve invited my neighbor over for whiskey sours (made, of course, from the Middle-Shelf Leading Brand that we here at LWON bought for research purposes), which I will drink, and he will swish and spit out. After that, if time allows, we might just brush our teeth.


Top photo credit: iStockphoto.

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3 thoughts on “Dr. Jim Beam, DDS

  1. in grad school we were assistants in the dental student labs. one experiment was to have students gargle with popular mouthwashes (e.g., listerene) or saline and measure bacterial counts on agar plates. mouthwash produced much higher plate counts. what does this mean? who knows. perhaps mouthwash simply dislodged more bacteria from the mouth than saline. but clearly it did not kill bacteria. we didn’t evaluate bourbon.

  2. Attempting to eliminate bacteria from our bodies is not necessary good for us, and it’s quite impractical. The healthy mouth is home to relatively few species of harmful bacteria. And researchers studying the human microbiome have found that most of the microbes living there serve to protect our oral health and keep the bad bugs from taking hold. Interrupting our microbial communities with any substance that indiscriminately kills may not be a good idea. Scientists are doing some interesting work on methods designed to specifically target disease-causing microbes or the stinky chemicals released from otherwise harmless bacteria. Maybe someone will write a post on this new area of research; it would be a great public service.

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