When Four Drinks Mean Six: How Alcohol Content Varies In Restaurants And Bars

In an era when Americans know more and more about the food they’re served in restaurants,  recent research shows that they don’t know too much after all about alcoholic beverages they order. Calories and fat of entrees and deserts from the kitchen are increasingly stated on the menu—many localities now require it—but there’s no guarantee about the alcohol content of the drinks from the bar.

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More Than Your Money’s Worth

What’s more, recent research detailed in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has revealed what may come as a surprise to frequent consumers of libations in restaurants and bars: That drink you order may well have more alcohol in it than you expect—or want. The old notion of restauranteurs and bartenders watering down the booze to make every bottle go further seems to be the exception rather than the rule. And, while every consumer certainly wants to get their money’s worth on food and drinks when dining out, getting more alcohol than you may be prepared for can be disconcerting and downright dangerous, in some cases.

How Much Is Too Much?

In the U.S., the generally accepted standard (there’s no formal law) is that a single drink will contain a pure alcohol content of 0.6 ounces. However, there’s not a chemist behind every bar meticulously formulating each drink and carefully measuring the contents in a test tube. In the real world, the amount of alcohol in the drink you order fluctuates according to a number of variables including the size of the glass in which the establishment serves the drink to inconsistencies in pouring volume by hurried employees to the percent of alcohol inherent in the particular drink. For example, wine may contain 15 percent alcohol or 11 percent. However, the distinction between the content of certain wines may not be indicated anywhere on the wine list or the wall menu displayed behind the bar.

Testing The Limits

Researchers visited 80 establishments  serving alcoholic beverages in northern California to analyze the exact content of alcohol in drinks purchased there. The content of 480 sample drinks of beer, wine and hard liquor was tested to determine the concentration of alcohol by volume. In some cases the researchers actually used laboratory methods to analyze the drink and arrive at an exact figure, in other cases, such as wine, they used the manufacturer’s label information about alcohol percentage.  The results were then compared to the U.S. standard of 0.6 ounces per drink.

What The Numbers Show

The final report released by researchers revealed a noticeable lack of consistency in alcohol content. Surprisingly, given the impetus to cut costs in most eating and drinking establishments today, it was discovered that ordered drinks actually tended to contain alcohol above the 0.6 ounce standard. Exceptions to this were noted for shots of pure hard liquor and bottled beers. Drinks that were special-ordered also were found to be larger in total volume of all ingredients—including alcohol—than standard drinks.
Wines typically delivered a higher alcoholic punch than expected because many establishments serve wines with an alcohol volume above the usual 12 percent, instead opting for 14 percent varieties. Serving larger volumes per glass than normal was found to be yet another factor that boosts the amount of alcohol consumed per drink.

Why It Matters

Consumers should be concerned. Many individuals estimate their capacity to drive safely after drinking by the simple number of a familiar drink they order at one sitting. Since the research has now established that the alcohol volume per drink may fluctuate substantially, some drinkers could be placing themselves and other drivers on the roads at risk by consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol without knowing it.

Err On The Side Of Caution

It’s almost impossible to accurately judge the amount of alcohol in many drinks merely by tasting. Other ingredients in the drink like mixers mask the flavor. Researchers emphasize that relatively small inconsistencies in the expected alcohol volume in drinks at restaurants and bars can have a big effect on safe driving and other public health issues. For example, if the actual alcohol content in a drink is higher than expected by just 25 percent and the drinker consumes four drinks, they could be exposing themselves to impairment equivalent to consuming an additional two more drinks at standard content—without even being aware of it. Increasingly, responsible drinking means consumers must be more wary of possible variations in alcoholic content of beer, wine and spirits. Unless or until standards are established and uniformly applied in the industry, a personal policy of “less is more” when it comes to consuming alcoholic beverages in commercial establishments may be the safest course to take.

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