The Washington Post

The beverage curve: How to get the most buzz for your buck

Photo via Flickr user Kimery Davis, used under a Creative Commons license.

Here at Wonkblog we take our drinking seriously.

Today at our sister blog The Switch, Hayley Tsukayama and Brian Fung offered advice on alcohol pairings to go with a game of Super Mario 3D World. In the past,  we've looked into how to get the most buzz with the fewest calories. In honor of the long weekend, I think it's time to look at another metric for efficient drinking: the cost of a good buzz.

Let's say you're hosting a Memorial Day barbecue for a bunch of your neighbors. You like most of them well enough to want them to have a good time. But let's be honest. You're not about to break out the Patron for that guy down the street who's always mowing his lawn at 5:30 AM. How do you maximize the overall buzz, while minimizing the impact on your checking account?

Here's how: I took current liquor pricing data from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which sets prices for booze (excluding beer and wine) sold in the state's liquor stores. Their data file handily includes price, volume, and proof. I set a standard "shot equivalent" volume of alcohol, equal to the amount of pure alcohol in a 1.5-ounce shot of 40-proof liquor (roughly 17 ml).

I then expressed the total pure alcohol amount in each product in terms of shot equivalents. So a 2 liter handle of 40-proof vodka contains about 45 shots' worth of alcohol, for instance. Divide this by the total cost to arrive at the measure of "shot equivalents per dollar" which I use throughout this piece. I treated beer and wine similarly, although for them I had to turn to online price listings maintained at

I excluded all seasonal, sale and out-of-stock items. I assigned each item's alcohol content according to standard ABV listings maintained at and Beers were tricky in this regard--there is a wide variety of alcohol content in craft beers. I manually entered ABV for about 100 craft bears, and omitted all 750ml and 22oz beer packages from my sample, since these showed the highest amount of ABV variation.

In sum, I ended up with a data file of about 5,000 alcoholic beverage products--2,000 wines, 800 beers, and roughly 2,200 liquors--with shot equivalents per dollar values for all of them. Plotting this measure against total price, as below, yields a nice-looking curve with the most cost-efficient beverages in the upper-left hand corner. Click through for an interactive version.

Click for interactive version »


In what may not come as a surprise to anyone, handles of cheap vodka and gin offer the most buzz for the buck of any beverage product. A 1.75L bottle of Odesse vodka comes out at the top of the list. At the cost of only $12.45 in Virginia, that works out to roughly 3.2 shots per dollar, or roughly 32 cents per shot. Skol and Aristrocrat vodkas aren't far behind, followed by Barton's and Aristocrat gin. When it comes to non-liquor products, the most cost-effective item is a 5L box of Vella's red wine. For a dollar you can get about 2.8 shot equivalents of that stuff--roughly 35 cents per shot. Other box wines also appear at the top of the curve. Beer doesn't make a showing until around the knee of the curve. The most cost-efficient beer item is a case of Genny Cream Ale (upstate New York represent!), all the way down at number 356 in the rankings. A Genny case is even more cost-effective than all the kegs included in the dataset (although Genny kegs, which would presumably be even more efficient, are not in the dataset). Beer kegs are also interesting because they don't fit nicely into the curve the way that other products do. This is because they are both expensive AND highly efficient. So, there you have it. Naturally there are any number of caveats to go with this data. The pricing is specific to Virginia, for instance, and sale prices can drastically alter any given item's place on the curve. Most importantly, of course, is the question of taste. Sure, you can drink three shots of Odesse vodka for less than a buck, but would you really want to? To that I'd respond that if economics is the dismal science, then economic drinking should be dismal too. And at 32 cents a shot, it's just perfect for serving to that guy down the street with the lawn mower. Three for the road: Wonkblog: The Wonkblog guide to efficient drinking GovBeat: Alaska and Alabama are taxing booze hard GovBeat: What your favorite drink says about your politics, in one chart

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Next Story
Max Ehrenfreund · May 23, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.