It’s a widely-accepted mantra which can be found in some form or other in most Western cultures. In England I learnt it as ‘Beer before wine is fine, wine before beer—oh dear!’ Anywhere groups of people gather together to partake in that age-old pastime of drinking too much this little ditty is often passed around as solid advice.
Similar proverbs can be found in Germany („Bier auf Wein, das laß sein!”), Hungary, Sweden…even the West Country has its own scrumpy-based version: ‘Beer on cider makes a good rider!’ The only exception to the rule appears to be the American saying, ‘Beer before liquor, never been sicker!’ which forgoes wine altogether in favour of straight-up spirits and even then gets the order the wrong way around compared to everyone else.
But, given the universal popularity of the proverb, is there actually any scientific evidence to back up the notion that the sequence of drinks over the course of a night out is key to one’s intoxication and subsequent hangover?
The short answer to that is ‘no’. As far as me and my search engine can tell there have been no decisive studies carried out in a laboratory setting to put the saying to the test. That hasn’t stopped numerous bloggers from making their own ad-hoc ‘reckoning’ on the subject.
‘The reasoning behind the proverb is that it’s easier on your body to absorb weaker alcoholic drinks, like beer, later on in the evening’ explained one defender of the American version on a Q&A page.
Well, not necessarily; it’s true that the concentration of alcohol does appear to have an effect on the rate of its absorption. One study that took place back in the golden ages of prohibition found that low alcohol concentrations (2.75%) were absorbed at a slower rate than higher concentrations (27.5%). A later set of experiments testing out a wider range of concentrations however argued for a ‘curvilinear’ relationship. Here, scientists found that alcohol drunk at concentrations more closely resembling those of wine (15%) or neat spirits (45%) were absorbed more slowly than a mid-range concentration of 30%. Indeed one of the most recent studies, conducted at the University of Manchester, found that drinking straight vodka actually led to slower rates of alcohol absorption and lower peak blood alcohol levels than drinking the same quantity of vodka but in a diluted form.
Now before you all go off downing shots of Smirnoff tomorrow with the misguided notion that it will make you less drunk, please keep in mind that these sorts of experiments can often be somewhat removed from the real-world situation. Those scientists up at Manchester had their poor test subjects drinking vodka either neat or mixed with nought but tap water, at nine in the morning after a night of fasting. No doubt there are some serious differences between that situation and your average night down the pub, and some could prove to be mitigating factors; not least of which how much alcohol you choose to drink, and at what rate you choose to drink it.
Bubbles are another often touted explanation for the saying. It’s commonly thought that the carbon dioxide found in lager or other types of fizz helps to boost the effects of alcohol. Many people talk of the bubbles in champagne ‘going straight to their heads‘, actually they go straight to their guts. The gas in a carbonated drink is believed to speed up the movement of your stomach contents into the small intestine where alcohol is known to be absorbed more readily. So maybe if you drink a fizzy alcoholic beverage like champagne, or as the rhyme would have it beer, on top of a stomach-full of wine, the resultant surge of alcohol into the small intestine would leave you knocked for six.
Surprisingly, there have only been a couple of studies looking into whether bubbles give alcohol a helping hand. One scientist, Fran Ridout, in an experiment originally reported in New Scientist, invited some of the volunteers in her department to a ‘drinks party’ before plying them with glasses of champagne. Half the guests were given normal fizzy champagne and half were given champagne that had previously been attacked with a whisk, rendering it ‘fizzless’. After each person had drunk two glasses Ridout then measured their blood alcohol levels and put them through a number of psychometric tests. I must say if I were one of these ‘guests’ I would be starting to think this a queer sort of party by this stage. Nevertheless, those people who had been drinking the fizzy champagne showed a faster rise in their blood alcohol levels compared to those who had drunk flat champagne. They were also slower at noticing objects in their peripheral vision, although this was the only one out of nine measures of mental faculty in which the two groups showed any real difference. It should also be noted that the flat champers group did eventually catch up, and had built up comparable blood alcohol levels to their fizzy counterparts after thirty minutes. Thus, while bubbles may help speed the way to intoxication, it’s a place we all get to in the end, whether we opt for alcohol fizzy or flat.
So when it comes to determining the order of our tipples it looks like science has little to offer us in the way of advice. But it may still be able to tell us what type of drink to choose. A study published last month in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research appears to have confirmed another widely-held belief, that the colour of your alcohol is linked to your suffering the next day. Scientists at Brown University found that giving volunteers dark coloured drinks such as bourbon led to more severe hangovers than clear alternatives like vodka. The finger of guilt in this effect is pointed at congeners, small amounts of toxins and other by-products in alcohol that build up during the fermentation process. Congeners occur in greater numbers in darker alcoholic drinks. Bourbon, for example, contains 37 times more congeners than vodka, and are believed to enhance the painful qualities of a hangover. But again these findings may need to be taken with a pinch of salt and a slice of lemon. The severity of hangovers was assessed on a series of self-rating scales filled out by the participants. While those who had drank bourbon reported worse hangover the next day, this was not reflected in any alcohol-related sleep disturbances or in their performance on psychometric tests. Despite attempts by the scientists to mask the identity of the alcohol being consumed, volunteers could easily tell when they were downing bourbon and coke rather than vodka; thus it’s debatable how much the expectations of the participants led them to report worse hangovers in connection with the darker alcohol.
Arguably the best way to avoid a pounding hangover first thing on a weekday morning is to avoid drinking at all the night before, but you don’t need me or a disgruntled tutor to tell you that. Steering clear of drinks steeped in hangover-inducing congeners might be one option next time you’re down the college bar, or you could take a leaf out of the Victorian gentleman’s book and invest in a ‘swizzle stick’ to help get rid of those pesky bubbles in one’s drink.
Perhaps one day scientists will focus their efforts on determining whether chasing Chardonnay with Carling really is a recipe for disaster, or if Budweiser before Bordeaux is the way to go. Until that time I’m afraid it’s down to your own level judgement. Please enjoy science responsibly!