Indicating drink strength on drink menus

I see merit in Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s call to add guidance to drink menus about how much alcohol is in each drink so that the customer has the information to make better decisions about how much they ingest. I think the focus on ABV is probably not the best option.

ABV is a relative metric that only works for comparison purposes when your drinks are all the same volume. Even if they are the same, drink volumes and drink specs will vary from establishment to establishment, and your customers don’t only frequent yours. And, of course, drinks are frequently not the same volume. A Vodka Tonic, a Daiquiri, and an Old Fashioned can easily contain a similar amount of ethanol, yet have wildly different ABVs. ABV is too abstract. It leads to fuzzy decision-making like “I’ll just have a low ABV drink” before hitting the road.

An additional weakness of ABV is that it’s an extra set of calculations that contain an opportunity for error—because the person making the calculation has to really understand and correctly factor in dilution. Dilution is important for making great drinks, but it’s ultimately of marginal significance to how inebriated you get.

A score based on the standard drink is easier to calculate: you disregard all the ingredients that are non-alcoholic and any other dilution, total up the scaled alcoholic ingredients, and divide by the standard. This yields a simple score: 1.0 is one standard drink. 0.66 is 2/3 of a standard drink. Works nationwide (varies a bit internationally).

Using a standard drink score system on a drink menu is better because the customer can simply add them up and know how many drinks they’ve really had. The tally could even be added to the tab. (Scoring would be equally relevant to beer menus, these days, given all the high octane beer that’s around.)

Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s spreadsheet already does almost all the work. It just needs one additional cell that calculates the standard drink score. I’ve taken a stab at that here: