A new study has found that young people, in particular, are unable to determine how strong drinks are by taste and smell alone. 

By Elisabeth Sherman
Updated August 09, 2017
Credit: CandyBoxImages / Getty Images

If you’ve ever taken a whiff of your cocktail, or tested it with a small sip, to gauge how much alcohol is in the glass, your judgment will likely be a ballpark guess, at best. And if you did this in college, you were probably even more off base.

According to Live Science, a new study from Kingston University London found that young people in particular—around college age—are terrible at judging how much liquor they’re drinking.

To make this determination, researchers did two experiments with college students: First, they had 48 colleges students who drink vodka at least once a week drink taste three different vodka tonics with different volumes of liquor. After taking a sip, the students completed a questionnaire about the drink’s sweetness, bitterness, and strength, and ranked the three drinks according to their strength. Only 28 of the 48 students got the ranking right. In the second experiment, the team added an additional, sweeter, drink made with lemonade.

The researchers weren’t able to say what made some of the students able to judge the alcohol content of their drinks better than others. As far as they can tell, those subjects didn't have any special liquor preceptors that the other subjects didn't. The students were also asked to specify how they often they drank—and, despite their experience level, the students who said they drank the most weren’t any more likely to get the rankings right.

The lead researcher on the study, Philip Terry, a professor of psychology at Kingston University London, told Live Science that most people think they are actually very good at judging how much liquor they’re drinking. Turns out the truth is actually the opposite, at least when we’re younger.

“About half of people would struggle to detect a significant change in the alcohol content of a drink,” he said.

The downside of all this research is that—unsurprisingly—an inability to tell how strong your drink is might lead you to drink more than you should, which is always a risk when you’re a college student. Drinking in moderation is the golden rule for a reason.