Can You Actually Taste the Strength of a Drink?

Sometimes, the highest praise you can give a cocktail is, "Wow, you can't even taste the alcohol." Being able to precisely balance the flavors in a drink so it's not a booze overload is a mark of a good mixologist — and not necessarily a sign that the drink is low in alcohol. But fancy cocktails aren't the only drinks that hide their booze. It turns out that when it comes to the taste of alcohol, most of us are terrible at distinguishing a strong drink from a weak one.

Related Video: 4 Alcohol Myths You Still Believe

Beer Before Liquor?

Studies done in the 1980s showed that people can't really tell the difference between regular beer and light or even non-alcoholic beer. A 1988 study published in the journal Addiction had volunteers in their 20s each drink nine glasses of beer — three each of a lager with five percent alcohol, a pale lager with about four percent alcohol, and a light beer with roughly one percent alcohol. Their identification of which beer was which was no better than chance, regardless of how much they drank. A study done in 1983 even showed that study subjects couldn't tell the difference between light beer and "near beer" without alcohol.

Wine drinkers don't do much better. A 2013 study found that the average consumer couldn't distinguish between two wines with a one percent difference in alcohol content.

Shaken, Not Stirred

The research into spirits and cocktails is a little bit more nuanced. A 2014 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that how well people can distinguish the strength of a cocktail depends on how much alcohol is actually in it. Roughly 60–70 percent of volunteers could tell the difference between plain orange juice and orange juice with a splash of vodka, and pilsner with 0.5 percent alcohol and wheat beer with five percent alcohol. They were slightly worse at actually judging how much alcohol each one contained. But once the alcohol content started climbing, people started failing. Only 40 percent of volunteers correctly identified a difference between vodka in orange juice at 40 percent alcohol by volume versus 50 percent.

In a study Kingston University London psychology professor Philip Terry presented at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in 2017, college students fared pretty poorly at booze identification. After drinking 8-ounce vodka tonics with three different alcohol concentrations — two shots, one shot, and a half-shot of vodka, respectively — less than 60 percent of volunteers correctly ordered the drinks from strongest to weakest on their first try. Interestingly, those who didn't like the taste of the high-alcohol drink were more likely to rate the drinks correctly. And in a second experiment, so-called "supertasters" were able to correctly rate sweet drinks, but not the vodka tonics.

When it comes to judging the strength of your drinks, don't trust your taste buds. Instead, take time between drinks to see how they're affecting you, drinking water in the meantime. If you keep a level head, you're more likely to make it a night to remember.

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Learn more about your favorite spirits in "Proof: The Science of Booze" by Adam Rogers. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 5, 2017

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