Do Wine, Liquor, and Beer Affect You Differently?
Uncovering the truth behind the effects of different types of alcohol
Every drink comes with a story. One friend claims that champagne goes straight to their head, while the other whines about feeling gassy after three beers. For some, red wine is a one-way ticket to a headache warzone. For others, cheap alcohol is a recipe for nausea the next day.
So, do the side effects really change from one type of alcohol to another? If ethanol is the common denominator, shouldn’t all drinks have the same effect?
While there is some truth to the observation that different types of alcohol might affect you differently, you might be surprised by some of the factors creating those perceptions. Types of alcohol differ not only in their chemical makeup but also in what you commonly mix them with, how fast you drink them, and even who you drink them with.
Here we dive into a few interesting factors that affect our perceptions around the effects of alcohol, and there’s a case to be made that it’s as much about psychology as it is about chemistry.
Factor #1: Mixers
While we drink some alcohol types straight, there are others we all love to pair with a hint of something fizzy or sweet. The addition of mixers could create dramatic differences in your mood and behavior. Nevertheless, because we pair certain mixers with certain types of alcohol, we wrongly associate the mood changes - caused by the mixer - with the alcohol itself.
Caffeine is a controversial mixer added as energy drinks or coffee to a plethora of beverages, including vodka, whiskey, rum, coffee liqueur, and Irish cream. Because it increases alertness, one might assume that it sobers you up. However, this idea was proven wrong and, more disconcertingly, found to actually increase risk-taking behavior. In clinical trials, caffeine neither reduced blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) nor improved sustained attention or reaction time (citation). Instead, it enhanced the desire to binge-drink (citation) and drive drunk (citation). Increased alertness can create a false perception that you are less drunk than you actually are, in turn making you more prone to taking risks (e.g., driving).
Then, we have mixers affecting the absorption rate of alcohol and BAC. In particular, the CO2 in your fizzy drink accelerates alcohol absorption by creating pressure in your stomach (hence the bloatedness) and forcing alcohol into your bloodstream. Some studies confirmed this by comparing the intoxication levels between vodka with sparkling water vs. vodka-only (citation) and champagne vs. degassed champagne (although the CO2 in champagne does not count as a mixer, it still demonstrates its accelerating effect of intoxication) (citation). In both studies, the sparkling drinks hit the participants faster and harder.
Another popular mixer, sugar, turns out to lean towards the opposite direction, reducing how quickly your body absorbs alcohol and lowering peak breath-alcohol concentration (BrAC). In a clinical study, sugary alcohol resulted in much lower peak BrAC than artificially-sweetened or sugar-free drinks (citation).
Once again, it is essential to note here that it is the mixer, not the alcohol itself, that is creating these differences. However, you are far more likely to add certain mixers to certain drinks (e.g., rum and cola, vodka and energy drink, or whiskey and sprite) than you are to combine, say, red wine with any mixer. So, you might notice that vodka seems to make you more prone to risky behaviors, but that’s not due to some intrinsic property of vodka. Rather, you might investigate the mixer you added to understand why a certain drink is causing a specific behavior.
Factor #2: Rate of Consumption
We consume every type of alcohol at a different pace, ranging from slow sips to rapid shots. That pace matters. Even if we drink the same amount in total, the pace at which we drink means we introduce alcohol into our bloodstream at different rates. For example, alcohol hits our bloodstream much faster when we take shots. That’s why some drinks lead to higher intoxication levels, which bring on more dramatic mood swings and behavioral changes. Indeed, the rate of alcohol consumption – independent of the amount or the type – has been associated with severe negative consequences, such as blackout, nausea, and vomiting (citation).
So, how do drinks differ in consumption rate? Alcohols commonly taken as shots – like tequila or vodka – can quickly increase your BAC purely because they’re taken in shot form, building up an association that they are more impactful on your body. This is in contrast to alcohols that are traditionally sipped, like scotch or fine whisky. Even if both are 40% ABV – and you are intaking the exact same amount of ethanol – you are consuming shots in a matter of seconds, while you are probably taking it slow with the scotch. Contrast that with beer and wine, which often are consumed even more slowly, especially when accompanied by a meal.
The idea here is that different alcohols affect you differently not because of their content, but because we tend to drink certain alcohols faster than others. So, instead of blaming the rush of craziness in your head specifically on tequila, blame it on the shot glass that insinuates that you need to down that tequila in two seconds!
Factor #3: Drinking Context
Even more surprising than the previous factors is the fact that alcohol can affect you differently depending on where you are drinking and who you are drinking with. A growing body of evidence has shown how context can influence your perception of alcohol’s effects. And because you may consume different drinks depending on context, it’s easy to attribute differences in perception to different types of alcohol.
For instance, when comparing drinking behaviors in three contexts – convivial (e.g. at a party), intimate (e.g. on a date), and negative-coping (e.g. sadness) – researchers found, perhaps surprisingly, that it was in intimate contexts that participants reported the highest behavioral impairment. This means that alcohol can affect mood more severely in situations such as drinking with a romantic partner (citation).
The social aspect of drinking also has a massive impact on perceived drunkenness. Research from the University of Chicago revealed that people who drank with others had higher alcohol stimulation and a stronger desire to continue drinking than those drinking alone at home (citation). We are influenced by the drinking patterns of those around us. Further research suggests that we tend to underestimate our drunkenness when our peers are equally or more intoxicated (citation). In other words, we assess how drunk we are by comparing ourselves to those around us, not based on how much we actually consumed.
Another factor is external stimuli. As it turns out, loud music affects our perception of alcohol, making it taste sweeter than it actually is (citation). That’s why you might be urged to drink more at a nightclub than at home.
All these contextual factors can create perceived differences in the effects of different kinds of alcohol, because you consume certain drinks on certain occasions. For example, can you imagine savoring a glass of merlot at a trance music festival or pairing a fine meal with jager shots? You are probably more inclined to drink tequila shots when you are with your friends than when you are alone at home. Context may help validate your feeling that “tequila makes me crazy”, but in reality it’s ripping shots with your friends that makes you crazy, not the tequila.
So, when deciding how intoxicated you want to feel and what you want your next morning to be like, think about how the context you intend to be in might affect your drinking, rather than just thinking about the contents of your drinks.
Factor #4: Congeners
While differences in mood and performance are heavily influenced by factors outside the chemical makeup of different alcohols, it is still important to mention minor differences in the ingredients. Many types of drinks contain congeners – chemical byproducts created during fermentation and aging. Most alcohols owe their distinct taste and color in part to these ingredients, but do congeners also contribute to the differences you feel during and after drinking different types of alcohol? The answer is yes, but probably minimally, and it would be hard to pinpoint because of the wide variety of dosages and combinations.
Here, we can look at a number of clinical studies comparing two drinks with high and low congener levels: bourbon and vodka. In these studies, the researchers did not observe any difference between the two drinks in terms of:
- Behavioral patterns (citation) (i.e. increased sociability and the levels of anxiety and melancholia that followed); or
- Sleep-quality and neurocognitive performance (i.e., memory, sustained attention, response time) (citation), though there were minor differences in drowsiness and fatigue.
In both experiments, the participants drinking alcohol felt and performed much worse than the non-alcohol group, meaning ethanol–and its breakdown into acetaldehyde–is still the main culprit.
So it does seem that congeners could vaguely affect how you feel but not necessarily your performance and sleep. Also, their influence is much weaker next to ethanol and the other factors that we already discussed.
While there are small chemical differences between different types of alcohol, they play a relatively minor role in how alcohol makes us feel. Try taking a step back and look at the bigger picture to figure out why a specific drink affects your body in a certain way. The last time you had this particular drink, who were you with, and what were you doing? Did you drink it fast or slow? Maybe the culprit was in the mixer you used. So, if you want to have a mellow night and wake up with a fresh mind the next day, don’t worry too much about what kind of alcohol you should or shouldn’t drink. Instead, focus on all of the other things around that alcohol – what it’s mixed with, how you’re drinking it, and who you’re drinking it with.