Sadly, the reports are somewhat grim: there is no surefire preventative for getting bombed, nor a cure for its second act, a killer hangover (other than not drinking, which is beside the point). Still, a little science on your side can help you as you belly up to the bar or, the next morning, awaken with a screaming headache, a profound sense of nausea, and a tongue the consistency of wool. There are a few tricks to ease the experience, and at the very least, you'll have the license number of the truck that hit you.
Your body is no stranger to alcohol: tiny amounts of it are produced by bacteria and yeasts in your body all the time. To deal with this, as well as the double shot of whiskey you pour down your gullet, an enzyme in the stomach and liver converts the alcohol to acetaldehyde. It has a certain symmetry to it: alcohol makes you drunk, and acetaldehyde gives you the hangover. Your body can burn off about half an ounce of alcohol (the amount in a single drink, approximately) in an hour, though women, the Japanese, and Native Americans tend to have less of the enzyme (which is why they tend to get drunk faster).
What you drink has little bearing (unless you're drinking a particularly extreme beverage, such as absinthe) on how fast or how much you get intoxicated. Simple math demonstrates that a 12-ounce beer (5% alcohol) contains about half an ounce of alcohol. The same is true of a five-ounce glass of wine (12% alcohol) and shot (1.5 ounces) of 80-proof whiskey. In short, three beers in an hour is the same as three martinis in the same time: they put the same amount of alcohol in your system, and you get just as sloshed.
However, whiskey neat or a very dry martini may give you a slight advantage over beer or wine, because they go to your head slower. About 20% to 30% of the alcohol you drink is absorbed through the stomach; the rest is absorbed through the small intestine, and there the rate of absorption is much faster. But to get to the intestine, the drink has to pass through a valve in the stomach which shuts when it encounters more than 30% alcohol. So drinking small amount of high-octane spirits may cause the drink to remain in the stomach longer, which delays inebriation, though it does not eliminate it. Of course, this valve exists because alcohol is a poison: drinking a bottle in one night can kill -- and has killed -- people. The valve is also responsible for "praying at the porcelain altar"; the body will, at some point, reject the poison.
One way to slow down the effects of alcohol is to eat a meal or drink a glass of milk before setting out to the local pub (I once knew a cellist who would drink a 3:1 mixture of milk and scotch. Judging by his tendency to play drunken cello, I'm not sure if the milk was any help) because food absorbs the alcohol, slowing its entry into the bloodstream. Another is to eat fruit or honey: both contain fructose which may speed up the body's ability to metabolize alcohol. There is no evidence that vitamins help retard the effects of alcohol.
One thing that definitely doesn't work is aspirin. A study of nearly a decade ago showed that men who took two aspirin before calling their local barkeep for a shot of whiskey absorbed from 40% to 100% more alcohol into their blood -- enough of an increase for a single drink to put them over the legal driving limit with a single drink. Apparently, aspirin inhibits the metabolization of alcohol.
Once in your bloodstream, alcohol begins to work its wonders. It replaces water molecules in nerve cells in your brain, slowing down their signaling, and thus your reactions and thoughts. It changes the density of tissue in your middle ear, resulting in the loss of balance and the drunken stagger. It breaks down various molecular energy stores, making you hungry. It shuts down production of a hormone which causes water reabsorption. This results in the trips to the toilet; drinking two glasses of wine will cause you to lose twice that amount of liquid at the other end.
The acetaldehyde which is created through the metabolization of alcohol has effects of its own. It dilates blood vessels in your skin, giving that warm and flushed feeling (it also causes you to lose heat faster. The brandy from the St. Bernard would only hasten a stranded skier's demise).
All these reactions send you on your way to a morning of abject gloom. As Boswell described it in 1763, "a bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and very inflammatory dose... and this morning it was boiling in my veins." Dilated blood vessels in your brain cause the famous pounding headaches. Your body's nightlong binge of throwing water overboard has left you dehydrated and your tongue dry. Alcohol disrupts REM during sleep, resulting in a tired feeling upon waking. However, as it fades away, the body produces adrenaline, making deep sleep even less of a possibility. A hangover even impairs driving. Several studies have shown that even though there is effectively no alcohol in the bloodstream, reactions are slowed well into the next day.
The intensity and particulars of a hangover depend on the individual. One thing that can make hangovers worse for some is their reaction to "congeners," the 800 or so chemicals that might come along for the ride in a bottle of booze; they can arise from aging the liquor in a wooden keg, or some other part of the fermentation or distillation processes. The congeners are not just responsible for making your hangover worse; as alcohol is essentially tasteless, they are essential to making a good whiskey good. Vodka, the closest liquor to being 2 parts alcohol to 3 parts water, has the fewest congeners, followed by gin, which uses a herbs and spices to generate its unique flavor. Blended scotch has four times as many of these chemicals as gin; brandy, rum, and single malts have about six times and bourbon has about eight times as many. Using color alone to judge the congener content is misleading; many whiskeys and rums add caramel color.
A congener that causes an intense hangover in one person may have little effect in another. This may be why mixed drinks have a tendency to make a hangover worse: they increase the odds that you'll encounter one that disagrees with you. However, in general, the act of mixing has no effect on the next morning.
In the end, it is quantity, not quality, that makes a hangover. Congeners may amplify the effect, but ultimately, it is alcohol and the acetaldehyde it creates that are the real culprits. Five drinks in an evening is enough for some folks to wake up with a sore head. Over half of all drinkers will feel the malaise after ten drinks.
Despite centuries of claims to the contrary, there's no cure for the whiskey blues. Various concoctions, including ones made with raw eggs, Tabasco sauce, bitters, etc. do little more than take your mind off the pain. Ditto for exercise, saunas, and steam baths. The French prescribe café et du sel, strong coffee with salt, for la guele du bois (interestingly, enough, this has come to be known as Navy-style coffee in the US). The Germans eat bananas with red meat at breakfast. The Chinese drink a tea brewed from spinach. The Swiss suck on a can of oxygen, while Russians, perhaps characteristically, recommend more vodka.
"I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night," wrote John Heywood in 1546. This centuries-old remedy may work for some, but only because they are also suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms, in which case the hangover is the least of their problems.
There are some things you can do help ease the pain: before going to bed, take an aspirin (if it doesn't make you sick). Drink lots of water. If you wake up in the middle of the night, drink more water. When you get up, drink more water. Eat something as soon as you can after waking up. But in the end, only time and a good liver can make it go away. Of course, the best cure is prevention. If you're planning a long night, alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. If you're averaging more than one drink per hour, you'll feel it the next day.
Ultimately, a world-class hangover is simply Nature's way of keeping life in the balance, and it's probably best not to cheat fate but to take your lumps stoically. You'll have plenty of time o review the actions that brought you to that dissolute state (if you remember them) and prepare any apologies, all while contemplating righteous pledges and promises never to do it again.
But as you lie there, cursing your fate, remember that there is no such thing as a bad drink, only a bad drinker. In fact, studies too numerous to mention suggest that one or two drinks per day may be beneficial to your health (anything greater is firmly in the minus column). And, in news that will warm the heart on a snowy winter's day: moderate drinkers suffer half as many colds as non-drinkers.