Episode 56: Brewing Trouble

Jun 4, 2021 | 0 comments

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Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that glows so bright you’ll have to wear ear…shades… I guess, is what I’m going with. What can I say, I’ve been sampling the vodka.

I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are:

I’m Shea, and …

Brewing Trouble

Or, it’s Miller-rad time!

The last few weeks have been pretty heavy on Interesting If True so I thought I’d bring it back down to Earth with a story that’s a tight blend of quackery, stupidity, and 100-proof oh-god-why!?

We’ve talked about raw milk in the past—the unpasteurized cow juice that’s as dangerous to drink as it is difficult to find. Seriously, you have to buy into a time-share of a cow. Unless you live in Wyoming where we passed the Freedom to Eat Patriotism and Drink Libtears Freely for Freenees Bill that gives producers of potentially unpotable products permission to pitch their paraphernalia provided they prove they’ve primed patrons with presentations about the potential for poor personal prosperity. My milk hook-up, for example, has the usual “we test this weekly at CU FoCo, but it might mess you up… it might also make your lactose intolerance go away*” *-statements not verified by anyone.

I use mine to make cheese, by the way, intensionally infecting with thermophilic cultures that outcompete dysentery.

We’ve also talked about raw water. The belief that fluoride and other water treatments are mind-control or whatever so it’s “more natural”, read “more healthy”, to drink water as nature intended—right out of the ditch you found it in. Proponents of raw water don’t worry about the stuff floating in it, because water is magic and knows what’s best for you. Besides, that rainbow shimmer is a petroleum’shine, it’s nature’s way of telling you that it’s like drinking the rainbow—no affiliation to the much safer, rainbow editable candies.

Still, knowing what you now know about water and otherwise untreated products, where is the best place to get water to make your brew the best brew?

Rocky mountains? Nope, gonna have to think more remote comrade.

That’s right, the best vodka is brewed with fresh water from the Dnieper river which some listeners may know flows through the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv continuing into the Polesie State Reserve, a Russian national forest.

There, nestled in what Google Maps shows as a low-land forest, is the town of Pripyat, and their new distillery.

Some listeners might already have their shock-and-awe faces on, but for anyone whose Russian geography isn’t great, there’s a reason it’s cheap to grow rye and collect water here—and it isn’t tax breaks. The Chernobyl Spirit Company set up in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (CEZ)—you know, that 4,000 square kilometer bit of east Europe that was abandoned after the 1986 nuclear disaster—which you shouldn’t go anywhere near unless you like having 23-toed babies… per foot.

Atomik Vodka from the Chernobyl Spirit Company

The Vodka, which features a rough, radiation-burned, looking bore on the label is called Atomik. A smooth Apple flavored spirit is, from the bottle:

[Atomik is] a high quality spirit drink like those traditionally made in Ukrainian villages for many centuries (as “moonshine”). This small batch distillate is made from apples grown in regions affected by the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Fruits grown in many areas are now safe to consume, but distillation reduces the radioactivity even further to almost undetectable levels. 75% of profits from ATOMIK will go to supporting local communities and wildlife conservation in Chernobyl affected areas of Ukraine.

~Atomik Vodka, AtomikVodka.com

So all in all, it could be worse. At least they’re giving a portion of sales to charity… hopefully.

The original run produced some 1,500 bottles of “Atomik alcohol drink” but the lot of it was confiscated at the border by the Ukrainian authorities and taken to the Kyiv Prosecutors office.

“It seems that they are accusing us of using forged Ukrainian excise stamps, but this doesn’t make sense since the bottles are for the UK market and are clearly labeled with valid UK excise stamps.”

Said Professor Jim Smith—a real name for a real human.

The professor and his Ukrainian colleagues have spent years studying the CEZ. The primary goal of producing the vodka was to study if radiation from the Chernobyl disaster is present in crops grown nearby, they also tested the ability of distillation to remove radioactive particulates. The hope is to prove that produce grown by communities in the area is safe to eat and sell, which is currently illegal on “officially contaminated land”.

They did manage to get one bottle of the pilot stock out of the Check and into the UK for Professor Smith to test in his lab at Portsmouth University. This first run of flavorless, doom-vodka was “no more radioactive than any other vodka” so they setup to make the pictured apple-flavored spirits en masse. He continued:

“This is no more radioactive than any other vodka, any chemist will tell you, when you distill something, impurities stay in the waste product. So we took rye that was slightly contaminated and water from the Chernobyl aquifer and we distilled it. We asked our friends at Southampton University, who have an amazing radio-analytical laboratory, to see if they could find any radioactivity. They couldn’t find anything – everything was below their limit of detection.”

The apples are grown in the Narodichi district, which despite being immediately outside the CEZ is still under heavy agricultural restrictions.

Dr. Gennady Leptev, who helped clean Chernobyl up when it was still a young, bright-eyed nuclear disaster, says of the project:

“We hope this issue can be resolved so that we can continue our work trying to help people affected by the devastating social and economic impacts Chernobyl had on communities.”

Which is the crux of it. They made vodka of course because it’s a distilled product and they sought to study how much, if any, radiation is left after something has been distilled. But now that they know it’s “safe” (emphasis mine) they’re hoping to build a case to help nearby communities like Narodichi that are still feeling the economic effects of having a massive, radioactive, meltdown.

“There are radiation hotspots [in the exclusion zone] but for the most part contamination is lower than you’d find in other parts of the world with relatively high natural background radiation, the problem for most people who live there is they don’t have the proper diet, good health services, jobs or investment.”

Said Dr. Leptev. Which… I gotta say less radiation than places with lots of radiation isn’t exactly the ringing endorsement of safety that I look for inland deals… but I guess that’s why I’m an artist and not a radiologically savvy real-estate mogul.

Now, I know what you’re thinking “but Aaron, was the study up to snuff?”

… sure.

I read the study and while technical in some spots this was clearly preliminary research.

First of all, the 0.25 hectare of land used to grow the crops was in a relatively less contaminated area at 100 kBq (kilobecquerel, named for Henri Becquerel who shared the Nobel with Pierre and Marie Curie) m-2 of 137Cs. This isn’t a ton of radiation. While the area is still technically restricted apparently there are a handful of “self-settlers” living there.

The grains were sieved, dried, crushed, and added to a 50L tank with 24L of water at 70-80c. The brewing guidelines aren’t super specific, maybe they’re trying to keep the recipe a secret. They let it go for a measly five days until the wort had fermented to 12% abv. The liquid “wash” was decanted and filtered in preparation of distillation.

Then they talk about a bunch of ways to measure gamma, alpha/beta, etc., radiations that I Googled the hell out of, but I’m still an art major so… science! One thing I did grock was the ISO standards mentioned for radiological contamination. While the rhy, groundwater, and environment were all higher than you’d like, the resultant distilled alcohol had no more radioactivity than your average liquor-store bottle. If you want to read the study yourself it’s linked in show notes.

As for the vodka itself, I’m sure you’re wondering if it’s any good. The answer is, it seems, not really.

“It’s more of a grain spirit than a vodka, so it has much more fruity notes – you can still taste the rye,” says Sam Armeye, from Bar Swift, in Soho.

When asked about cocktail options he said it would make an ok martini but that he’d also add champagne… which is… maybe a British thing? Sounds like covering up radioactive skunk with cheaper, bubblier, skunk, but whatever.

Looking to the future the team hopes to make 500 bottles of the new Apple flavored rye this year which, hopefully, won’t also be seized by customs. 

  • https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57011695
  • https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49251471
  • https://www.cbsnews.com/news/atomik-vodka-chernobyl-disaster-liquor-company-radiation/
  • https://www.atomikvodka.com/distillate-alcohol-experiment
  • https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334988042_Distillate_ethanol_production_for_re-use_of_abandoned_lands_-_an_analysis_and_risk_assessment
  • https://www.atomikvodka.com/distillate-alcohol-experiment

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Raw Water’s Got Nothing On Radithor

Which is, unfortunately, not a radical new Thor movie.

Radithor was a patent medicine—listeners may recall patent medicines from our episode on Snake Oil—that was distributed widely from 1918 to 1028… so… you know, the height of consumer safety.

I mentioned raw water in the intro but you’ll be happy to know that Radithor uses triple distilled, pure water.

Pure water and radium.

Listeners may also recall Jenn’s Radium Girls story in which the casual consumption of radium by means of licking a brush tip was enough to cause horrible, life-ending, effects. And they weren’t even doing shooters of it!

Radithor in a 2″ bottle, sold for $1USD

Radithor was sold in tiny glass bottles with cork stoppers of about the size of a 5-Hour Energy. For one American dollar, a person could procure a vile of this wonder tonic and assured that “Radithor is harmless in every respect” Which… was not at all true.

Produced by the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc., of, of course, New Jersey. Bailey himself was a college dropout and not at all a medical doctor. Still, his company advertised Radithor as “Perpetual Sunshine” and “A Cure for the Living Dead”.

At least that last one might be accurate, you can’t zombie if you can’t a spooky scary skeleton.

Radithor was, basically, RedBull’s gran-pappy. The drink was designed to put a pop in your step, but instead, it skipped right over giving you wings and went straight to giving you cancer… if you lived long enough. In the case of Eben Byers, he drank so much that his skeleton died inside of him—which does not help one Fluntag.

Radithor was marketed as a pick-me-up, but of course, it also cured diseases like anemia, hysteria, insomnia, anorexia, “backward development” (whatever the fuck that is), high blood pressure, gout, and arthritis. At least that last one is plausible—you can’t have arthritis if you don’t have bones.

“Radium is displaying new and useful powers with every step in its development. […] There are men who affirm that … in fact, this yellow atom, so insignificant in appearance, eventually will prove one of the greatest boons to ailing mankind that ever was discovered.”

~A 1903 feature announced in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Byers was a lady’s man, known around Yale as “Foxy Grandpa”… gross. He was an amateur/professional golfer of some note having won the 1906 national amateur golf championship, but more importantly, he owned A.M. Byers Company in Pittsburg, one of the world’s largest steel companies at the time. 

Being Mr. Party-McGee, Byers found himself on a “party train” following a 1927 Harvard-Yale football game. Details are sparse, but apparently, it was a raucous good time as Byers would awake the next morning with what I’m sure was a hell of a hangover and a broken arm. Which was a problem, because he couldn’t golf… or apparently please women… with a broken arm and those were basically the only two things he did.

Fear the permanent loss of use of two limbs, the 51-year-old sought out the help of “Dr. William Bailey” and his amazing Radithor solution to expedite his recovery.

Needless to say, Bailey, who didn’t graduate from Yale, damn sure didn’t go on to get a doctorate of medicine from the University of Vienna. Fortunately, Vienna was all the way over there and communications at the time did not allow the googling of credentials. So, “Doctor” it was.

The drink sat well with young Byers. So much so that he began feeding it to his girlfriends, family, and even racehorses. By December of 1927 he was averaging 3 bottles a day… a pace he kept for over two years… In total, he’s estimated to have consumed 1,400 bottles of it.

Basically, he didn’t stop drinking radioactive bullshit until his teeth started falling out in 1930.

Following the radium girls’ stories, Byers’ doctor recognized the signs of radium poisoning and the medical community sounded the alarm about Radithor.

In 1931, the Federal Trade Commission asked Byers to testify about Radithor but he was unable to move. The commission sent a lawyer to interview him at his Southampton home.

Attorney Winn found Byers in a terrible state:

“Young in years and mentally alert, he could hardly speak. His head was swathed in bandages. He had undergone two successive operations in which his whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was slowly disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.” 

It took six more months for Byers to die. The details of which I will save you all because… god damn. Let’s just say that while often the medical interventions available to the rich are enviable, there are some conditions that you really just don’t want to live with a day longer than you need to. Honestly, a bullet would have been a mercy.

Regarding the death and subsequent investigation Bailey said:

“I never had a death among my patients for radium treatment. I have taken as much or more radium water of the same kind Mr. Byers took and I am 51 years old, active and healthy. … I believe that radium water has a definite place in the treatment of certain diseases and I prescribe when I deem it necessary.”

The radium fad was dying… just like the people who followed it and soon his “elixir of youth” was known as “bottled death,” which is, I imagine, not what the marketing boys wanted to see at all.

Following the downturn of radium’s popularity, and saddled with debts and no small amount of murder-shame, Bailey switched to making seaweed-based boner pills. Say what you will about the man but he knew how to separate an idiot from his money.

Unfortunately, all the man-pills in the world, like his ill-received 1918 “Las-I-Go for Superb Manhood” supplements, wouldn’t be able to prevent bladder cancer from taking him on May 17th, 1949 death. 

With both our named characters in the ground you’d think this would be the end of it, but I have one last cherry to top this off with. When he died Byers was buried in a lead-lined coffin because his body was emitting 225,000 becquerels of radiation. For comparison, the average human body contains 0.0169 g of potassium-40, producing approximately 4,400 becquerels. So, roughly 51 times the amount of radiation that’s supposed to be in you. 

For Bailey, who you’ll recall boasted about the amount of Radithor he drank when his body was exhumed 20 years after his death as part of a radiation investigation, they found that his body had, in fact, been “ravaged” by radiation. Still more worrisome, despite 20 years in the ground, his corpse was still warm.

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radithor#:~:text=Radithor%20was%20a%20patent%20medicine,radium%20226%20and%20228%20isotopes.
  • https://chicagotribune.newspapers.com/
  • https://www.amusingplanet.com/2019/08/the-radioactive-energy-drink-that-kills.html
  • https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-flash-radium-elixir-fad-cure-cocktails-0304-20180220-story.html
  • https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-flash-radium-elixir-fad-cure-cocktails-0304-20180220-story.html
  • https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/the-man-who-drank-radioactive-juice-until-his-bones-crumbled-and-his-jaw-came-off/
  • https://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/quackcures/radith.htm

Outro

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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

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