The researchers looked at data from the Global Drug Study, a huge multinational survey on alcohol and drug use, both legal and illegal. They focused on 30,000 people aged 18 to 34, in 21 countries, who reported drinking all of the drinks of interest at some point over the last year, beer, red wine, white wine, and liquor/spirits. The researchers were interested in the participants’ typical drinking habits, and what emotions each type of alcohol tended to trigger, including positive ones (“energized,” “relaxed,” “sexy” and “confident”) and negative (“tired,” “aggressive,” “ill,” “restless” and “tearful”).
Red wine was the most soothing of the libations: about 53% of the participants said it made them feel relaxed. (It was also linked to feeling tired—more than white wine.) And beer was a close second, with 50% of participants reporting that beer made them feel relaxed. Liquor was the least likely to be linked to feeling relaxed—only 20% of the participants said they felt more relaxed after drinking it.
But hard liquor was linked to trigger fierier emotions: 30% of people said liquor made them feel aggressive (red wine was the least connected to that feeling, at 3%). Almost 60% of the participants said liquor made them feel energetic and confident. And 43% of people associated liquor with feeling sexy.
Interestingly, people who fell into the category of alcohol-dependent were five times as likely as non-dependent drinkers to report feeling energized by alcohol. Heavier drinkers were also six times as likely to report feelings of aggression, which suggests heavier drinkers feel more emotions on both ends of the spectrum when they drink. Men were also more likely to report feeling aggression after any type of alcohol, though beer drinkers felt less aggression than men who drank liquor.
The study suggests a couple of things; first, it confirms anecdotal evidence that hard alcohol is linked to aggression. For centuries, the history of rum, gin, vodka and other spirits has been laced with violence. This global study suggests even today consuming spirits is more likely to result in feelings of aggression than other drinks.
It also raises questions about why different varieties of alcohol would trigger different emotions in the drinker, since alcohol, the chemical, doesn’t change. One possibility is that people may consume hard liquor more quickly, and it has higher alcohol content to begin with. This can result in a quicker stimulating effect as blood alcohol levels increase. At the same time those rapid increases in alcohol reduce the brain’s ability to suppress impulsive feelings or to consider the consequences of acting on them. It’s also possible that the compounds in drinks besides the alcohol may have different effects on the brain, in ways we don’t yet know.
There could also be a psychological component, where people expect or desire to feel a certain way, depending on the type of drink or occasion that’s associated with it like doing shots at a bar vs. having wine over dinner with old friends.
Finally, people with different emotional makeups might gravitate to different types of drink for particular reasons. For instance, people who are predisposed to feeling aggressive may tend to drink hard liquor more than people who are naturally more relaxed. It’s definitely possible that there’s a vicious cycle, especially if expectations and results are blurred.
The results suggest that especially people who are heavier drinkers may be expecting or perhaps even relying on certain drinks for energy and confidence, but heavier drinkers are much more likely to report negative emotions as well. This risks a dangerous spiral where drinking can be seen as solution to emotional problems it is actually aggravating.
The big caveat is that this was an observational study, relying on people’s memories of their own motivations and responses. That can be dicey, but it’s hard to do a randomized clinical trial and still capture the real-world element. In any case, while researchers are still learning how alcohol and emotions interplay, be careful of your consumption whatever your drink of choice, especially over the holidays. Hard liquor and family political discussions probably don’t mix.