News emerged this week that an American company had been given permission to sell powdered alcohol in the US. The product, known as Palcohol, will mean that rum or vodka can be made by simply adding water. The company’s website is very secretive about how Palcohol is produced while it seeks a patent. Alcohol powders are not a new invention, however, having been first patented in 1974.

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Most powdered beverages, such as instant coffee powders, are produced by evaporating all the water, usually by freeze-drying. The liquid is frozen under a high pressure, and the pressure is slowly released, turning solid ice directly into a gas and preserving the beverage. This would not work with alcoholic drinks, however. Alcohol is a compound in itself, rather than being a water-based solution like coffee. Simply drying vodka would remove all the alcohol.

Alcohol powders instead take advantage of starch-derived compounds called cyclodextrins. These are ring-shaped molecules that have special chemical properties owing to their structures. The outside of the ring is hydrophilic, which means that cyclodextrins can dissolve in water. The inside, on the other hand, is hydrophobic, allowing it to interact with compounds that would not normally dissolve in water. Because of this, they have important uses in drug manufacturing, where they are used to make insoluble drugs more effective.

Ethanol, the chemical name for drinking alcohol, already dissolves well in water. But it has a chemical structure that also allows it to interact with hydrophobic molecules. This way, ethanol can be contained within a cyclodextrin ring. As Backdoor Pharmacist explained in a blog post for internet magazine Animal: “By shoving other molecules inside the hole, you can turn substances that normally don’t dissolve in water into soluble substances.”

Its founders describe Palcohol as a product of convenience, with the website recommending that you “Take your Pal wherever you go!” Many, however, are likely to see it as a way of smuggling vodka into venues where alcohol is banned or expensive. What it is not, the company is keen to point out, is snortable. “We’ve added volume to the powder,” it said. “You would feel a lot of pain for very little gain.”

The product’s approval has since been suspended due to discrepancies between label values and the amount of powder in a bag. Palcohol plans to resubmit its application with revised labels.