History has given gin a bit of a bad rap. In 18th-century England, as Eater explains in its history of the spirit, gin’s rising popularity among the lower classes and easy accessibility — for a while, it was even cheaper than beer — made it a scapegoat for all kinds of social problems: “Gin quickly and uniquely became associated with poverty, extreme drunkenness, madness, death, and inferiority.” (Some historians say its nickname, “mother’s ruin,” is a reference to the family instability that too much gin-drinking caused.)
The “Gin Craze,” as that period came to be known, died down toward the middle of the century with the introduction of new regulations, but even a few hundred years later and an ocean away, gin still hasn’t managed to entirely shake off its unsavory reputation: Folk wisdom still holds that “gin drunk” is a synonym for “mean drunk,” or “sad drunk,” or really any kind of emotional, undesirable state of inebriation.
Here’s the thing, though: ‘Gin drunk’ isn’t real. Neither is the idea that whiskey turns you angry, or the stereotype of tequila is the ultimate bad-decision juice. Plenty of people think of alcohol as a sort of personality-management tool — you may turn to X liquor when you want to be the liveliest version of yourself, or steer clear of Y drink if you want to avoid sulking in a corner of the bar — but the resulting effect is more a product of your own psyche than a result of the specific type of booze you’re drinking. Here are some things to know about the drinking myth that just won’t die.
All alcohol is created equal — but the same can’t be said of all drinking sessions.
In the U.S., a standard drink is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as 14 grams of pure alcohol, the equivalent of about 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or a single 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor (though that definition varies pretty dramatically from country to country). Chemically, the alcohol in any one of those things is the same as the alcohol in any other — it’s all ethanol, and it works the same way whether you gulp it out of a shot glass or sip it from a bottle. As pharmacologist Paul Clayton has put it to the Guardian: “Fundamentally, alcohol is alcohol whichever way you slice it.”
The difference, then, is in when and where you drink it, and whom you’re drinking it with. “It depends on what mood you were in when you started drinking and the social context,” Clayton said. If you’re doing tequila shot after tequila shot, you’re probably geared up for a wild night anyway. On the other hand, if you’re slowly working your way through a bottle of wine, odds are higher you’re settling in for a more mellow night — and, by extension, a more mellow drunk. Contrary to the way we see things, it’s the context, not the drink, that matters, because the context often determines the drink.
We’re easily influenced by drinking stereotypes.
When it comes to alcohol, we’re mind-bogglingly susceptible to the power of suggestion: Thinking you’re drunk can be enough to make you act drunk, even when you’re stone-cold sober. In one 2003 study, for instance, half the subjects were led to believe that the tonic water they were drinking was actually vodka; compared to the people who knew what was really in their glass, these faux drinkers could be more easily swayed to remember false events surrounding the session, and more confident in their responses.
Similarly, a lot of your reaction to what you’re drinking comes down to how you think you should be feeling. “A lot of this is folk memories and cultural hangovers,” Clayton told the Guardian, and the reputation of a given beverage may precede it. If you’ve heard that tequila makes people frisky, for instance, and then find yourself flirting a little more than usual having after a few margaritas, it’s not because the booze has somehow sparked a reaction in your hormones — it’s because you’re following a script.
But it’s not all in your head.
Often, the mixers, not the booze, are to blame for any side effects beyond drunkenness itself. Let’s use two common combos, a rum and Coke and a vodka-soda, as examples: Think about how you’d feel if you drank each of those mixers on their own, taking booze out of the equation — a sugary, caffeine-y Coke is going to give you a buzz that plain old tonic water just won’t. Some research suggests that carbonated beverages will also get you drunk faster than non-carbonated ones, speeding up the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream; if you’re a person who often mixes vodka with something fizzy, then, you may think of it as a more potent alcohol than if you typically cut it with cranberry juice.
Congeners, the chemicals that appear in alcohol during fermentation and influence the taste and smell of whatever it is you’re drinking, may also play a role. Different types of booze have different congeners, and darker alcohols (brown liquor, red wine, heavy beer) tend to have more than lighter ones (clear liquor, white wine, light beer). Some scientists believe that maybe, in theory, congeners can play a role in how an alcohol affects the way you act and feel, but there’s not much research out there to either support or disprove the idea.
Not much research, that is, with one exception: Congeners can definitely make a hangover worse — though they’ve got nothing on the slow, steady march of time. Stereotypes about certain types of alcohol may stay the same over the years, but hangovers, I am sorry to say, only get worse.