Star Trek’s Most Famous Drink Makes No Sense

By Chris Snellgrove | Updated

star trek synthehol

For being such a geeky franchise, Star Trek has a surprising amount of alcoholic beverages ranging from Romulan Ale (a drink so good Starfleet officers have been known to smuggle it) to Chateau Picard (a drink so bad that only its creator seems to think it’s any good). However, the most famous drink in Star Trek is arguably synthehol, a kind of synthetic alcohol that we first saw characters knocking back in The Next Generation. All these decades later, however, the drink still makes no sense because its main feature–the ability to will away inebriation–remains unexplained.

The Introduction Of Synthehol

star trek

In the time of Star Trek: The Original Series, it wasn’t uncommon to see characters like Dr. McCoy toss back alcoholic cocktails presumably made from real liquor (McCoy, for example, is a mint julep man). However, The Next Generation introduced synthehol, which the android Commander Data helpfully tells Scotty is “an alcohol substitute now being served aboard starships.” The reason this kinder, gentler Starfleet is so cool with serving alcohol to its thousands of officers is clear: as Data tells us, “the effects can be easily dismissed.”

The Science Is As Clear As Mud

star trek synthehol

That Star Trek episode (“Relics”) is deliberately vague on the details of synthehol, and that’s understandable–the last thing we’d want in the cool Scotty episode is a five-minute technobabble explainer. Still, Data’s words have haunted us for years because he seems to be saying that those who imbibe synthehol can shake off its inebriating effects at will. That’s obviously beneficial when the crew might be summoned to emergency stations at any time, but the science on how this could possibly work is even shaky by the standards of Star Trek.

Super Future Enzymes

star trek synthehol

The closest the show ever got to explaining how synthehol works is that it can be broken down by a special enzyme in the human body, allowing someone to go from wasted to stone-cold sober at a moment’s notice. That sounds neat and all, but how does somebody mentally control what this enzyme does and when it does it? It’s not like we can mentally control our enzymes now, and there is no indication of how or why humanity would suddenly be able to do so in the 24th century.

What About Nonhumans?

star trek synthehol

Making this the default alcoholic drink aboard Starfleet vessels also seems a bit problematic because even if we accept that human enzymes can now magically sober humanity up in the future, humans aren’t the only ones who serve on these vessels. In other words, Starfleet has made something that benefits humans and potentially nobody else a default beverage. This might lend credence to the Klingon observation in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that “The Federation is nothing more than a homo sapiens only club.”

How Did It Become So Popular?

The last thing that makes no sense about synthehol is how quickly it apparently became the default Starfleet drink. As we touched on earlier, it was only one generation prior to this that characters like Captain Kirk and Scotty were knocking back hard liquor. Scotty himself notes how synthehol is quite inferior to the real thing, and we have trouble imagining that Starfleet isn’t filled with humans hoarding or simply replicating real liquor rather than relying on something less potent.

New Drinking Game?

As Star Trek fans, we’ve more or less made our peace with how certain things will never make sense, like how the very French Captain Picard has such a commanding British accent. Still, we’d love a good explanation of exactly how synthehol works. If Paramount wants to send us a case, we can do a bit of “scientific research” while also getting drunk enough to finally watch the second season of Picard again without constantly screaming at the television.