Teach me about alcohol!
January 23, 2010 7:10 PM   Subscribe

Teach me about alcoholic beverages.

I want to know as much as possible about alcohol. How are wine, beer, etc. made? What's the difference between white and red wine? Light and dark beer? What's a spirit, vermouth, cocktail, martini? How do I serve various drinks? What makes cheap beer cheap? What do various drinks taste like? I could go on and on.

I'm 20, don't plan on drinking until I'm 21, and was raised in a non-drinking household, so I have zero firsthand experience; all I know is what I've heard people mention. I realize this question is really broad, but I feel that my knowledge is that lacking. So whether you tell me yourself or link me to an "Alcohol 101" site, just teach me as much as you can! (Thanks, MeFi!)
posted by reductiondesign to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You may wish to look at the various types of drinks on Wikipedia as a starting point and then go from there.
posted by birdherder at 7:18 PM on January 23, 2010

Bartending for Dummies

That will answer your questions. But the REAL answer to your questions is to go to a bar and order things, once you're of age.
posted by smackfu at 7:19 PM on January 23, 2010

For cocktails, Drinkboy is highly informative (if a bit pedantic), and includes some information about various liquors.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:21 PM on January 23, 2010

This probably won't help you until you're 21, but my suggestion for learning about alcohol is to go to a place where it's made and learn about it that way. I've done brewery tours and winery tours and I enjoy them even though I'm not a big drinker. If there's a brewpub in your area that serves under-21s, you might be able to eat there and ask questions about the brewing process and enjoy beer-related food (beer-battered fish and chips, bread made with ale, etc.). Once you're of age, you can probably order a tasting menu and get a feel for the different kinds of beers.

My crowd isn't a mixed-drink crowd, so I never had to learn how to make them to throw a party. My best source for learning about mixed drinks was a 1953 bachelor's guide to entertaining that I found in a used bookstore. Now that my friends are getting into mixed drinks, which are apparently becoming very trendy, I'm considering pulling it out again and reading it for a refresher course. I have a friend who's actually about to take a reasonably serious class about mixed drinks; you might be able to find something like that in your area.
posted by immlass at 7:24 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should get a job in a pub if you're really interested. We can all tell you our favourite ways to make our favourite drinks, but it'll be a bit boring and, well .... dry. I worked in bars and pubs as a teen and in my early twenties and had sampled and served just about every bottle and listened to all the salesmen waffle on about their products within a few months. Anyway, I like A Good Beer Blog and Sour Grapes but find talking about and drinking booze preferable to reading about it.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:26 PM on January 23, 2010

You didn't really ask this, but there is a great deal of the history of alcohol use out there for you to consume, as well. The first alcoholic beverage and it's ingredients, how the first beer batch came about, etc. People drank alcohol at times because the water wasn't safe, even the babies drank. Gin comes from juniper berries, and certain types of wood casks lend characteristic flavors to booze, etc. I think a little history will advance your education in this subject, as well as sampling of the real thing.
posted by bebrave! at 7:42 PM on January 23, 2010

I concur with the "just sample things when you're legal" as a way of getting used to things.

But I will tell you one bit of advice about wine that it took me 34 years to learn, because it was so mind-staggeringly basic that it didn't even occur to people to even realize that I may not know it: when people call wine "dry", that just means "not sweet."

Seriously, this revolutionized the way I drink wine when I found this out. I just always ordered "dry wine", or when someone described a wine as "dry" I just nodded and got it, because I thought that that's just what wine WAS. Eveyrone else talked about how "dry" wine was, and I thought that just was the way wine was. And every glass of wine I ever drank tasted exactly the same. But then I dated a sommelier for a couple years, and on our first date I confessed I didn't know jack shit about wine -- and he asked me a couple questions about my other flavor preferences in things, and then turned to the waiter where we were having dinner and ordered something for me - and it was the best damn glass of wine I'd ever had. He explained that he could tell I just have a sweet tooth when it comes to beverages, and "dry" wine just meant "not sweet." So I should be staying AWAY from dry wines.

Ooh, something else fun -- sometimes chardonnay wine tastes like butter! The sommelier explained that that sometimes happens if they age the wine in oak wine kegs -- the oak gives the wine a certain flavor. A lot of people think this "oaky" flavor is a bad thing, but I like it -- "it's wine that tastes like toast! NEATO!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:56 PM on January 23, 2010

Here is some golden advice for when you do reach that magical age -

Don't try them all on the same night.

Seriously. Have a beer night, go to a microbrewery and taste a variety of beers, buy a six pack of the cheapest beer you can find - taste the difference. Have a wine night, and do the same. Hard alcohol you can mix a bit, but there are a lot of super sweet liqueurs that will give you a guaranteed headache if you drink too much or mix too many in one night.

The quickest way to a hangover is do drink beer, wine and hard liquor on the same night. Especially if you are "trying out" all different kinds.

There is a saying:
"Beer before liquor, never sicker
Liquor before beer, never fear!"
-which, if I'm ever quoting while out drinking means I should put down the booze and take a big drink of water.

And that is the most important piece of advice - drink in moderation and drink lots of water with your alcohol. Hangovers do not rule.
posted by smartypantz at 8:11 PM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

The basics:

You start with an energy source -- sugar. This can come from grape juice, the sugars from complex starches in wheat and barley and rice and corn, from fruit, from honey, basically anything calorically dense and sweet. Now you make sure the sugar is in enough water to provide a growth medium for yeast.

Now you add the yeast -- a bunch of unicelluar non-photosynthesizing organisms. The yeast eats the sugars, and poops out a waste product -- alcohol. Because alcohol is dangerous to living things, a high concentration will kill the yeast that pooped it. So as the yeast creates more and more alcohol molecules, its environment will eventually kill all of the yeast cells, and nothing more can really grow in the fluid. This is the most basic kind of alcoholic drink, where the alcohol tops out at around 10%-ish of the final product (That number vaires considerably, actually, but we're keeping it simple here). Wine, beer, mead, cider. Because these drinks are so easy to make (and can even be made accidentally, if some wild yeast just happens to settle into a bowl of sugary juice), they're the oldest that humanity's produced.

This was humanity's first great introduction to a chemical that I pretty much consider to be sacred. It happened all over the world, independently, in society after society. Pretty much wherever people ate starches, they soon discovered alcohol. It was a great advance for civilization, because the sterility of the alcohol meant you could store the drink for quite a while, and the caloric density meant it was a good rainy-day source of energy. Awesome!

There are two books I'd like to recommend to get a sense for this kind of alcohol. One is Walter Otto's Dionysus, which is about the Greek God of wine and madness. I feel like it's a nice overview of a lot of the religious aspects of the substance. The other -- on a more practical level -- is Charlie Papazian's Joy Of Homebrewing, which is a hands-on guide to teaching you how to make beer. Even if you don't plan on making any right now, it's nice to see a simple, step-by-step illustrated guide to how easy and enjoyable the process is.

So! That's how we make the easier alcoholic drinks. No problem. So then about a thousand years ago, some Islamic scholars, messing around with chemistry, realized that alcohol has a lower boiling point than the water it's floating in. So by gently heating up a bunch of wine or beer or one of those "easy" alcoholic drinks, one can let all the alcohol fumes boil and turn to gas and rise up to the top of a column. Up at the top of said column, far away from the heat source, the gas cools down and condenses back into a liquid -- a purified, distilled alcohol, which can be collected! This was the second great innovation, and led to the distilled drinks we now have. some examples are grappa (made from sugars originally in grapes), vodka (from potatoes), whisky (from barley). Want to do this yourself? You can! But it's illegal. But you can.

Here, check this out: a still, for sale. Look at the deice, and you can see how it works. You got the big silver pot that holds your beery or winey substance, clamped shut. When that's heated, the alcohol fumes travel up the copper pipe, toward the left, and then condense in that big cylinder on the left-hand side. There, the liquid alcohol drips out, and you can collect it.

Purified alcohol was the second great alcoholic innovation for humanity. But it didn't stop there! Because once you have this purified form, you can now do all kinds of crazy things to it to add flavors! Let herbs sit in a clear alcohol, and you get something herby-tasting, like Chartreuse. Let juniper berries mingle with the liquid, and you've got gin. But one of the neatest things you can do is simply to let the liquid sit in a wooden cask for a really long time. By doing so, the liquid seeps into the wood, exchanges water molecules with the wooden surface, and picks up all kinds of wonderful flavors and colors. This is what they do with whisky, which goes into wooden casks clear but emerges a lovely brown, tasting slightly of the oaken casks it's been sitting in.

This is a basic overview of the history. As far as actual appreciation, I would start by making your own hard cider (when you're 21, of course -- I wouldn't dream of aiding and abetting a minor). It's stunningly easy -- you basically just need a large sterile vessel, some apple juice, and some brewer's yeast. Will it be as good as something made by a professional? Probably not, but it's amazingly palatable, and it gives one the same lovely sense of accomplishment that one gets from any other DIY project. Best of luck!
also don't turn into an alcoholic 'cause that happens to some people and I hear it sucks real bad
posted by Greg Nog at 8:27 PM on January 23, 2010 [45 favorites]

I'm in the slowly experiment camp. The other piece of advice that I can give you is to keep an open mind about the flavors and sensations that you get from these drinks. Beer, wine and spirits are immensely diverse subjects in their own right. Take wine for example. There are tons of different wine growing regions in the world and tons of different grapes that are used to make one. If you try a single Chardonnay and don't like it, realize that there are many, many other Chardonnays that may have different flavors emphasized.

Another salient point is that you'll often hear people say things to the effect of "I don't like dark beers". Well the color of the beer has very little to do with how it will taste of feel in your mouth. Unless someone is conditioned to only like the weakest and most watered down of beers, than color isn't a good indicator if you are going to like it. Chances are, this person had a dark beer once with a very distinctive or bitter taste and has sworn anything non-golden colored since.

Oh yeah, and don't try this all in one night. :)
posted by mmascolino at 9:54 PM on January 23, 2010

Broadly speaking, there are three grand categories of drink: beer and ale, wine, and liquor.

Broadly speaking, the difference is that beer and ale are made from grain without use of distillation, wine is made from fruit without distillation, and liquor always involves some sort of distillation step.

The canonical beer/ale is made from malted barley. What that means is that the barley is soaked in water and allowed to sprout. That process is known as "malting".

In dry barley grain, most of the sugars are tied up in starches and other complex saccharides. As the seed sprouts, that activates enzymes that crack the complex sugars into simple ones. Once the tap root is out of the seed capsule and about half as long, the malted barley is then dried and put into a kiln where it is roasted. If the roasting is done at a lower temperature, for less time, the result is a light malt and the beer made with it will be a light beer. If the malt is roasted at a higher temperature, for longer, it will be a dark malt, and the resulting beer will be a dark beer. (I'm simplifying things, OK?)

In an all-malt beer, there are four components: pure water, malted barley, certain minerals (particularly salt, but often also magnesium sulfate), and hops. Hops are the flower buds of a plant which is closely related to marijuana. The hops flowers contain a resin, and originally German monks started adding it to their beer because it helped sterilize it during the brewing process.

The malt, water, and minerals are all boiled together. Hops are added at certain points. This is called "brewing", and once the brewing process is complete, all the solids are filtered out and the resulting liquid is known as "wort". It's also one of the most foul-tasting things you'd ever not want into your mouth.

The last thing that's needed, then, is yeast. These are single-celled organisms which, in wort, reproduce like mad and perform chemical miracles. The most important thing they do is to convert a lot of the suger into water and carbon dioxide, and some of the suger into alcohol.

In broad there are two kinds of yeast: lager and ale. Lager yeast is also known as "bottom fermenting". It likes a cooler temperature, and it does its work at the bottom of the fermenting vessel. Ale yeast is known as "top fermenting" and it works best at higher temperatures.

If you're careless other things can get in there, and instead of making alcohol they make acetic acid, which is what makes vinegar sour. If that happens, it ruins the batch. Ales are easier to infect than lagers, but as long as you're careful it won't happen with either kind.

Beer made with a lager yeast, brewed cold, is known as a lager beer. Beer made with ale yeast, at higher temperatures, is known as an "ale". It's possible to use lager yeast at higher temperatures, and what you get is known as a "steam beer".

The initial ferment takes two or three days. Then a good beer will be aged, anything from two weeks to a year depending on the brewer. Lagers will be aged in refrigeration; ales at room temperature. At that point you bottle. In commercial breweries the beer will be filtered and maybe pasteurized, carbonation will be added, and then it gets put into kegs or bottles or cans.

Alcohol is a waste product for yeast and too much of it will kill them off. It's possible to get beer up to 15% alcohol or even a bit more (I've heard of 20%) but it's really tricky because the yeast starts dying at 12%. Most beers come in between 3% and 7%, to some extent as a function of local law but also as a function of how the beer was formulated.

"All-malt beers" are, as you might expect, made using only malt. A lot of beers include less malt and add other kinds of grains, with rice being very common. Something like Budweiser doesn't really have very much malt in it; most of the grain used is rice. They do that in part because it's cheaper, but also because you get a less strong flavor.

On the other side, if you use a lot of dark malt then you get something like Guinness Stout which is black and strong flavored. Different people have different tastes (and different budgets) and that's why there are so many different kinds.

Next, wine.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:12 PM on January 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Wine is made out of fruit juice. A lot of different kinds of fruit are used for this -- peach, pear, apricot are all used. (Not apples; when you do that you get hard cider which is different.) Wines are also made from berries like raspberry or strawberry or elderberry.

But in general when we think of wine what we think of is grape wine. There are grapes which are light colored, green tending to yellow, when they're ripe. They have names like Rhiesling. And there are grapes which are dark purple when ripe, with names like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. There are also some which kind of split the difference.

When you make wine from juice of light colored grapes you get a "white wine" which will be clear and slightly yellowish in color. When you make wine from drak grapes the resulting wine will be dark red, and it's known as a "red wine". If you use the ones in the middle you get a wine which you can see through, but which has a distinctly pink color to it. Those are known as "rose wines" (pronounced ro-zay).

In the classic process, the grapes are crushed and what you get is known as "must". Traditionally little vineyards depended on the yeast that was naturally present on the grapes to do the fermentation, but big wineries don't take those kinds of chances. So they sterilize the must (there are different ways of doing it; one winery I know of uses sulfur dioxide, but boiling is more common) and then yeast is added. This is not the same kind of yeast used for beer, though it's distantly related.

The must ferments and what you get is wine. There are a few wines which are drunk just after the fermentation ends, but most wines need to age.

The classic way to do that is in oak barrels, for periods of up to several years. It turns out that during that process flavor components come out of the oak wood into the wine, which means the barrels shouldn't be reused. (Sometimes they are anyway.)

At the end of that time, the wine is bottled, and usually sold immediately. However, for many wines they need to be stored for anything from a few months to a decade for the wine to really reach its peak.

Wine is not usually carbonated, but there are special kinds (e.g. Champagne) which are carbonated. The main difference is in the brewing process they somehow eventually incorporate carbon dioxide into the wine before bottling. There are different ways of doing that. I suppose it's possible to do this with a red wine but nearly always it's white or rose.

Wine generally runs about 12% alcohol. There are "fortified wines" in which other things with more alcohol are added to increase the overall alcohol content. In the case of a cheap wine like Mogen David MD 20/20. That's made by taking crap wine and adding grain alcohol to bring it up to 20% and it's a favorite of street alcoholics.

Most fortified wines are crap, but port and sherry are well thought of. Port is based on red wine and sherry on white wine. They tend to run about 20% alcohol.

High quality wines are dated, indicating the year that the grapes were grown. This is known as "vintage" and the reason is that the grapes can vary quite a lot from year to year. One year may be magnificent. A different year could be terrible. Good vintages become known, and bottles of different years from the same winery may be sold for quite different prices.

Next, liquor.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:12 PM on January 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

There are a lot of different kinds of liquor. What they all have in common is distillation. That's a process whereby something that contains alcohol at low levels is heated. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so if you keep the temperature in the range between alcohol's boiling point and the boiling point of water, mostly what comes off is the alcohol.

That vapor is passed through a pipe which is cooled, so that it all turns liquid again and what comes out will have a higher alcohol content. Sometimes that is distilled again in order to raise the content even further.

If the process is handled very carefully, then all you'll get out is water and alcohol, and mostly the latter. But usually you don't want that. Most of the time other flavor components come across with the alcohol and water.

Different kinds of liquor are based on different source materials. In all cases you take the source material and ferment it, using some sort of yeast, and the result is known as "mash". That's what gets heated up.

Vodka is made from potatos, and generally speaking a good vodka won't contain anything except water and alcohol. Or hardly anything else.

Whisky is made from grain. Different kinds of whisky are based on different kinds of grain. Rye whisky is made from rye grain, obviously. Bourbon whisky is made mostly from corn. Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley. Sometimes they include other grain such as unmalted barley, wheat, and/or corn, for flavor purposes. It's one of the ways different distilleries vary their products.

After the mash is fermented then you distill, and what comes out is then aged, usually in oak. It's quite common for distilleries to use oak barrels that wineries have previously used. It is not uncommon for someone to use a blow torch to char the wood inside the barrel.

Aging takes a long time, anything from 3 to 12 years being quite common. Longer aging times are more expensive and are usually thought to result in a better whisky, though that's not the only thing that differentiates a good one from a bad one. Once the aging process is complete, the whisky is bottled. It doesn't have to be further aged in bottle; nothing changes after that.

Brandy is made from fruit. Fruit juice is fermented and then that gets heated for distillation. The output of the still may be aged in various ways, in barrels or in bottles. Many brandies are made from grapes. One famous kind of brandy is Cognac.

Tequila is made from agave, an annual succulent that is native to Mexico. The center part of a mature agave can be pressed to produce a sweet syrup, and they ferment that and then distill it.

There are kinds of liquors which begin with a mix of alcohol and water and add flavors to them. Some are known as "flavored vodka".

Gin is made by taking a mix of alcohol and water and adding a bit of juice from juniper berries for flavoring.

The alcohol content of liquor is usually expressed as "proof" where 200 proof is defined as pure alcohol. If a liquor is 70 proof then it is 35% alcohol. Commercial liquors usually run 70-110 proof but there are some which are far stronger and a few that are weaker than that.

The strongest thing it's possible to buy is usually referred to as "everclear" and it will be 194 proof. (Absolute purity turns out to be extremely difficult because alcohol is intensely hygroscopic and will absorb water out of the air.) Everclear should never be drunk straight; it's far too strong and you can easily kill yourself with it.

Liqueur (note the spelling difference; it's pronounced "lee-kyure") is made by taking grain alcohol and adding some sort of flavoring component along with water and sugar, resulting in a very sweet and highly flavored drink which is usually sipped. Back when I used to drink my favorite liqueur was Cointreau, which is orange flavored. Other popular ones are Kahlua (coffee), Galliano (banana), Anisette (anise), and Amaretto (almonds).

Some people drink liquor straight, but it's also common to mix one or more kinds with other things yielding a cocktail, or a mixed drink.

There are tens of thousands of them with all kinds of bizarre names, some of which are deliberately chosen to be weird. E.g. a "dirty mother" is tequila and kahlua. (Some people think it's brandy, but they're wrong.)

More common is the screwdriver, vodka and orange juice. A "Harvey Wallbanger" is vodka, orange juice, and galliano. A "bloody Mary" is vodka and tomato juice. A "tequila sunrise" is tequila, orange juice, and grenadine (a fruit-flavored syrup made from pomegranate). A "black Russian" is vodka and kahlua. A "white Russian" is vodka, kahlua, and cream. A martini is gin and vermouth (a kind of white wine) and is served with an olive.

Nobody knows them all; bartenders have reference books behind the bar that they can consult when some joker tries ordering something really obscure.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:12 PM on January 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Not to nitpick your wonderful comments, Chocolate Pickle, but...

A common misconception with wine is that the colour of the grape gives you the colour of the wine. Red/purple grapes will not necessarily give you red wine. Shiraz is a red grape, but you can find white shiraz (rare), rosé shiraz (somewhat common), or straight red shiraz (very common. Also called syrah in America, I believe). When the shiraz grape is juiced, you get a clear liquid. If you want colour, you leave the juice with the skins (which hold all the colour) for a while, and they impart the colour into the wine (along with lovely tannins which make it taste delicious in ten years). If you don't leave the juice on the skins, or don't leave it for very long, you get a clear or pinkish wine.

If you live anywhere near a winemaking region, the best way to learn is to go to a cellar door, taste their wine, and ask them questions. I guarantee they've heard it before (which reminds me- another, rarer misconception is that when people say a wine tastes like plums, or pepper, or citrus, it's because those things are added. They're not- it's just grape juice, but other flavours can develop based upon the vintage, the vineyard, and the winemaker). But yes- all this and more can be found simply by talking to your friendly neighbourhood winemaker.
posted by twirlypen at 10:40 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Be sure to check out Kevin Brauch's 'Thirsty Traveler' television series for background on all sorts of alcoholic drinks worldwide *.
posted by ericb at 10:50 PM on January 23, 2010

Oh, rats. I forgot rum.

Rum is made by fermenting molasses or sugar cane juice. Molasses is a by-product of cane sugar production, and originally there wasn't much of a market for it, so they started making liquor with it. Now for many countries rum is as big an export product as the sugar is.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:48 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Periodic Table of Beer Styles
posted by Rhomboid at 12:04 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing I didn't see mentioned was the taste of alcohol itself. When I first started drinking, any beer or wine I tried just tasted like alcohol. It took a while for me to get accustomed to it and be able to appreciate the real flavors of beer and wine. I still don't like strong mixed drinks for this reason. Some people drink sweet cider, certain mixed drinks, or alcopops like Smirnoff Ice in order to mask the taste of alcohol. The last pretty much tastes like medicine in my opinion.

Another acquired taste aspect is that beer is often bitter. Pale ales and IPAs popular among beer geeks can be strikingly bitter, so beware. Lighter beers like Miller High Life or Corona don't actually taste bad, just watery and bland. In fact, they can be pretty nice on a hot day. I've never tried anything really cheap, though. (And as mmascolino points out, bitterness and "darkness" are independent qualities.)

I started drinking after college and bought Guinness Stout at first, because I thought it would be more flavorful so naturally better right? This was a bad idea (in fact Guinness never grew on me), and I would recommend starting with something lighter.
posted by serathen at 9:10 AM on January 24, 2010

Alcohol is a poison. In small doses, you get a lovely sense of relaxation. I like that feeling when my neck muscles relax as I have a glass of wine. It reduces inhibition, makes you more social, you think things are funnier. A bit more, and you get giddy. The effect is delayed, so you have to learn to pace yourself, so you control it. I grew up with an alcoholic parent, and I define alcoholism as the loss of control over alcohol.

People die from acute alcohol poisoning. People kill themselves and/or others, by doing things like driving a car, driving a boat, or making other stupid moves. Too much alcohol, on a long term basis, damages the liver, and causes other health issues. When you drink, your judgment is impaired. Alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, permanently damaging a child.

Be smart about how you drink. The friend whose life you save by not giving him that extra beer will never thank you because he didn't walk in front of a bus. The kid who doesn't jump off a boat and drown won't appreciate the fact that you didn't encourage him to guzzle those tequila shots. Don't wait until you read the paper to learn about 4 kids from your high school dying or losing limbs in a car accident to be smart about drinking. These examples are real, and recent, in my town. I'm not saying don't drink. I'm saying maximize your fun and minimize your risk.
posted by theora55 at 11:50 AM on January 24, 2010

The Joy of Cooking actually has a pretty good chapter on alcoholic drinks. It teaches the differences between common kinds of beer, wine, and cocktails, without going into too much detail or advocacy.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:02 PM on January 24, 2010

If you have the time, and a good internet connection, check out Three Sheets on Hulu. Basically it is a travel show based on drinking, so you learn about other cultures and a lot of basic information about booze. You also get to see Zane, the host, make a fool of himself on a regular basis.
posted by Macduff at 6:09 PM on January 24, 2010

smartypantz said:
"Beer before liquor, never sicker
Liquor before beer, never fear!"
Don't I remember the Mythbusters tackling this one and finding it busted?

My chief piece of advice is that alcohol is worth exactly what you pay for it. Which is to say, Bombay Sapphire is expensive because it's better than Seagram's. My second piece of advice is that unless you really care about taste, stick to the cheap stuff. A $4 bottle of wine from 7-11 will get you just as drunk as a $40 bottle of wine from somewhere fancier.

In other words, you get what you pay for, but you get drunk regardless.
posted by etoile at 7:14 PM on January 24, 2010

"Beer before liquor, never sicker
Liquor before beer, never fear!"

I don't know if it has been completely debunked but the way I see it is this. For the same amount of alcoholic potency, liquor contains a vastly smaller volume than beer, roughly 1.5oz vs. 12 oz. Plus beers are carbonated which makes them "harder" to consume more of them in a short period of time. Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, if you are drunk and people start handing out shots, you can go from drunk to trouble rather quickly before you body starts to physically reject the substance. If you are drinking beer later into the cycle, well, the sheer volume and carbonation helps to moderate your drinking.

Now granted, this won't prevent you from being hungover and people can certainly learn to drink beer faster/higher/longer/stronger/whatever and join the Olympic Team of drinking but as a general guideline the approach can be thought as helpful advice if you understand the caveats.
posted by mmascolino at 9:57 AM on January 26, 2010


The deal with carbonation is that it's a vasodilator in the stomach and intestine. So the alcohol from a carbonated drink will be absorbed faster.

That's why the "boilermaker", which is a shot of liquor and a glass of beer. The theory is that you drink the entire shot of liquor, all at once, and then drink the beer slowly, and you get really smashed.

That's why a lot of mixed drinks involve a carbonated mixer, soda water or coke or tonic water or ginger ale; the carbonation makes you get drunk faster. That's also part of the attraction of sparkling wines like champagne.

"Tonic water" is soda water to which quinine has been added. Quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, and it's a natural treatment for malaria. Three or four hundred years ago, British imperialists were creating sugar plantations (and cotton and tobacco and...) in foreign tropical colonies, by chopping down all the trees. The result was to create all kinds of warm pools of water where malarial mosquitos could breed, and the rate of malaria in those areas skyrocketed. At the time, taking regular doses of quinine was the only way for the Europeans to avoid dying.

But quinine is pretty foul tasting. Eventually someone came up with the idea of mixing some of it with soda water, and adding some gin to it. The result is a drink called "gin and tonic", which they used to drink daily in order to avoid dying of malaria. For Medicinal Purposes, you know...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:39 AM on January 26, 2010

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