Wine or beer? The alcohol we 'choose' to drink

Rose prosecco cocktail

Everyone has a favourite tipple. But are our drinking habits being unwittingly manipulated? asks BBC Food's Anna-Louise Taylor.

Having a drink is one of life's small pleasures, an expression of our desire, our freedom. A little bit of abandon in a glass. We dearly cherish this right to drink, and to drink something we fancy. It's why prohibition failed so spectacularly.

But I've learnt something that might stick a little in our collective throats. Our drink choice is often not down to us. Worse, at times we are being constantly and unwittingly manipulated into drinking what someone else wants us to.

This isn't the ramblings of someone who has had a few too many. It's a conclusion that's been brewing deep within a number of cold, sober scientific studies into what influences our drinking behaviour.

Spoilt for choice:

Bluebird cocktail

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Step back in time with a Parisian bluebird

Enjoy an old-fashioned whisky cocktail

Dirty up your martini with olive brine

They show that we are subconsciously influenced in our choices by everything from the colour of a drink, to its name, price, and even the ambience of the bar. Even the shape of the glass our beer or wine is served in changes how quickly we drink it. And drinks manufacturers play up to these influences. And in doing so, they play us, turning us all giddy in the process.

At first glance, it's difficult to understand how we can be bewildered just by a drink's colour. Gin is clear, lager is amber, red wine is, well, red. The evidence is in front of our eyes.

But the appearance of the colour of a drink affects how thirst-quenching we think it is, according to a study published in the Food Quality and Preference Journal. And that can be changed by glasses.

To test this, researchers poured drinks into different coloured glasses. When thirsty testers were asked to select which they preferred, a significant number chose drinks poured into blue or green glasses. The "cold" colours were seen as more thirst-quenching.

It makes sense now why many cheap, so-called alco-pops are a garish blue or green hue.

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Even reading the name of a drink with colour, such as a bluebird cocktail or an electric blue, attracts us to it.

Our perception of taste is affected by the actual colour of drinks. We expect distinctive flavouring from coloured fruit, like that of tomato in a bloody mary.

As the price of a drink goes up, it also raises our expectations, which seems natural; if we spend more on vintage Champagne, we expect it to taste better.

But research shows this is only true to a degree. A study by Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal found that our appreciation of wine is directly affected by how expensive we are told it is, rather than its actual price.

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So we tend to think expensive wine is better, regardless of whether it is. Which leaves us open to exploitation.

It's not just those who make the drinks that might be playing us a little, but those who serve them.

The shape of a beer glass actually affects the speed at which we drink from it, according to research conducted at the University of Bristol and published in the PLoS ONE Journal.

A curved pint glass makes it is harder to perceive how much drink is left within, as it's more difficult to spot the halfway mark. So we end up drinking beer from curvy pint glasses faster.

Richard Tring, head bartender at Bristol's Milk Thistle cocktail bar shows how to mix a classic gin Martinez

Another study has found a similar effect with short, wide glasses. We find it harder to judge their volume, so we pour more alcohol into these than tall, narrow glasses.

That makes pacing ourselves more difficult. Indeed, it's enough to wonder who is doing the pacing, us or those who make or serve the glasses.

Our friendly bar owner or publican isn't finished with us yet. Some drinking establishments are spit and sawdust kind of places, a bar with a collection of ad hoc tables and chairs. And we love them for their character. But others are careful constructions; painted and styled a certain way, videos and music playing out.

Often that's no accident, because the ambiance of our drinking holes effect how we drink in them. And bar designers know it.

The way things were:

Women and men in pub in 50s

In the pubs and working men's clubs of the 40s and 50s there were strict customs governing who stood where.

To be invited to sup at the bar was a rite of passage for many young men, and it took years for women to be accepted into these bastions of masculinity.

As the country prospered and foreign travel became widely available, so new drinking habits were introduced as we discovered wine and, even more exotically, cocktails.

People began to drink at home as well as at work, where journalists typified a tradition of the liquid lunch.

Advertising played its part as lager was first sold as a woman's drink and then the drink of choice for young men with a bit of disposable income.

Source: Timeshift

View the old rules of drinking

Watch the working mens' clubs' rules

See more about women in pubs

The study in the Food Quality and Preference Journal showed that playing Latin music will encourage people to unwittingly choose Latin-sounding drinks, such as pina colada, margarita, or cerveza.

Bars that seem cold, say with a video of an iceberg projected on a wall, and blue furniture, make us want to select warm beverages such as coffee, tea or hot chocolate.

There's almost no escape. Drinking at home, away from these from pervasive and persuasive influences, still involves visiting the shops to buy our favourite tipple.

Shop owners position alcohol to grab our attention and limit our choice.

"It has become common practice to sell wine alongside the ready meals in 'grab and go' fridges," says the British Liver Trust in an Alcohol Concern Report.

"It sends a subliminal message to the busy worker or shopper that they might like to, and it is indeed normal to, consume alcohol alongside their evening meal. 'Go on, you've had a hard day - you deserve it,'" it says.

Maybe these influences aren't so bad. We're all adults. We make our choices, and even if those choices aren't made as freely as we first thought, how much does it really matter, given that drinking is a slightly decadent behaviour in the first place?

According to The European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing, the manipulation is now extending to our children.

Drinks manufacturers are flavouring foods aimed at under-18s.

The idea is that by eating things flavoured like alcohol, children become familiarised with its taste. And by associating brands with taste in this way, manufacturers build brand loyalty in children to alcohol brands before they've even started drinking.

Cheers to that?

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