Booze Mythology (Part 1)

Vodka & Soda

What about all those drinking rules growing up about alcohol and its effect on the human body.  There are plenty of theories and legends in the world regarding alcohol consumption.  My hope here is to illuminate what is real and what is myth.  Science plays a role in the discussion so let’s see if we confirm convention or challenge some of the arguments.  The issue is that the research and evidence is uncontrolled and it really isn’t a topic that attracts much attention unless you can recruit a bunch of binge drinkers or just ask questions of people in the bar industry or just drink ourselves and watch the results over time.

Beer Before Liquor

The adage “Beer before liquor, never sicker” or “Liquor before beer, never fear or you’re in the clear”.  They are nice rhymes but are they really true statements.  Leading medical doctors in the fields of pharmacology and toxicology believe there is some truth to it.  The science is that beer contains about 4 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) and spirits (liquor) contain about 40 percent ABV.  Not all liquor is 40 percent, but is approximately ten times more alcohol.  Even in a mixed cocktail, you’re looking at 10 to 20 percent ABV taking in account the ice, dilution, and mixer.  If you start drinking a beer, even at a slow pace, and then drink a mixed cocktail at the same pace, it’s like walking and then running.  You may not taste the difference, but your body will know.  If you start out with liquor, you will most likely be drinking at a slower pace and start the alcohol effects more quickly.  When switching to beer at the same pace, your body will experience a decreased ABV.

There is a study I came across called “Alcohol concentration and carbonation of drinks: The effect on blood alcohol levels,” conducted by the University of Manchester and Lancashire.  The test group comprised of 21 subjects.  One conclusion from the study was that diluted concentrations of alcohol will be absorbed faster than even stronger alcohol.  In other words, alcohol in a mixed cocktail enters the bloodstream faster than the same amount of alcohol consumed by itself or straight up as in a shot.  It goes on to say that the absence of food in the stomach, small amounts of concentrated alcohol pass through the stomach at about the same rate as larger volumes of diluted alcohol, allowing little time for metabolism.  That’s a good reason to have food available in a drinking environment.

The mixed cocktail is larger in volume and spends more time in the digestive system, where it is absorbed.  So, if your stomach receives beer, then you fill it up with liquor, you’re basically making a mixed cocktail in your stomach.  It will sit there for a while, giving you a bigger buzz as time goes on.  On the other hand, liquor will cause your stomach to receive a higher concentration of alcohol, therefore, pass through your system more quickly.  You will feel more drunk and less likely to consume much beer afterwards.  The key is pacing yourself, especially if you plan on staying out late and consuming many different kinds of alcoholic beverages.

Carbonation Gets You Drunker

The statement that bubbles in sparkling beverages enters your bloodstream faster is very much true according from many sources.  There’s a big difference between drinking a glass of wine and drinking a glass of champagne.  Champagne will kick your ass pretty good.  According to the National Institute of Health Medline, a carbonated (fizzy) alcoholic drink, such as champagne, will be absorbed faster than a non-carbonated drink.  Why is this? What exactly makes this true?  Some believe that CO2 gas accompanies the alcohol molecules into the bloodstream more quickly.  That is not a good theory, but according to the Manchester and Lancashire study described earlier, the gas causes some distention in your stomach, which is the bloated and gassy you feel with any carbonated drink.  That distention increases the rate of “gastric emptying”, an effect that accelerates the alcohol’s movement from the stomach to the small intestine, where it is consumed even more quickly and then entering the bloodstream at that rate. 

A study was conducted with people drinking three different beverages - vodka and soda, vodka and water, and vodka straight up.  The study found that people drinking vodka and soda water had a rapid, sharp spike in blood alcohol content in a short amount of time.  Drinkers of vodka and just water show a less pronounced spike over time.  Finally, drinkers of straight vodka remained constant over time.  The results were varied and not significant according to medical experts, but pretty right on as far as I’m concerned (to be continued)...