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The Truth Behind "Beer Before Liquor"

It turns out that there might be some truth to at least some of adages we repeat about drinking

Have you ever heard the saying "beer before liquor never been sicker"? Or “liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? What about “grape or grain but never the twain”? Well, it turns out that there might be some truth to at least some of these adages.

There are a few factors to consider here.

First, there’s the absolute volume of alcohol you are consuming. Looking at the Manhattan as our example cocktail, it contains roughly 28% alcohol by volume (ABV), which makes it seem much less potent than, say, straight whiskey, with its ABV of 40%. But it’s not really fair to compare these drinks on their ABVs since the amounts consumed tend to be different.

What matters isn’t the ABV of a drink, but the true amount of pure alcohol (ethanol) in a drink. In the chart below you can see a comparison of drinks’ ABVs, volumes, and actual amounts of ethanol.

Drink

ABV (%)

Volume of 1 Drink (mL)

Absolute Amount of Alcohol in 1 Drink (oz)

Beer

6

355

0.72

Wine

12

150

0.6

Manhattan

28

140

1.31

Bloody Mary

12

220

0.9

Straight vodka

40

45

0.6

So you can see that, even though we tend to consider one glass of wine, cocktail, or can of beer equal to “one drink”, the actual amount of alcohol you’re consuming can vary wildly by what kind of drink you are having.

The volume difference in drinks also influences how quickly we drink them. A beer tends to take longer to drink than a cocktail, or especially a shot, simply because it’s much larger. Purely based on volume, you could drink 2.5 Manhattans in the time it takes to drink one bottle of beer. So, by drinking beer, you essentially give yourself a lower alcohol per minute rate of consumption than when drinking cocktails.

If your options are only to drink cocktails and then beer, or beer and then cocktails, it makes sense to keep your heavier drinking for the beginning of your night. When you’re more sober you’ll be better able to pace yourself, evaluate how you’re feeling, and make changes to your rate of consumption if need be. Later in the evening, when your decision-making process is already compromised, beer is a safer option that won’t contribute as much to making you more intoxicated.

There is however another factor at play here: how well your body absorbs alcohol in different preparations. A 2007 study found that the vodka served diluted (with carbonated or still water) was absorbed faster than the vodka served neat. This means that even if the same amount of time is taken to drink straight liquor or a glass of wine (two drinks which contain about the same absolute amount of alcohol) the wine still may leave you more intoxicated, as it is better absorbed into your blood.

As for the grape or grain advice? Feel free to ignore it. A 2019 study compared the hangover severities of subjects who drank only beer, only wine, beer and then wine, or wine and then beer, and found that “neither type nor order of consumed alcoholic beverages significantly affected hangover intensity.”


@AdaMcVean

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