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Bartenders are overly generous, study shows

June 17, 2008 |  1:56 pm

The standard size for alcoholic drinks is 5 ounces for wine, 12 ounces for beer and 1.5 ounces for spirits. Using those formulas, consumers should be able to monitor their alcoholic intake, right? Fat chance.

A new study shows that alcoholic drinks served in bars and restaurants are often larger than the standard size and contain more alcohol. The study, published online this week in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, examined 480 drinks poured in 80 establishments in 10 Northern California counties. The average glass of wine was 43% larger than standard, and the average mixed drink was 42% larger. The average draft beer was 22% larger. The authors, from the Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute, also found that the alcohol content varied widely in drinks.  Those who think they have had four drinks may, in fact, have had six, they noted.

Nationwide, there is a big effort to take the mystery out of alcoholic drinks. Health groups have been battling the federal government over a proposal to label packaged alcohol products with information on nutrition and alcohol content, similar to the labels that are affixed to packaged foods. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has proposed a rule that would require "Serving Facts" on the labels of wine, beer and distilled spirits but would leave out information about alcohol content. A coalition of 30 health groups opposes the rule, saying that alcohol content per standard serving should also be included on labels.

"Today, even the most basic information about alcohol beverages is not provided on the labels of most alcohol beverage products," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, in a recent statement.

For a look at what constitutes "standard" in alcoholic drinks, click here.

- Shari Roan

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Comments (18)

Sweet. I always dreamed of being a bartender.


"The average draft beer was 22% larger"

It's called "a pint." 16 oz. It has been the standard serving size for draft beer since the Magna Carta.

sounds like the only revelation here is that the "standard" size is wrong.

This is interesting... so people who are monitoring their drinks because they are driving (i.e. i'll just have two drinks) are actually consuming more alcohol than they think. People should be more aware of this.

Bartenders at restaurants have more incentive to serve bigger drinks. They have fewer opportunities to make an impression and earn tips. Also, they often serve shots in a small glass rather than a 1.5 oz. shot glass, so it can be harder to judge.

That being said, I have to call BS on this study. It's unfairly weighted. How much alcohol is actually served at restaurants (probably with more alcohol) as opposed to bars (probably with less alcohol)? Not much. So, if you look at the total amount of alcohol served rather than individual drinks, there is probably not so much excess.

This study was good for one thing, though... It tells me that you should get drunk for cheap at restaurants before you hit the bars for fun.

Thanks for this article, Shari, and the good link for more facts on alcohol. There is a real need for this important information.

In 2006, 13,470 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in our country, according to NHTSA. That's 32% of the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the U.S.!

Serving standard-size drinks is just one of many responsible business practices that bars and restaurants should follow that can reduce patron intoxication and subsequent drunk driving. Bars and restaurants should measure their shots, rather than freepour. Other responsible practices can include selling one drink at a time, not pushing drinks, and slowing down service when a patron is drinking too fast. There are many others...

Some people believe liquor establishments are for getting drunk. Establishment owners can actually be held liable if a patron is drunk--and unable to care for their own safety or the safety of others--inside the establishment (647f Penal Code) and they permit them to stay. And of course it's also illegal to serve an obviously intoxicated person. That can also result in criminal action, ABC action (fines, liquor license suspension or revocation) and civil lawsuits.

Because we can't always control an individual drinker's behavior, etablishments must control the drinking environment. They do this through responsible business policies and practices. And serving standard drinks is one of them.

I'm gonna agree that the standard sizes should be adjusted. Really, who serves a 12-ounce draft beer?

And I do think it's pretty disappointing we aren't required to label alcohol content on commercial drinks. I would love to see a label with the usual nutrition facts and alcohol contents. It should be as necessary as the surgeon general's warning.

As far as driving goes, I simply don't after liquor drinks. The alcohol content varies so much and I don't weigh enough to weather it. How can we better educate people about responsible drinking?

Lauren: the "standard" drink size is, at best, a guideline. Beer might come in 12 ounce bottles here in the US, but a glass of beer is a pint pretty much everywhere in the world. For spirits the math gets even trickier. Sure, a shot is an ounce and a half, give or take. But what about mixed drinks. Ever seen a 1.5 ounce of alcohol long island? What about a 1.5 ounce martini?

What you're suggesting is putting pressure on bar and restaurant owners to keep an eye on the consumption of their patrons based on arbitrary measures. I'm a 6'1" 270 pound moderate drinker with a good metabolism, should the amount I'm allowed to drink be mandated based on what a 150 pound non-drinker can handle? I'll admit, I do occasionally like to get drunk. Like the vast majority of drinkers, if I'm going to be drinking heavily I make transportation arrangements (cabs, public trans, designated drivers, etc). Why on earth should the state tell a bar that it has to limit the size, number, and speed of my drinks? Because some people are irresponsible with their alcohol consumption? Because some are too stupid to realize that a large drink might be stronger than a smaller one?

Please, thats like saying men shouldn't be allowed to be teachers because most sex offenders are men.

The neo-prohibitionists are constantly seeking excuses for harassing alcohol producing (and serving) companies and those people who consume their products. Why can't they just leave people alone, and dispense with this nonsense?

How can an average size be bigger than standard? The average size IS the standard, sort of by definition, regardless of what some busybody teetotaler thinks.

Mind your own business, and make mine a super-sized double, please.

Seems like the MADD rep is in the building! Cue the nanny state!!

I find that if I close one eye, it's a lot easier to read this article.

As a counterpoint, perhaps one should consider the other side of the issue. A person ordering and paying for an alcoholic beverage is providing money that is to be used for the procurement of a good. Given the fact that this is a fixed price per serving unit, the quantity actually provided is what determines the unit cost. Thus it seems to me that the consumer benefits by the generosity of the server. Given the very high prices of decent beer and wine, I for one feel that getting a more generous pour of a $15 per glass wine is only fair.

That being said, one should always be aware of their own body and not rely on an external agency to police their alcohol intake. Additionally even infinitesmal quantities of alcohol impair your driving abilities infinitesmally. There is no magic switch that changes from sober to drunk at .08 (a questinably universal standard). If you are driving don't drink and if you are drinking don't drive.

Paul P
Engineering PhD Student

Serving standard-size drinks is just one of many responsible business practices that bars and restaurants should follow that can reduce patron intoxication and subsequent drunk driving. Bars and restaurants should measure their shots, rather than freepour. Other responsible practices can include selling one drink at a time, not pushing drinks, and slowing down service when a patron is drinking too fast. There are many others...

Lauren, your post is a great example of why activists of any sort should never have any hand in regulating anything.

First, "one drink at a time" rules will only increase waiting and crowding around the bar area by as much as a factor of four, since most people send one member of the group to get everyone else's drinks. Add in that each drink must be input into the register individually, and wait times probably increase by more than a factor of four. Longer wait times create more frustration and anger, as do bigger crowds, so your suggestion will very likely lead to an increase in violence, as well as an increase in migration between bars, and the latter would actually cause more drunk driving.

Second, measuring shots by jigger is largely infeasible due to time restrictions, since the jigger must be sanitized between liquors to conform with health regulations. In such circumstances, making, say, a Long Island Iced Tea would take a minimum of ninety seconds, when it should take thirty at the absolute most, further exacerbating the problem of wait times. If your "one-drink-per-person-at-a-time rule" were combined with this one and (for whatever reason) every patron ordered a Long Island or a marguerita, you've now increased wait times by a factor of twelve, further exacerbating the problems of violence and drunken bar migration.

Third, "pushing drinks" is something that only occurs in the mind of prohibitionists or people who have never been to a bar. In a busy bar, there's no time to notice someone who has no drink and doesn't want one, let alone to engage in a lengthy sales pitch. In a less busy bar, there's too much risk for the reward. If someone feels he or she is too inebriated to drink more, they are. Period. Forcefeeding liquor into an unwanting person is just going to cause fights or vomiting. Bar management and bartenders both have every incentive to avoid these two things at all costs.

Fourth, "slowing down service when a Patron is drinking too fast" doesn't even have understandable logic behind it. The difference in BAC between six drinks in two hours and six drinks in three hours is probably not numerically or effectively significant. Either someone is sober enough for another drink on a given night or they are not.

Fifth, there is no such thing as a "standard size drink" since there are no uniform glass/cup sizes from bar to bar (a pint glass for beer would be the closest thing to a standard, but it exceeds your own standard by 25%) and alcohol-by-volume varies from liquor to liquor, beer to beer and drink to drink.

No Ms. Roan, standard size for a serving of draft beer (that's the beer a bartender would pour you) is a pint. There are 16 ounces in a pint. Presently there is a problem with restaurants and bars purchasing beer glasses that appear to be pint size and are advertized as pints but are actually less than 16 ounces. This is consumer fraud and your article is spreading misinformation that protects the businesses that perpetrate that fraud.

Did you know there are RFID-enabled pour spouts to deal with this problem? Many major hotels and restaurants use Capton to monitor bartender over pouring (see testimonals at Customers routinely see immediate and significant ROI, reduced beverage costs and consistency in drink preparation.

You know all you GUYS who are talking CRAP about this article, why don't you Shut Your Mouth seriously!! Why don't you guys do some research and see how bad alcohol really is for you and then come back here and BRAG about how much you like to drink and get "DRUNK" seriously that does not make you sound cool or anything if that is what you are trying to do. Go back and get your high school diploma and try to go to college and then come on here and maybe have a REAL conversation with these other mature people :)
I'm sure the person didn't put this article on here to have you talk it down. Alcoholism is a disease and I'm sure half of you talking bad on here will be alcoholics anyway.
And you say "oh I don't care, this and that " I make sure I have a ride home when I drink" You know most people who actually say that REALLY don't have a "DD" they drive themselves....
I am very discusted by you guys talking down this article I found it very informational, I had my 4 nieces,2 nephews, brother, and sister in law KILLED by a DRUNK DRIVER and he got 6 months in jail, for killing kids that were 6months, 1 and a half, 3yrs, 4yrs, 6yrs, 7yr old babies my brother who was only 29, and my sister in law who was also 29.....

"Also, they often serve shots in a small glass rather than a 1.5 oz. shot glass, so it can be harder to judge."

Being a bartender I can tell you that we have a system of counting how much liquor we pour in mixed drinks, so not beer and wine. It's called the count system. I usually do 4-5 counts which is right around 2 oz of alcohol in mixed drinks, which is the standard amount for most of them.


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