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Drinking Habits

Beer vs. Liquor: Which One Is Worse?

March 18, 2024
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
March 18, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
March 18, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
March 18, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
March 18, 2024
19 min read

Understanding Drink Choices

  • Alcohol affects every system in the body and can complicate health conditions.

  • Drinking is not advised for those with liver, heart, kidney, or gastrointestinal disorders; those with diabetes or pre-diabetes; people with mental health conditions; and adolescent or pregnant populations.

  • Use the Reframe app as part of your health management plan to quit or cut back on drinking with a plan personalized to your goals.

We need to ask ourselves many questions when we decide to change our relationship to alcohol. What are my drinking goals? How do I want alcohol to factor into my life? How do different situations and types of alcohol fit my plan?

This article examines two popular types of alcohol: beer and liquor. Let’s explore what makes these two types of alcohol different and similar, and try to answer some common questions — is beer better than liquor, or is liquor healthier than beer? Let’s dive in!

Breaking It Down 

What Is Beer?

Beer is one of the oldest fermented beverages in the world. Evidence suggests that modern beer developed around 3,500-3,100 BCE in Iran, although historians believe it had already been around for a long time by that point. It has been used throughout history and has even served roles in cultural and religious ceremonies.

Beer is also one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, coming in just behind water and tea. It’s produced by brewing and fermenting grains like wheat and barley and sometimes rice, corn, and oats.

What Is Liquor?

The history and purpose of liquor is a bit trickier. It was likely developed as a way to produce a higher concentration of ethanol — aka, pure alcohol — in a smaller volume of liquid. For much of its history, liquor was used medicinally — to extract herbal compounds to make tinctures, for example. It also was widely used as an anesthetic before the advent of modern anesthesia.

Before we go on, what exactly do we mean when we say “liquor”? Typically, the terms “hard liquor,” “distilled liquor,” and “spirit” are used interchangeably to refer to an alcoholic beverage produced through the process of distillation. During this process, a fermented alcoholic liquid is heated in a still — basically, a water vapor collection contraption. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it evaporates first, then is captured and condensed into a liquid with a higher concentration of alcohol and fewer impurities.

Liquor can be produced from just about any source of sugar or starch. So, what are some common liquors and what are they made of?

  • Tequila is made from the fruits of the blue agave plant.
  • Vodka is traditionally made with grains or potatoes, but it can also be made with just about anything from fruits to corn to honey.
  • Gin is produced much like vodka, with botanical ingredients added during the distillation process, which distinguishes it from its boozy cousin. To be considered gin, the liquor must have juniper berries as a key ingredient.
  • Whiskey is made from grains that have been aged in oak casks, giving it its distinct brown color.
  • Rum is made from fermented molasses or sugarcane juice.

Comparing Beer and Liquor

Now that we know a little about both beer and liquor, let’s see how they compare in a few key areas.

Alcohol Content

There is no “standard” alcohol content for any beer or liquor. Alcohol content is measured in a unit called alcohol by volume (ABV). In any alcoholic beverage, ABV represents the percentage of alcohol in the liquid.

Most styles of liquor must meet a minimum ABV to qualify as a liquor. In the United States, this number is 40%. For that reason, many liquors around the world are around 40% ABV, but they can range as high as 60%. Options like “grain alcohol” can reach up to 95% ABV, making them deceptively dangerous.

In comparison, beer is quite low in ABV. A standard 12-ounce beer typically contains about 5% alcohol, but that percentage isn’t uniform across all beers. Beer’s alcohol content varies by type, brewery, and the stylistic choices of the brewers. It’s not uncommon to see craft beers climbing up into the 10% ABV range or even higher.

Liquor clearly has a higher concentration of alcohol than beer. Because of their difference in average ABV, the “serving sizes” of liquor and beer are very different. The most common guideline is that 1.5 ounces of liquor (one shot) and 12 ounces of beer (one bottle or can) contain roughly the same amount of alcohol.

However, not all liquors and beers are made the same way. So, is 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer the same as 12 ounces of 10% ABV beer? Not at all! It’s better to think of alcohol in terms of “units,” not servings. A standard unit of alcohol is 14 grams of ethanol. The guidelines for a “serving” of alcohol come from the averages or standards (40% ABV for liquor and 5% for beer), but they are not comprehensive. While these measurements are good guidelines, it’s important to understand the ABV of your alcohol choice and reframe how you count a serving.

Counting Calories

Per serving of alcohol, beer tends to have more calories than liquor, but not by much. Beer often contains additional calories from the leftover starches and sugars from the fermented grains. Since liquor is purer, most of its calories come from the ethanol itself. Beer’s extra ingredients provide small amounts of trace nutrients, but beer is by no means a meal replacement. The majority of calories in beer are devoid of nutrition, and the calories in liquor are completely empty.

Cultural Considerations

There’s also a big cultural difference between beer and liquor. In social situations, our choice of drink communicates a lot, and different moments trigger us to seek out different types of drinks. Drinking beer is often seen as social, but it can also be presented as “safe” to consume in larger quantities or over a longer period of time. Liquor can be used to get intoxicated quickly due to its high ratio of alcohol to volume, but it can also be sipped slowly in a cocktail, which may seem glamorous to some.

Ultimately, both beverages accomplish the same thing, but there are some big differences not only in what they say about our habits, but also in how we use them and what they do to our bodies.

Which One Is More Addictive?

All alcohol is metabolized in roughly the same way in our bodies. It’s absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and intestines, where the liver filters it out and processes it into metabolites. However, beer and liquor affect our bodies in very different ways because of their content and the context in which they are used.

Liquor intoxicate us more quickly. That’s partially because of its potency; the alcohol in liquor is more concentrated, so it enters the bloodstream more quickly than beer. It is also easier to consume quickly and in large quantities, partly due to social customs like doing shots and because a serving of liquor is so much smaller than a beer.

Because liquor enters our system more quickly, we feel its effects more quickly — from dopamine release to inhibition. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical in our brain responsible for the warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we drink; it stimulates our reward system and inspires us to drink more. Therefore, liquor tends to be more addictive than beer — but don’t be fooled! Once alcohol is in our bodies, our brains don’t care whether it got there from a shot, a cocktail, or a beer. Beer and liquor both activate the parts of our brain responsible for addiction.

Impacts on Health

Liquor and beer each come with their own unique risks. All alcohol can damage our stomach, kidneys, bones, teeth, gut, liver, and more. It also has wide-ranging implications for our mental health, social well-being, and financial stability. The truth is, neither is “better” than the other, but liquor seems to be especially harmful.

Since liquor enters our bloodstream so quickly, it puts more strain on our organs, especially our liver, brain, stomach, and heart. This quick dose of alcohol sends our bodies into high gear, starting with an adrenaline release that kickstarts our detoxification processes. Sounds pretty rough!

So is beer healthy? No way! Beer’s low potency makes it insidious, delivering an under-the-radar dose of alcohol that still has many implications for our physical and mental health. Compared to liquor, beer has more implications for our digestive system, from our gut biome to our weight. The effects of both of these types of alcohol add up and compound with our genetics and other lifestyle factors to increase our risk of long-term health effects.

Other Considerations

Let’s look at a few other considerations when comparing liquor to beer.

  • Cost of consumption. It’s hard to compare whether alcohol or beer is more costly. Per “serving,” beer may be slightly cheaper. But once things like craft beer are considered, the equation changes quickly. Likewise, liquor is often mixed and consumed with other alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, which can also change the cost. Then again, some liquors are savored while others are guzzled. The cost comparison between beer and liquor ultimately comes down to personal preference and enjoyment.
  • Environmental impact. According to a 2018 study, liquor generates “on average three times higher emissions per liter compared to beer.” Yet, the beer industry is one of the largest users of industrial water. Despite advances in sustainability technology, the brewing industry has made little progress over the past few decades, producing about the same amount of industrial waste and emissions that it did 20 years ago. If the environment is a consideration for you, seek out producers with transparent sustainability practices.

Tips for Choosing Between Liquor and Beer

  • Understand your health goals. What is your current health status, and what are your goals? If you have specific concerns (weight management, liver health, or cardiovascular issues), understand how different types of alcohol can impact them.
  • Consider caloric intake. If calorie intake is a concern for you, be aware of the calorie contents of your drinks. Remember that mixers added to liquor can significantly increase the calories. Light beers or clear spirits with low-calorie mixers can be healthier choices
  • Watch serving sizes. Don’t forget what a standard serving of alcohol is. Remember that liquor is more concentrated, so a standard serving size is much smaller. Beer is more filling and may cause discomfort when paired with a large meal.
  • Be mindful. Be aware of your drinking patterns. Do you tend to drink beer quickly or add an extra shot to your cocktail? Adjust your choices based on your drinking habits to ensure responsible consumption. Consider tracking your consumption with Reframe’s alcohol-tracking program to learn your patterns.
  • Explore non-alcoholic alternatives. If you’re considering cutting back your alcohol intake or quitting altogether, explore non-alcoholic beer and mocktail options.
Tips for Choosing Between Liquor and Beer

Final Verdict

Now that we’ve learned about the difference between beer and liquor, let’s revisit our question from earlier: Is beer or liquor worse for you? The answer is ultimately personal. In terms of health effects, liquor may pose more of a risk in the short term, but beer has its own long-term drawbacks. Remember, there is no “safe” alcohol. The healthiest way to include alcohol as part of your life is to use it mindfully and responsibly — making informed decisions for your health and making the most of each sip by choosing drinks that you enjoy.

Summary FAQs

1. Is beer healthy?

Not really. While it does provide some nutrients, it’s certainly less healthy than other beverage choices like juice, tea, coffee, or water.

2. Is drinking beer healthier than liquor?

It depends on what you mean by “healthier.” Beer enters our bloodstream less quickly than liquor, making it a bit easier on our bodies to process, but it poses its own risks depending on your personal health status.

3. Is liquor healthier than beer?

Again, it depends on what you mean by “healthier.” Liquor has fewer calories, tends to be less aggravating to digestive conditions, and may cause less inflammation in people with grain sensitivities. But it also puts more strain on your body than beer.

4. What is the healthiest liquor?

If you choose to drink liquor, clear liquors like gin and vodka tend to be purer and have fewer allergens or additives. This isn’t always true, so use your best judgment based on your history, experience, goals, and health needs. Give yourself something to savor; consider mixing liquor with non-alcoholic beverages to slow down your intake, reducing strain on your body.

5. What is the healthiest beer?

A lower-alcohol beer is always the healthy choice, but it’s better to drink one higher-ABV beer that you enjoy than it is to drink several low-ABV beers that you don’t.

6. Should I drink beer or liquor?

The choice is entirely personal. Whether you’re drinking beer or liquor, choose an option that you will enjoy. When you are mindful about your intake, it’s easier to make the best choices for your health.

Track Your Habits With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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