Booze Legends: Debunking the Myths Every Drinker Believes

The world is rife with alcoholic lore. That's lore regarding alcohol, not told by alcoholics. Well, there's plenty of both. But what about all those rules we learned in college? Beer before liquor, never been sicker. More bubbles, more buzz. Different kinds of drinks get you different kinds of drunk. In vino, veritas. For all the legends, there is a shortage of scientific data to confirm or challenge the conventional wisdom... until now!

It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Have you heard the one about getting schnockered?

So here's the deal. I planned to examine some of the more common booze myths and read all of the studies that had been done on those subjects, and then presto! Myth proven, or debunked. But guess what? There really haven't been many controlled studies that addressed our questions. Why? Because controlled studies are expensive. Who would pay the tab—Jack Daniel's? The best we could hope for would be a Kickstarter project funded by thousands of curious drinkers, and we couldn't sit around and wait for that to happen. So we poured some drinks and picked up the phone.

Beer Before Liquor

The old saying goes, "Beer before liquor; you've never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you're in the clear." This violates a rule I try to live by—never trust advice that rhymes—but it actually turns out that there is some evidence to support it. I spoke to Dr. Rueben Gonzales, a professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas, and he had some interesting things to say on the subject. The difference in alcohol concentration between beer (4 percent ABV) and hard liquor (40 percent ABV) is roughly ten-fold, give or take, depending on proof. Even in a mixed drink, you're probably talking 10 to 20 percent ABV. So if you start out drinking beer at a certain rate, and then continue drinking a mixed drink at the same rate, it's like driving slowly and then stepping on the gas. Your mouth may not know the difference in the alcohol concentration, but your body will. In contrast, if you start off drinking hard liquor, you're likely to be drinking at a slower rate and feel drunk faster. Switching to beer and then drinking at the same rate will result in a decreased stream of alcohol by volume.

There actually is a controlled study that lends some more credence to this one, which Dr. Gonzales sent me. The study, called "Alcohol concentration and carbonation of drinks: The effect on blood alcohol levels," was conducted in 2007 by the Universities of Manchester and Lancashire. The small, 21-subject test group reached some interesting conclusions. One finding was that diluted concentrations of alcohol will be absorbed faster than more potent blends. In other words, alcohol in a mixed drink enters the bloodstream faster than the equivalent amount of alcohol taken as a shot. From the study:

It is thought that in the absence of food in the stomach, small amounts of concentrated alcohol pass through the stomach at much the same rate as larger volumes of more dilute alcohol, allowing little time for gastric metabolism.

In other words, because it's larger in mass and volume, the mixed drink spends more time in your digestive system, which is where it gets absorbed. Makes sense. So, if you're filling your stomach up with beer and you're then upping the alcohol concentration by adding hard liquor, you're essentially making a mixed drink inside your stomach. It'll sit there for longer, getting you more liquored up. On the other hand, if you start with hard liquor, the solution in your stomach begins with a higher concentration of alcohol, and it will pass through you more quickly. You'll feel more drunk, and you'll probably be less likely to drink as much beer afterwards. Just pace yourself, you maniac!

Carbonation Gets You Drunker

Some folks think that the bubbles found in sparkling beverages carry alcohol into your bloodstream faster. Bill Owens, of the American Distilling Institute, stands by that maxim. "You can drink a bottle of white wine with a friend and drive home a little while later (editors note: not recommended!), but champagne will knock you on your ass super quick," he says. It turns out, he's not the only authority that believes that.

According to according to the National Institute of Health site Medline Plus:

A carbonated (fizzy) alcoholic drink, such as champagne, will be absorbed faster than a non-carbonated drink.

Okay, but how? There are many theories and precious little consensus on the matter. Some believe that the CO2 gas carries the alcohol molecules into the blood stream more quickly, but that is almost certainly bunk. What's more likely, according to the 2007 Manchester study, is that the gas causes some distention in your stomach (that's why you feel bloated and burpy). That distention increases the rate of what the study calls "gastric emptying," an effect that accelerates the alcohol's movement from the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is consumed more rapidly. Thus, the booze enters the blood stream more quickly.

Booze Legends: Debunking the Myths Every Drinker Believes

The study found that the testers sipping solution C, which is vodka plus carbonated water, illustrated by the red line, had a rapid, sharp spike in blood-alcohol content. Drinkers of solution B, a mix of vodka and flat water, show a less dramatic spike, as seen along the blue line on the graph (solution A was straight vodka). Because the results varied so wildly, the researchers were not willing to make any conclusions about the test as far as carbonation goes, but, hell, it looks like there may be something to it.

Different Drunks

You ever hear people say that "Gin makes me angry," or "Rum makes me really mellow?" We all have. But is there any truth behind it? The experts I spoke to say no. "It's the amount you drink. Period," Bill Owens proclaimed. There are zero controlled studies published that test this, so from a pure science standpoint it is impossible to prove or debunk this. But I have some evidence of my own.

Sense memory is an incredibly powerful psychological phenomena, and it's been well-proven that our senses of smell and taste are the most potent for evoking memories. I would therefore bet that the reason that whiskey makes me feel calm and relaxed is because I associate it with fishing with my dad. Gin doesn't make me angry, it makes me want to party. This is probably because I first started drinking gin and tonics at dance parties in college, or maybe because because the notes of citrus remind me of playing soccer as a kid. In contrast, Southern Comfort makes me feel despondent, slow, and gross, probably because I had one of the worst nights of my life when I was 18 and I drank half a fifth of it.

There's another possible culprit: congeners. Congeners are a byproduct of the fermentation and distillation process. These may include acetone, aldehydes, other forms of alcohol, and esters. They are, generally speaking, not good for you. But they are an essential part of the distillation process, because all spirits contain a small cut of these ingredients. The distillation run's beginning and ending phases, known as the heads and tails, blend with the heart of the distillate to give the spirit its characteristic flavor. But different processes and ingredients result in different congeners. Different toxins affect people in different ways, and a distillate from, say, agave, affects physiology in a distinct way compared to fermented rye. We all have a unique response to different types of chemical stimulus.

Mixing Spirits

When I was in Scotland, many years ago, a barman told me that the original knock-out drug wasn't a pill at all. You would pay an unscrupulous bartender to pour a little bit of vodka into your enemy's whiskey every time he ordered one, and the combination of spirits resulted in a blackout experience in which the poor sap would divulge his secrets or be easier to rob. Dastardly! I relayed the tale to Dr. Gonzales, who said, "That doesn't make sense to me. I don't see how that could happen." There was nothing else on the internet to support this story either. Damn. But we've all heard from one friend or another that mixing Booze A with Booze B will mess you up way worse than just drinking one or the other. And yet, I was unable to find any scientific evidence to suppor this at all.

So I decided to conduct my own study.

I kept track of my eating, sleeping, and exercise habits for a day, and then that night I drank 5 ounces of whiskey in five minutes. The next week I tried to match my eating, sleeping, and exercise, and then I drank a 5-ounce solution that was half whiskey and half vodka (it tasted much worse). On both occasions I took typing speed tests at regular intervals to check motor function, and did other more subjective tests, like walking around my apartment and just "seeing how I felt."

It is, at best, imperfect science, but it's better than any other study I could find. So, as far as I can tell, I am as of right now I am the world's leading expert on this material.

Booze Legends: Debunking the Myths Every Drinker Believes

Unfortunately, as you see from the results of the typing test, it didn't prove anything, except that I'm a pretty good drunk-typist. However, after taking the final whiskey+vodka typing test, my drunk self offered this up:

I will now write the conclusion on this subject with my eyes closed and I refuse to edit it later.

Subjectively, unscientifically, I am almost certainly way drunking than I was last week with whiskey alone. When I stand up my motor skills are severely diminished. My typing skills are still pretty damn good all things considered, but that's probably more a function of muscle memory than anything else. In retrospect I should have devised some sort of memory test. Anyway, while there is not yet any scientific, chemical evidence to support this, I am going to go ahead and sayit's plausible (in Mythbuster parlaince) that mixing boozes gets you drunker than one straight booze alone. I can't prove it, not et, but I feel like it's proven, and for now, that's good enough for me.

So... there's that. I think it may be plausible for the reasons mentioned above in the different boozes/different drunks section. Different alcohols may have different psychological effects, and combining them (whether it's due to sense memory or congeners interacting in an unpredictable way) may result in a more "confused" alcohol experience. That said, there is zero science to back that up, unless you count my personal experiment, which you probably shouldn't.

In Vino Veritas

This may be the oldest booze-legend there is. Translated from Latin, it means, "In wine, truth" and it's generally attributed to Pliny the Elder, who was born in 23 AD. It was believed that it was much harder to lie when drunk, essentially, and that the truth will come out.

Dr. Thomas Kimball, who is the associate managing director of Texas Tech's Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery, told Forbes Magazine that alcohol certainly lowers people's inhibitions, and that excessive drinking and/or drug use may increase the risk of violence and engaging in sexual activity that you otherwise wouldn't.

Does that mean that we're all violent sluts in our deepest heart of hearts? Dr. Kimball doesn't think so.

I think it increases your risk to go against your own moral code. Is that your true self? No. I would say that's your drunk self or high self.

Obviously, there's very little science to back this one up, but I concur. I've seen wonderful people do horrible things when wasted. Does that mean that they're actually horrible people and they just cover it with a wonderful exterior? No. Booze can make you do a lot of stupid things. Further, alcohol has been known to affect your entire brain, including the hippocampus, the part that's heavily associated with memory (hence blackout episodes). One might posit that drinking causes you to just forget your true self. You can certainly become someone you want to forget.

That's all the boozy legends for this week. Got some good ones of your own? Leave 'em in the comments and maybe we'll do a second round some day. Until then, check back next Friday for another episode of Happy Hour.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Alex Saberi