Chemistry Behind The Bar

It turns out there was a practical reason to pay attention during your boring high school chemistry class — it might have made you a better bartender.

IMG_3504Scientists are beginning to pay more attention to the chemistry of alcoholic beverages.  They note that mixing cocktails is a very elementary form of chemistry.  The bartender experiments with different combinations of chemical substances, looking to find just the right mixture of taste, appearance, and alcoholic punch.  Every mixologist understands that, of course — but it turns out that the chemistry of booze is even more interesting than that.  Most alcoholic beverages sold in America don’t have labels that identify precisely what goes into the liquor and whether, for example, the ingredients are natural or artificial.  That’s because, in the U.S., alcohol is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and not the Food and Drug Administration, and the main focus of the labels is the alcoholic content.

There’s some logic to that, I suppose.  If you really like a flavored vodka, for example, will it make a difference to you if the flavor is artificial and the grain that is fermented to create the drink was raised through liberal use of pesticides?  Most people don’t drink to promote their health, they drink because it relaxes them and they have more fun when they’re loosened up.  The precise nature of the substances that get them to where they want to go without barfing onto their shoes really aren’t that crucial.

Anyone who’s worked mixing drinks knows that, to be a really exceptional bartender, you need to be a bit of a psychologist, relationship counselor, priest, character judge, and comedian, among other attributes.  Now we need to add chemist to the list, too.


Every now and then, scientists smash atoms together and discover a new element.  The new elements then go through an accreditation process before they become part of the periodic table that is grimly familiar to everyone who hated having to memorize the elements in their high school chemistry class.

The problems really arise, however, when the time comes to name the new elements.  The sad fact is, scientists suck at coming up with good names.  The latest two proposed names, for example, are Flerovium and Livermorium.  Basically, scientists just take the name of a person or place, add “ium” at the end, and that’s it.

That uninspired convention was used for most of the recent additions to the periodic table.  The boring names for newer elements — Ytterbium?  Lutetium?  Mendelevium? — stand in sharp contrast to the pithy, lyrical names of the older elements, like gold, silver, tin, and mercury.  No one is going to write a song called “Heart of Ytterbium” or pen a holiday standard called “Mendelevium Bells.”  It must be maddening for high school kids to try to pronounce, much less remember, all of these “iums.”

The new names are not only hopelessly unmemorable, they don’t tell you anything about the element itself.  The name “lead” connotes the heaviness of that ponderous metal.  In that regard, “Livermorium” is a missed opportunity.  That substance is formed by smashing calcium ions into the element curium and quickly decays into Flerovium.  How about a name that reflects the element’s short life — like Ephemerite?

I hereby offer to help the scientific community in developing better names — and thereby advance the cause of beleaguered high school chemistry students everywhere.