1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fusel Oil

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FUSEL OIL (from the Ger. Fusel, bad spirits), the name applied to the volatile oily liquids, of a nauseous fiery taste and smell, which are obtained in the rectification of spirituous liquors made by the fermentation of grain, potatoes, the marc of grapes, and other material, and which, as they are of higher boiling point than ethyl alcohol, occur in largest quantity in the last portions of the distillate. Besides ethyl or ordinary alcohol, and amyl alcohol, which are present in them all, there have been found in fusel oil several other bodies of the CnH2n+1·OH series, also certain ethers, and members of the CnH2n+1·CO2H series of fatty acids. Normal propyl alcohol is contained in the fusel oil of the marc brandy of the south of France, and isoprimary butyl alcohol in that of beet-root molasses. The chief constituent of the fusel oil procured in the manufacture of alcohol from potatoes and grain, usually known as fusel oil and potato-spirit, is isoprimary amyl alcohol, or isobutylcarbinol. Ordinary fusel oil yields also an isomeric amyl alcohol (active amyl alcohol) boiling at about 128°. Variable quantities of fusel oil, less or greater according to the stage of ripening, exist in commercial spirits (see Spirits).

Fusel oil and its chief constituent, amyl alcohol, are direct nerve poisons. In small doses it causes only thirst and headache, with furred tongue and some excitement. In large doses it is a convulsent poison. Impure beverages induce all the graver neurotic and visceral disorders in alcoholism; and, like fusel oil, furfural and the essence of absinthe, are convulsent poisons. Pure ethyl alcohol intoxication, indeed, is rarely seen, being modified in the case of spirits by the higher alcohols contained in fusel oil. According to Rabuteau the toxic properties of the higher alcohols increase with their molecular weight and boiling point. Richet considers that the fusel oil contained in spirits constitutes the chief danger in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The expert can immediately detect the peculiarly virulent characters of the mixed intoxication due to the consumption of spirits containing a large percentage of fusel oil.