Have you ever wondered why different alcoholic drinks will make you feel a different kind of drunk. Why does beer chill you out but gin makes you angry? Why does wine cause you to have deep chats but vodka makes you sad? Some will argue that there’s no logic behind this, that it’s simply the amount of alcohol within the drinks and the speed at which you metabolise them. But maybe there’s more going on here. Maybe there’s more in the science that differentiates alcoholic drinks than we think. As always, we’re going to delve into the truth and flesh it out. Let’s go.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol – whether we like to hear it or not – is technically a drug. So don’t think you’re not taking drugs when you sip on that vodka and coke. You are. Alcohol, or ethyl alcohol, is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that can produce a range of effects on the brain and body, depending on the type of alcohol consumed and the amount consumed. Other drugs that join the depressant or downer club include ketamine or GHB. These kinds of substances are known for specific effects:
- Reduced anxiety
- Relaxed feelings
- Slowed reaction time
- Reduced inhibitions
- Enhanced mood
Sound familiar? Alcohol is a psychoactive substance that is widely consumed in various forms around the world. It is produced by the fermentation of sugars or starches, which is a process that occurs when yeast or bacteria consume the sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products. The alcohol content of beverages can vary greatly, with some containing only a small amount, while others have a high concentration.
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There are several types of alcohol – many will experience them all in one evening – but the most commonly consumed form is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Ethanol is the main active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine, and spirits. It is responsible for the intoxicating effects that are associated with drinking alcohol.
Alcoholism causes 140,000 deaths in the US every year, yet it still remains a legal substance. On the other hand, cannabis kills essentially 0 people every year and there are still several states yet to legalize it. So why is alcohol dealt with differently to other drugs? The Conversation writes:
“The main reason why alcohol remains legal in the U.S. – despite mounting evidence of the harm it can cause – is that banning it a century ago failed… Prohibition initially helped reduce alcohol consumption. But it also bolstered the illegal liquor trade. This practice, called “bootlegging,” created new problems.”
This theory makes sense, until you consider that there is a black market for all illegal drugs. So why have substances like cocaine or ecstacy been legalized? Nonetheless, due to the fact that alcohol is illegal basically everywhere in the world, it has meant that money has been within the industry for a long time. In fact, the global market worth of the alcohol industry hit 1.45 trillion dollars in 2021. Where there is money, there is innovation, hence why there are so many different kinds of alcoholic drinks. Not only are there varying types of alcohol, but there are also hundreds of brands. It is no surprise, with all of the diverse options, that people start to wonder if one alcoholic drink can cause different effects than another. But is this just a myth?
Different Alcoholic Drinks, Different Effects
There are several theories both for and against the theory that different alcoholic drinks can cause different effects. Some believe it’s a placebo and psychological, whilst others claim there’s truth to it.
Reasons in Support
Different types of alcohol can cause different experiences due to variations in their chemical structures, metabolism, and effects on the brain and body. Ethanol, the type of alcohol commonly found in alcoholic beverages, is a simple molecule consisting of a hydroxyl group attached to a carbon atom. The molecular structure of different types of alcohols, however, can vary greatly. In addition, the way that alcohol is broken down in the system can also affect the experience it produces. The rate at which it is metabolised can vary depending on a person’s liver.
If alcohol is absorbed quicker, this could manifest itself as a different drunk experience. With less intense drinks – such as beer – we tend to drink more of it. This can be quite a dehydrating experience, needing to consume more to get drunk. This can trigger tiredness or a more relaxed feeling. Spirits, on the other hand, have a higher percentage and thus are usually drunk slower. The intensity of the higher percentage drinks can cause more energy. Suddenly, alcohol becomes a stimulant, rather than a depressant. Perhaps this is why Tequila makes you crazy but Fosters makes you sleepy?
Let’s be honest here, ethanol is ethanol. Alcohol is alcohol. How can there really be different effects from different alcohols? Whilst there has been limited research into this, the mainstream school of thought is that the theory is a myth. Instead, scientists prefer to think about the idea of expectancy. Dru Jaeger writes:
“Expectancy is a psychological term for a predictable relationship between an external stimulus and our response to it. At its simplest, your expectation of what will happen can shape your experience of what happens. So what you expect to happen when you drink can change what actually happens in practice.”
A recent study of 30,000 people found that people attach different emotions to different alcohols. However, these are believed to be caused by this idea of expectancy. Throughout life we find reasons to believe that different drinks make us feel differently – this is based on certain factors. Ultimately, it’s our mindset. Like with the set and setting idea and psychedelic drugs, how we feel before drinking can dictate our experience. If we drink wine when we’re relaxed, it’ll probably make us feel more relaxed. If we drink spirits to go out, we’ll probably feel energetic. If we drink beer to chill out, we’ll probably feel sleepy. You see what’s happening here? The alcohol itself isn’t changing, but the way we feel towards it is. The Conversation writes:
“The direct effects of alcohol are the same whether you drink wine, beer or spirits. There’s no evidence that different types of alcohol cause different mood states. People aren’t even very good at recognising their mood states when they have been drinking.”
It seems that the evidence is pointing towards this theory being a myth. It’s a bit like people saying that different sweets cause different sugar highs. Of course there are foods that have more intense portions of sugar, but this doesn’t mean that it’s causing an entirely alternative experience. The mixture of varying levels of alcohol, alongside this idea of expectancy, is what gives people the impression of a different kind of drunk. With this in mind, it’s not the alcoholic drink that is different, it is us.
Final Thoughts on different alcoholic drinks
I myself have wondered at points why some alcoholic drinks do seem to give me different – let’s say – vibes. I’ve experienced feeling chill on wine and beer, but more energetic on spirits. Although, at the same time, now that I think of it, I’ve also experienced having intense arguments after a bottle of red wine. I also remember first drinking beer and feeling invincible.
It seems that it isn’t the alcohol that is changing, it’s my attitude towards it. Thus it seems that the theory has been deemed a myth, doesn’t it? Although, on the other hand, if we believe it to be true, then doesn’t that make it true? In other words, if our attitudes towards different alcoholic drinks can change how we feel they affect us, then maybe that’s enough to give a bit more credit to this theory. Who cares what’s causing it? It’s still happening, right?
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