What does alcohol breath smell like?
November 3, 2010 10:25 PM   Subscribe

What does alcohol on someone else's breath smell like?

Apparently I have reached adulthood without realising I have a very poor sense of smell.

I always thought that smelling alcohol "on one's breath" was a figure of speech (like being "blind" drunk when you're not, actually, blind) or an urban legend to scare underage drinkers, but I discover that it's actually something people can genuinely smell without a breathanalysis machine.

What is the smell—is it the smell of the alcohol itself, or the residue of the wine/beer/spirit? How would you describe the smell? Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or does it depend? Is it noticeable just after one or two standard drinks or is it evidence strictly of a longer session? Does it go away quickly?

Disclaimer: I do drink, and I definitely know the smell of alcohol in a liquid. I've just never smelled it on human breath.
posted by Fiasco da Gama to Food & Drink (32 answers total)
It's the smell of alcohol, and no it's not pleasant.
posted by dfriedman at 10:27 PM on November 3, 2010

It smells like alcohol. Slightly digested alcohol. And it's not just on breath- it can radiate off a (very) drunk person's body.

In college, I lived in a tall dorm with elevators. I could tell if a drunk person had been in the elevator recently, and whether it was beer or hard liquor, based on the residual stench.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:33 PM on November 3, 2010

It's like alcohol, reminiscent of the same way you can smell the stink of a cigarette off a heavy smoker's clothes even if he's not smoking at that moment. Not quite a mirror, but a strong echo.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 10:43 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

It depends, there's the smell of alcohol on someone's breath, which is sort of..booze and breath...and then there's the smell off someone' body who is either an alcoholic or got wasted the night before, and that's sort of a sickly sweet nasty chemical odor, I find.
posted by stray at 10:52 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

It smells like alcohol. The person can also smell like the drink, but frequently, especially after time, the smell is just alcohol. It's usually unpleasant. Are you absolutely sure you can smell alcohol in a drink? Have you actually just learned to distinguish the smell of the different mixers and liquors? I have never heard of someone *not* being able to smell alcohol on someone's breath before, so I'm kind of wondering if this one of those weird genetic flukes, like me not being able to smell stink bugs. I seriously can't wrap my head around it; the scent of alcohol is that strong.
posted by wending my way at 10:52 PM on November 3, 2010

According to my nose, the smell is a weird cocktail of alcohol and bad breath. I don't really have a good sense of smell either, but I can smell alcohol on people just fine.
posted by vidur at 11:14 PM on November 3, 2010

Are you absolutely sure you can smell alcohol in a drink?
I'd thought I was sure—I can certainly smell alcohol solvents, and I have no problem smelling the rubbing alcohol doctors use before injections. Good question though, I wonder if it's the other additives I'm smelling.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:14 PM on November 3, 2010

I can roughly tell what type of alcohol people have been drinking. Someone who has been drinking beer smells distinctly different than someone who has been drinking whiskey, to someone who has been drinking vodka. Perhaps you haven't spent much time around drunks?

I have said, in the past, that sometimes there is nothing more alluring than the scent of beer and cigarettes on a woman.
posted by danny the boy at 11:27 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

To me it smells like cheap vodka. Usually smelled on a fellow subway rider at 2 in the morning. It's the sort of smell, and usually on the sort of person, where you have a feeling they've been drinking all day. Maybe for several days straight.

I can't usually smell alcohol on someone if they've only had a beer or two - it's something I associate with heavy consumption of hard liquor, probably straight up.
posted by Sara C. at 11:33 PM on November 3, 2010

Buy a small bottle of vodka and smell the contents. It's a fainter version of that.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:08 AM on November 4, 2010

It's a bit like ketosis breath or the aftertaste of bile, sweetish sour, and perfectly complements the unwashed-and-still-metabolizing post-bender bitter pore seepage. On people with whom it's very strong, sometimes it's tasteable if you breathe in near them with your mouth open.
posted by grar at 12:10 AM on November 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

I can certainly smell alcohol solvents, and I have no problem smelling the rubbing alcohol doctors use before injections.

Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) smells sort of similar to drinking alcohol (ethanol), but not really the same. Alcohol solvents or spirits could be methanol, ethanol mixed with methanol, or ethanol mixed with something else to make it unpalatable, or even some other alcohol. None of these smell quite like ethanol. The smell you are looking for is more like vodka.
posted by ssg at 12:11 AM on November 4, 2010

I smell it on the sweat: sour and unpleasant.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:15 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ethanol-based hand sanitizer has a similar smell too.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:26 AM on November 4, 2010

People who are metabolising a serious amount of alcohol definitely smell of ketones to me. One friend of mine who was a serious drunk always had breath that smelled of nail polish remover during the day.

Otherwise, I can smell the characteristic notes of strongly flavoured drinks. I don't think you need to drink much whiskey to have whiskey breath if it was within the last hour or so. That's not smelling of alcohol per se, it's smelling of the particular drink.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:30 AM on November 4, 2010

Just to empathise. I was managing a very large project many many moons ago and there was a person that was particularly disruptive within one of the core teams. A few people noted he'd come back from lunch drunk quite often. So eventually his team leader and I pulled him aside. The team lead called him on his drinking saying he reeked of alcohol both bodily and on his breath. The person finally acknowledged his drinking.

I asked the team lead after the meeting whether he'd really noted a smell. He said yes and was surprised that I didn't notice. I couldn't smell a thing.
posted by michswiss at 12:37 AM on November 4, 2010

I did rugby training with a fella who drank before hand. The scrums would smell of alcohol. Avoiding the "it smells like acohol" answer I would say it smells sweet.

Not a pleasant smell, but not nasty. I wonder if the "ick" factor is not the actual smell, but realising you're suckin' in a drunk person's beer breath.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:39 AM on November 4, 2010

As people are mostly saying here, it's largely the smell of alcohol but definitely cut with a touch of the particular alcoholic drink the person has been imbibing. Someone who has been on the beer all night will smell a bit yeasty. Someone who's been on the wine will have a sweeter... well, winier aroma. A whisky drinker will have a bit of the sharp edge of spirit about him or her.

Unlike some of the other folk here I don't find it unpleasant at all (sometimes quite the contrary) unless it's really powerful or cut with other evil elements. But then I love alcohol like I love life itself, so I'm probably a bit biased.
posted by Decani at 2:22 AM on November 4, 2010

After a night of heavy drinking people normally tell me that I smell 'fruity' or like paint thinner. I think someone once commented that I smelled like papayas.
posted by nihraguk at 2:22 AM on November 4, 2010

Sometimes I think someone just had a good belt and it seems like the wrong time or totally out of character. Then I realize they just used some hand sanitizer! That's what it smells like to me.
posted by Wylie Kyoto at 4:25 AM on November 4, 2010

No matter what form of alcohol my husband drinks, an hour or so later it appears in his breath in exactly the same way. On him, it's the scent of pure ethanol itself, slightly sweet and rather pleasant, just as described by the Merck Index of chemicals. Any nasty congeners that make the drink itself taste harsh fail to make it to his breath. It makes a big difference if, instead, you're sniffing for alcohol on someone who has bad breath or body odor to begin with.
posted by Ery at 4:49 AM on November 4, 2010

Combine it with cigarette smoke, let it simmer overnight, and it smells like lukewarm death.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:37 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to address the other implicit assumption in your question re "blind drunk," there are actually two reasons why this is not just a figure of speech. The most common is that people when very drunk actually do have a hard time seeing. They cannot adequately focus their eyes, and so are kind of functionally blind.

However, there is also the fact that drinking "bad" alcohol, ie methanol, can quickly lead to actual blindness and death. "Methanol has a high toxicity in humans. If ingested, as little as 10 mL can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve" This is not so much an issue now, but was a real problem during Prohibition, for instance.
posted by OmieWise at 5:50 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can smell it on someone's sweat after they've been drinking -- say a couple hours into a party or the next day. My husband has one of those over-the-counter asthma inhalers -- that smells exactly the same when he uses it.
posted by MeiraV at 7:19 AM on November 4, 2010

Incidentally, I was in a research study some years ago that involved receiving alcohol intravenously. (Not nearly as fun as you'd think. Actually, not fun at all.) Even though I didn't consume any alcohol orally, it gave me the taste reminiscent of vodka in my mouth. The researchers also gave the subjects regular breathalyzer tests, so I assume that my breath also would have smelled like alcohol.
posted by leapfrog at 7:59 AM on November 4, 2010

Depends on the timing. The further away from the point of consumption, the different the smell. If they are still drinking, you'll smell what ever they were drinking.

If they are done drinking but are still drunk, it will smell alcohol-y. Ethanol "feels" like rubbing alcohol as you smell it, but the odor is less sharp.

That fruity next morning smell is most likely acetaldehyde, a metabolite of ethanol.

I was a pallbearer for my grandfather, along with one of my second cousins. Dude was not only still drunk from the night before, he also had a distinct "booze in flask" smell. In the bright sun of morning, next to a casket, it was terribly jarring. My point is: you can almost always smell the bad ones. True for a lot of things, really.

(Your functional alcoholics who are hiding it will almost always have a cover smell. Hand sanitizer, aftershave, breathmints, etc. Something that gives other people a reason why the alcoholic always has a smell to them.)
posted by gjc at 8:03 AM on November 4, 2010

Nthing the sickly sweet smell - to me it smells like canned fruit cocktail that's gone bad. This smell usually only comes up after a few hours of drinking, not right at the beginning of the session.
posted by Cimrmanova at 8:48 AM on November 4, 2010

Just some anecdata....

The girlfriend has smelled beer on me after I had a single beer and came to bed 20 minutes later. Not an unpleasant smell, but she noticed.

Same girlfriend has also remarked, in the morning after a night of heavier saturday drinking, that I smelled like a brewery :)
posted by utsutsu at 9:12 AM on November 4, 2010

Nthing the "sickly sweet smell" and I think gjc nailed it on the head with acetaldehyde; I was thinking of the smell of acetone—a common solvent used for nail polish remover—only more faint. And, yes, ketones, as the alcohol is converted to sugars. As someone who has been around persons who have had poorly managed diabetes and around alcoholics who contend that vodka (often the drug of choice for the committed alcoholic) has no smell. They both exude a sweetish, sour, sweaty smell.

Humans are funny creatures, though. We often are unaware of our own smell, thus we may be oblivious to the fact that we have too much cologne or perfume on, or that the smell of alcohol may linger for days (especially on those who regularly consume to excess).
posted by beelzbubba at 9:13 AM on November 4, 2010

There's really two different phenomena being described here.

One is the simple way the breath smells *while* or *immediately after* drinking. This is the one that is breath only, and smells like the drink in question. But it's no different than coffee breath, or peanut butter breath, or soda breath, or toothpaste breath... I mean, the *smell* is different, but in all those cases it's just a matter of the substance lingering in the mouth.

The other is the nastier thing people are talking about: the one that oozes from the pores and smells.... absorbed by the body. The smell of the brewery the morning; the pickled smell of a constant drinker. The one people are describing in more chemical terms.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:29 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Augusten Burroughs describes this perfectly in his autobiographical novel, Dry. He bathed, he brushed his teeth, he applied cologne (to his tongue as well as his skin), deoderant - ate a tin of Altoids - and still he smelled like alcohol as it was coming from his pores at that point. I've smelled this on people before. Breath is a whole other thing - like a combination of vomit and pure grain alcohol. As people have said, sweet and chemical.
posted by marimeko at 5:56 PM on November 4, 2010

My cousin was about 16 when she realized she didn't have a sense of smell. It was later determined that her nasal passages are unusually small, and that is probably what caused it. She can taste things just fine, but her sense of smell is basically non-existent. Some small amount of scent/flavor sensing can happen within your mouth. She of course never realized that she didn't smell things the same way as other people.

The alcohol that comes from your pores is used in Alcohol monitoring anklets.
posted by fontophilic at 8:59 AM on November 5, 2010

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