Liquor Before Beer … 

Does drinking different kinds of alcohol make any difference in how hungover you get?

Last weekend, I did a lot of eating and drinking. I had friends visiting from out of town, and we tore our way through Midtown and downtown with a stop at Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman's East Memphis enclave for good measure. Drink-wise, I had a Moscow Mule at Loflin Yard, gin and tonics at Second Line, Miller High Life at Earnestine and Hazel's — followed by whisky shots procured from Nate at the upstairs bar — cups of Budweiser poured from a quart bottle at the Big S Grill and Lounge, and another Moscow Mule at DKDC. There was also wine: a few glasses of pinot grigio served at the Young Collectors Contemporary show at Clayborn Temple and rosé, poured into Mardi Gras cups at a North Memphis recording studio.

Thankfully, all that alcohol was consumed with plenty of food. I never really got drunk and so never really felt hungover, although I was definitely sluggish by the time my company headed to the airport. But I did worry a few times — particularly when those whisky shots showed up at our table at Earnestine's, too soon after a few rounds of Miller High Life accompanied our Soul Burgers downstairs. The adage "Liquor before beer, you're in the clear. Beer before liquor, never been sicker" ran through my head, and I eschewed a second shot and went for a glass of water instead.

click to enlarge DRAGHICICH | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Draghicich | Dreamstime.com

Scientifically, there are a lot of theories behind the physiological after-effects of mixing alcoholic drinks.

On the group-think question-and-answer website Quora, the opinion is that because hard liquor has much more alcohol per volume than beer, it takes longer for your liver to detoxify the ethanol in your system. If you drink beer first, then switch to vodka, your body is preoccupied with processing the beer, which means that the higher concentrated vodka is present in your bloodstream for a longer period of time. Eventually, of course, it will diffuse through your muscles, fat, and central nervous system, but all that higher-concentrated alcohol causes major dehydration. And because, hey, you're drunk, you're more likely to ignore the signals that indicate that you need water.

In her investigation for the BBC's "Medical Myths" column, journalist Claudia Hammond studied congeners — the non-ethanol substances produced via the fermentation process, such as acetone and tannins. Dark liquors have high levels of congeners; clear liquors like gin and vodka have much lower levels. Like ethanol, congeners have a major effect on hangovers. Add a shot of whisky to that round of beers, and you're likely to feel the effect the following morning.

Hammond also astutely observed that hard liquor — particularly shots, be it whisky, tequila, or any other variety — goes down much faster than a bottle of beer. So when you mix drinks, chances are high that you're consuming more alcohol overall. And, Hammond writes, "The higher the alcohol content, and the faster you drink it, the worse the hangover. ... If combining three or four measures of spirits alongside other ingredients, a throbbing head and dry throat is probably just the result of consuming more alcohol in total."

When The New York Times' Anahad O'Connor weighed in on the discussion, he added to the digestive theories espoused on Quora. Carbonation irritates the lining of the stomach, which can increase alcohol absorption rates, O'Connor noted, and therefore, switching from beer to liquor might make you drunker quicker.

The experts, however, took Hammond's side. No matter what you drink, according to what NYU gastroenterologist Roshini Rajapaksa told O'Connor, you can get a debilitating hangover if you drink too much of it. Practice moderation, and eat to slow down the absorption process, or you'll pay the price.

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