We’ve all been there: sitting at the bar after a pint or two and staring at an empty glass while doing some mental calculations and self-evaluation, asking the question, “can I have one more and still be legal to drive home?” It’s a nearly impossible calculation unless you have access to a breathalyzer, and the usual way to gain access to that instrument is when facing someone with a badge. While pocket-sized and relatively inexpensive units have been on the market for years, they’ve been little more than novelties. They were simply not accurate enough to be useful. Recently, smarter and more accurate units have hit the market, and there are several options that connect to your smartphone to provide readouts and tracking capability.
One thing that’s always interested me about personal breathalyzers is their ability to quantify something that most of us only experience as a sensation. Do you know what 0.08BAC feels like? Can you tell where the line between buzzed and legally intoxicated is? The Alcohoot is a device designed to help you improve your self-evaluation. The $99 device promises easy, accurate readings and a way to “improve” your drinking experience through tracking. It’s another aspect to the “quantified self” movement that promises a better life through data gathering and includes the glut of fitness trackers, calorie counting apps, and various web services. Like the other portable breathalyzer, Alcohoot urges users to not make decisions about their ability to drive based on the unit’s readout, and that’s good advice that I’ll repeat here. But even considering a few frustrations with the system, it’s still an interesting and useful gadget to accompany your night out.
Here’s how it works: the unit is about the size of a pack of gum and connects to your Android or iOS phone with a retractable headphone connector. You attach a plastic tube to either the top or the side, and once the free app recognizes that the Alcohoot is attached, you blow into the tube for a few seconds. After a few more seconds of calculation the app reports your BAC.
When it works, it’s a quick and simple process. Unfortunately, the connection can be a bit finicky, and too often the unit looses connection or otherwise fails before completing the measurement.
I tested the Alcohoot on two Android phones and on an iPhone 6, and ran into the same flakey issues on all three. To be clear, it’s only a minor annoyance, and after spending a few weeks with the unit I got the hang of it, but it can be difficult to get a measurement at times (especially if those times are after several cocktails). The main source of the issues seems to be the headphone jack connection, and it’s a puzzling way to interface. A competing device, the BacTrack Mobile, connects with Bluetooth, which seems like a more reasonable solution.
Where the Alcohoot shines, besides its portability and accuracy, is the software. The app is very user friendly, and it makes up for the finicky nature of the hardware. It logs and graphs your readings, has a map integration that can point you to the nearest restaurant for needed (non-liquid) sustenance, and even allows you to summon a taxi right from that app. After an evening of imbibing, the app will also ask you how you feel the next morning and uses this collected information to help you set your “SmartLine” which is a target of sorts —the app wants you to be happy-buzzed but not hangover-drunk.
During my weeks’ long evaluation of the Alcohoot, I took it to a major beer festival, had several nights at home working through a backlog of “work beers” for review, and survived L.A. Beer Week. In all that time I learned three main things. One: it’s really hard to estimate my BAC based on feel alone; there are simply too many variables (when I last ate, how I slept, time of day and activity level, etc) that affect how intoxicated I felt. The Alcohoot doesn’t lie though. Two: taking a measurement in public makes you feel like a fool, a lush, or a criminal. And three: once people see you taking a reading they’re going to want to try it too. It’s a good thing that the package comes with plenty of extra tips, though I wish there was a way for a “guest” to use it without them recording their reading on the log.
Overall, my experience with the Alcohoot was very positive. I’m a giant nerd, and I love data. I really loved being able to put numbers to my fuzzier nights (and I have the notes and charts to prove it). The device can be a bit fiddly to use at times (especially when at or above that magical 0.08BAC line), but I think it made me a better drinker. After all, knowledge is power, and I liked the insight the Alcohoot afforded me.
There’s one more less obvious benefit of carrying the Alcohoot: it can be powerfully persuasive when a drinking buddy insists that they’re fine to get behind the wheel. Instead of arguing or reasoning with them, just ask them to guess their BAC and offer them the Alcohoot. They will probably be surprised with the number it reports, and you might just save them a few thousand dollars. Then you can make them buy the next round and call an Uber.