The mourning after the night before

Hold on to your heads, fellow drinkers: January is upon us and I propose to discuss hangovers. Awaking pale and tattered is considered a fitting punishment for excess, but I'm an unrepentant hedonist and don't believe there should be a set of metaphysical scales whereby if you pile too much fun on one side in the evening, the contraption tips and gives you a head of hell next morning. Why does alcohol lure us so sweetly only to slap us so soundly? Theories vary from simple dehydration to a complicated explanation involving chemical compounds rearranged by booze into the formula for a headache (this is a rough approximation. If you want to know more, ask a friendly chemist - although I did and am none the wiser).

Like Kingsley Amis, who divided hangovers into physical and metaphysical components, I believe the explanation has more to do with psychology than the frail dipsomaniac likes to admit: we spend an evening drowning our inner voice in booze like an obnoxious party guest shouting down his host. The next day, that essential self, outraged, wreaks revenge. My favourite evocation of a hangover (apart from Bertie Wooster swallowing one of Jeeves's patent morning revivers, then having to reinsert his eyeballs) is Amis: "consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way". Getting out of the way is what you were doing last night - that's why you're moving so slowly now. The question is: once fully, if reluctantly, conscious, what to drink?

The non-alcoholic options are fairly straightforward. There is water, which is dull but useful - or so they tell me. Amis advises against "violent stuff like chilled fruit juice" but I find lemonade beneficial - not the sickly, clear fizz, but a cloudy, combative potion, spiky with citrus. Ginger beer, if strong enough, works on the same principle (the one that says if you stand up to a bully, he or she will back down and maybe, if you're lucky, run away). Fever-Tree's is excellent, as is its Sicilian Lemonade. Tea can help but coffee will render you far too alert and you will become fully aware of how horrible you feel. A relapse will probably ensue. Amis recommends Bovril with vodka but generously allows that this can even work without the vodka.

Dog days

But should one leave out the vodka? Hair of the dog is the silliest expression in English: it is unclear how drinking the hair, as opposed to, say, applying it to the head as a poultice, is going to help. I know this is literal-minded, but it remains true that ingesting poison in order to offset poison already ingested is not a logical thing to do. Then again, we all drink to forget our pain sometimes, and a hangover is certainly painful. Anyway, if we were a logical species, we'd never have invented alcohol in the first place, and we surely wouldn't use it with the enthusiasm we do. Even our language reflects this: there is such bubbling excitement in the word intoxicating that it's easy to forget it means "to make toxic".

Pace Amis, I'm not much of a vodka and Bovril girl. He can keep his prairie oyster - which involves raw eggs, cayenne pepper and brandy - too. I'll take white wine, nothing too astringent: a dry German Riesling, or a Verdicchio from Matelica in Italy. These won't cure you but they will soothe your tastebuds, re-moisten your sandy tongue and soften the edges of your existential pain. No eyeballs will embed themselves in your cornicing.

But distractions can be dangerous - it was sending your mind on a detour that got you into this trouble in the first place. That's why they call it a bender. Sometimes the English language hits the nail resoundingly on the head.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?