Life's Little Mysteries

Is champagne stronger than non-bubbly alcoholic drinks?

A couple drinks champagne on a date
(Image credit: Prostock-Studio via Getty Images)

A oft-spoken piece of advice cautions those celebrating with a bottle of bubbly; allegedly, champagne makes you drunk faster than other beverages with similar alcohol content. But how much truth is there to this statement? In other words, do you need to exercise extra moderation with the champagne this Valentine's Day?

Although a typical glass of champagne has no more alcohol than wine, there is some evidence that it impairs people faster than its flat counterpart. But it's not just champagne that may have this effect, it's any alcoholic beverage with bubbles, said Hildegarde Heymann, a sensory scientist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. 

However, the jury is still out on whether alcoholic bubblies make drinkers tipsy faster than people downing still alcoholic beverages.

Related: Does drinking alcohol warm your body?

In a 2007 study, scientists met with 21 participants on three separate occasions, serving them a different drink each time. First, a glass of vodka, neat. Then, vodka mixed with still water. Finally, vodka mixed with an equivalent amount of carbonated water. Before each rendezvous, the participants fasted overnight. They had five minutes to drink the vodka — then, over the next four hours, the scientists measured their blood-alcohol concentrations using a breathalyzer test. 

The results of the study, published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, appeared to confirm that sparkling alcoholic drinks really do make people drunk faster. On average, bubbly vodka spiked blood-alcohol concentrations faster than did the neat and the watered-down vodka. (Interestingly, both the bubbly and watered-down vodkas spiked blood-alcohol concentrations faster than the neat vodka, according to that same study. It's a phenomenon well-supported by other research. Blood-alcohol concentrations spike faster with beverages with alcohol concentrations of 10-20% — a cocktail or glass of wine, for instance. Stronger drinks seem to slow down alcohol's absorption into the bloodstream.)

But very few other studies to support this finding. The only other experiment to explore this question, published in 2003 in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism included only 12 participants. Instead of comparing each participant's response to a still versus carbonated alcoholic drink, they sorted the participants into two groups: still wine drinkers and sparkling wine drinkers. The scientists did find that participants drinking sparkling wine absorbed more alcohol; but with so few in each group, the difference could have been due to natural variation in alcohol tolerance. 

Let's say that champagne does make us drunk faster. How would that work? It all comes down to how quickly alcohol moves through the digestive tract. While the stomach absorbs some alcohol, the intestines are far more efficient at shuttling the substance into our blood, Heymann said. So, the longer alcohol hangs out in the stomach, the less drunk you become. This process is controlled by the pyloric sphincter, a kind of gate that opens to let food exit into the intestines or closes to let it digest in the stomach. That's why it's a good idea to eat an appetizer with your champagne: "If you eat food with your alcohol, that slows down the process and you get less drunk," Heymann told Live Science. The sphincter closes to let the food digest. As a result, your blood absorbs the alcohol over a longer period of time, Heymann said. 

As for why spirits make us drunk less quickly than weaker drinks: scientists hypothesize that high alcohol concentrations irritate the lining of our stomach, causing it to produce mucus. Mimicking food, the mucus causes the pyloric sphincter to remain closed. 

Carbonation could trigger the pyloric sphincter to open sooner than it would otherwise, emptying the contents of the stomach into the intestines, Heymann said. There are some studies to suggest that carbonation does shorten the amount of time food and drink stays in the stomach. However, much of this research was conducted in the early-to-mid 20th century. More recent studies suggest that carbonated and flat beverages spend the same amount of time in the stomach.

So, if you're hoping to enjoy a glass of champagne on Valentine's Day, you probably don't need to worry about an extra bad hangover (as long as you're consuming in moderation, of course).  To act on the safe side, go ahead and pair your beverage with a bite to eat — maybe a box of chocolates.

Originally published on Live Science.

Isobel Whitcomb
Live Science Contributor

Isobel Whitcomb is a contributing writer for Live Science who covers the environment, animals and health. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Fatherly, Atlas Obscura, Hakai Magazine and Scholastic's Science World Magazine. Isobel's roots are in science. She studied biology at Scripps College in Claremont, California, while working in two different labs and completing a fellowship at Crater Lake National Park. She completed her master's degree in journalism at NYU's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.