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Because a handwave-science-based virus has created a pandemic, humanity in my story has lost the ability to get intoxicated and high.
This, however, only affects external causes or intoxication based on consumption, and not internal means like praying, meditation, or anything akin to that.
People are still able to enjoy foods and drinks like they did before.

My question is: given these changes, will people keep drinking alcoholic drinks, or would they move to other drinks, or otherwise change the consumption of various drinks?

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    – L.Dutch
    Mar 17 at 20:33

17 Answers 17

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Based on precedent, yes, people in your world will keep drinking alcoholic drinks. There is too much cultural momentum behind them.

Here are some other similar cases where people keep drinking things after a seemingly important intoxicating element is removed:

  • When Coca Cola was originally created, it had cocaine. Eventually that was banned, but Coke stayed popular.
  • Eventually Diet Coke, caffiene-free Coke, and Coke Zero were created, removing sugar or caffeine. These are even less stimulating, but are still pretty popular.
  • Alcohol-free beer is a thing, for people who have acquired the taste, but don't want to be intoxicated.
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    $\begingroup$ More importantly, OP didn't even specify that physical/pharmacological dependence was removed... you might not get high from the heroin or the booze, but god help you if you don't get your fix. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 15 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ For the record, Coca Cola still contains coca-derived ingredients as a flavoring element. They are actually the only legal commercial importers of coca leaves in the US. You couldn't really call it "cocaine" though, as it's so heavily processed and diluted to remove the stimulants that there's no way it'll get you even slightly high (except via sugar rush and over-caffeination perhaps). $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with the "cultural momentum" idea, I would argue that alcoholic drinks never would have gotten that momentum in the first place without the intoxicating effect. That seems to be the main reason (followed by social pressures which are likely also based on the intoxicating effect) why people work at "acquiring the taste" for alcoholic drinks when they initially find them personally distasteful. $\endgroup$
    – CitizenRon
    Mar 15 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ The question says that humanity lost the ability to get intoxicated $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    Mar 15 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ @CitizenRon: Alcohol became popular not (just) because of the intoxication, but because alcohol keeps the liquid potable. In the pre-refrigeration days, it would be one of the better ways to make a drink (not just water) potable for an extended period. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Mar 17 at 13:28
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Despite the stereotype, people don't drink alcohol only to get drunk. It's a food or drink which has its own taste, like any other, most of which doesn't need to get people drunk for them to want to consume it. Liqour, like all foods, has a taste of its own so why should it be any different?

I drink raspberry cosmopolitans isntead of raspberry juice specifically because I like the after-taste the vodka adds to it. I would drink a lot more of it if it didn't get me drunk.

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    $\begingroup$ Me too. I would put away a lot more Moscow Mules if it were safe. Can't be beat on a hot summer day. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Mar 15 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ This is essentially what I would answer. I particularly enjoy the taste of the Negroni, and I'd have one every day if it didn't have alcohol in it. $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Mar 15 at 3:31
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed. If people only drank alcoholic beverages with the sole purpose of being intoxicated, there would be no beer and no wine, only hard liquor, because it has much more alcohol and can get you drunk much more quickly. This is also an answer to "why ban drugs but not alcohol?": many people drink alcohol in moderation without becoming drunk, but the explicit purpose of drug use is to get high. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Mar 15 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz 👍 not that there's anything inherently wrong with getting "high" in moderation either 🤗 the fact it's so culturally engrained may be the most pertinent factor, were we to invent it tomorrow having never had it b4 I strongly suspect it would fail to be approved by most relevent authorities. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 15 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ @PabloH Yes, I am. I mean, do you need a glass of orange juice to get you drunk to want one? Or any other food for that matter? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 15 at 17:54
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My grand-grandfather was superintendent, or whatever it is called, of the workers employed by a farm for their seasonal jobs: harvesting wheat, grape, plowing the soil and so on. My grandfather used to tell me that there was nothing upsetting him more than seeing somebody giving water to them during the breaks under the heat of July's harsh sun. Seasoning the shouting with cussing and cursing, he repeated over and over that water would make the men sick, that they should drink only wine.

And that's the main reason why wine and beer have been so largely consumed in the course of human history: the alcoholic content makes so that it's a safer drink than water in most places, because it provides a disinfected source of liquid.

That it is inebriating it is just a side effect of excessive consumption. Lacking any other mean to have clean water, alcoholic beverages would surely be consumed.

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    – L.Dutch
    Mar 16 at 16:30
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Yes..

Beer has a high nutrition value

Liquors have a special taste and you feel it in your throat

Wines have a unique taste

.. so the most obvious answer would be "yes", beer and wine are consumed with foods and people won't easily leave that habit.

and No

But... if I would regard this as an economic question and assert the risk for producers of alcoholic beverages.. the picture won't be sunshine. For a start, you'd loose the social connector alcohol now provides. People loosen up when they consume alcohol. You won't need to get really drunk to experience that. When alcohol would lack that effect entirely, social life would be endangered: most bars and pubs could disappear, or close earlier.. reducing the market for alcoholic beverages considerably. Social drinking could move away toward coffee and tea instead, undermining the market.

And there is also another risk, for consumers.. alcohol is actually quite poisonous, and there won't be any warning symptoms. Alcoholic drinks would need labels with bones-and-skull warnings! There could be incentives for producers, legal and commercial, to avoid alcohol as an ingredient.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for being the only answer to acknowledge the significant of social lubrication (aka "liquid courage"). $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Mar 15 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ The market would just replace the social lubricant. Bars and pubs would be replaced by cigar caves, and women would start smoking cigars (because men would want them to have … vaporous courage). $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 15 at 1:49
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    $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet so you'll replace the drinking habit with a smoking habit.. I't;s plausible alcohol will be replaced by something, but are you sure cigars will do ? I haven't seen many 20-25 year old folks smoking cigars.. I think there would be something green inside your cigar :d $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 15 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies When was the last time you smoked a Havana? No need for the green, trust me. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 15 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ One partial argument against the complete loss of social lubrication is that when unknowingly drinking alcohol-free drinks, some people still (genuinely) act drunk and have lowered inhibitions. It's a type of placebo effect; and the cultural association of drinking and having a lowered inhibition may be enough to keep it in place. It has been studied that even knowingly ingesting a placebo brings forth a placebo effect, though at a reduced (but non-zero) rate. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Mar 17 at 13:36
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Yes

CLARENCE: "I got it! Mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves."

NICK: "Hey, look, Mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast."

(c) It’s a Wonderful Life

But the real question is who will still drink and why. Like @Creaturemal had answered, many people like to drink because they like the taste. It is also the flavor, and "warming" effect of alcohol that some people like. These kind of people would only be happy that they can enjoy their drinks without the risk of being intoxicated.

The other kid of people drink primarily to get drunk, and they would be sorely disappointed. They would stop drinking altogether and likely move to different substances to get their high.

Alcohol consumption would decrease, and consumption patterns would definitely change, but people would keep drinking.

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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm. Would it decrease though? Consumption would be less peaky but might increase on average since it would now it can be had anytime, anywhere. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 14 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen while hard liquor consumption would be hit hard, I didn't think about "anytime, anywhere" consequence. If margaritas can be part of kids meal at McDonalds, you may be right. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 14 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ "They would stop drinking altogether and likely move to different substances to get their high." A significant amount of people, when faced with diminished returns, tend to double down rather than back out. Alcohol consumption would massively increase, not decrease, as people attempt to chase the high and/or maintain the social custom. Don't underestimate the power of tradition and habit. There are plenty of things that people still do today even though the need for it has dissipated since then. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Mar 17 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Flater I was talking about ultimate result, not transitional effects. In the interim period people indeed may try to double down, but that should end very soon. For example, when pseudoephedrine disappeared from regular over the counter versions of Sudafed, people getting their high from Sudafed quickly stopped buying that version. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 17 at 17:08
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It’s not a really far fetched concept assuming natural endorphines work normally but receptors for alcohol have been neutralized somehow (or some other receptor has dominated in the digestive tract to scrub it out like a toxin).

Remove only the intoxication, the market changes a little

You’ve got several questions in there, but you didn’t mention if the chemical addiction still exists. Alcohol isn’t popular just because we want it, it is because we can become chemically dependent on it. So as your question stands, alcoholism may not go away however it will have different symptoms. The liver may or may not still suffer damage depending on the hand-wavy mechanism you chose. If only the intoxicated feeling is removed, I think there will be a shift into higher quality liqueurs, which may reduce the demand. But I don’t see anything making alcoholic beverages go away altogether in your scenario.

Now on to question #2

Would they move to other drinks?

They would move to another intoxicant. The most likely would be tobacco because of its prolific market today. Specifically, they would move to the least injurious tobacco product they can find. These would be either cigars or snuff. Generally, modern snuff doesn’t have much of an intoxicating effect when put along side a cigar, but this would likely change. I think cigars would become dominant in the intoxicant market, but certainly other products we may not yet know about would be introduced. You haven’t done anything to reduce the demand, so the market will provide. Maybe peyote will see legalization? Maybe something completely new will come about. But be assured, if humans can still have their good feelings from endorphines, then we will find a way to release them. Even people who don’t run, bicycle, pray, or attend sports will find their high.

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  • $\begingroup$ It is a far fetched idea.Alcohol doesn't operate by binding to specific receptors, it works by binding to the neurotransmitters themselves. Even if it did bind to specific receptors (as many other drugs do), those receptors don't exist to bind those drugs, they exist to bind natural signalling molecules and cannot be eliminated without rewiring the entire system. Anyway, that aside, good answer :) $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ "...humanity in my story has lost the ability to get intoxicated and high." $\endgroup$
    – CitizenRon
    Mar 15 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ @CitizenRon. “ only affects external causes or intoxication based on consumption” $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 15 at 20:00
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Of course people will continue to drink wine. I drink a glass of wine with my evening meal almost every day, and I've never been drunk in my life (I'm over 70). The taste of good wine has everything to do with it, the intoxication is an undesirable side-effect.

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  • $\begingroup$ And I like to drink the odd glass of whiskey or rum but never have had enough to get drunk. $\endgroup$
    – Willeke
    Mar 17 at 16:52
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Wines emerged as a means of conservation of the fruits and fruit juices.

It was just an useful option - like drying, salting, etc...

Same happened with beer - first, as a means of cooking wheat into drinkable state and later - a means of storing a high calorific value wheat product year-long and ready for consumption. See e.g. here - sweet, 0.3-0.5% alcohol, mostly consumed by children in the relevant cultures.

It was much later that specific kinds of wine and beer evolved enough alcohol content to intoxicate effectively. And even later they were produced mainly for their alcohol content.

And even later (historically) distillation of these drinks into spirits emerged. One could consider spirit drinks as having a single purpose of getting drunk - and even then they are in a lot of cases consumed for their taste or physiological and psychological effects other than getting drunk.

In short - yes, people would drink them and even pay for them almost like they do now.

p.s. not sure if "not getting drunk" includes "not becoming an alcoholic". If it does not, you still have one more similarity to the present state of drinking.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree wine, vinegar, cheese, leaven, dried meat... so many meals are initially only ways to eat them despite expired or insalubrious raw products. For long, beer an tea (depending on the places on the globe) were ways to sanitize water. $\endgroup$
    – yota
    Mar 15 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ One can always sanitize water by boiling it. This is what makes beer or tea safe to drink even when made of substandard water. Adding wheat or tea leaves is optional. Strong wines have marginally enough alcohol to keep themselves pathogen-free (provided good container that doesn't allow evaporation). $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Mar 15 at 16:57
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For more than one reason, yes

Though the drunkness would not be a factor anymore, there are other affects to the body that alcohol and other drugs may introduce that are not consciousness altering.

Thinning the blood in lieu of aspirin, helping to feel warmer in the cold, preventing the drink from freezing in cold environments, etc. (among disinfectant as mentioned by others)

These qualities may have been overlooked due to their previous inebriation risks, but without them, they may discover other helpful qualities at higher dosages that otherwise would not be livable. High enough concentrations of Cannabis for example has been offered a healing role in some communities, though specific testing I have seen suggest either way.

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  • $\begingroup$ Increased bacterial resistance? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 14 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ concentrations bad for bacteria are deadly for humans $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Mar 15 at 15:56
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Alcohol is an exceptional solvent

Many of the fragrances that make drinks (and food) smell and taste good will dissolve poorly in pure water. This is typically the case for apolar molecules. These will dissolve well in oils and other fats. You could use these fragrances in milk (e.g. chocolate milk) but often that doesn't produce the desired result. Adding alcohol to the water also helps to dissolve these fragrances.

Now, if alcohol no longer is intoxicating, the only remaining problem would be the calories of alcohol. People on a diet might still prefer alcohol-free beer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Alcohol-free beer is just as caloric as the regular one. $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Mar 15 at 15:59
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Getting together with other people

We continue to have bars/taverns/pubs because most people want to hang out with other people. It is actually much cheaper to buy alcohol at a store and drink it alone at home, but that deprives one of the opportunity to socialize. Humans are social creatures; they will continue to gather to drink even if it is not intoxicating.

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Just weighing in here with anecdotal information, but I absolutely love the taste of good whiskey and wine, and I would drink a lot more of it if it didn’t make me tipsy.

A lot of initially ‘extreme’ tastes like alcoholic drinks, coffee but even things like olives are initially unpleasant but that’s also exactly why they are the most interesting tastes later on.

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I suppose people would still drink alcohol if they like the taste. More people would probably move to sugar drinks, coffee, yogurt and what else rises dopamine, assuming the virus doesn't stop the release of dopamine from drinks in general.

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No

Creating alcohol is a long and expensive task. If your virus makes everything a the same as a non-alcoholic version, then why bother making an alcoholic version.

Nowadays non-alcoholic drink already taste quite close to the original, and with no more demand for alcohol, liquor company will start focusing fully on creating those drinks.

Soon the selves will be filled with equally as good tasting drinks, but for a cheaper price and healthier to boot.

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  • $\begingroup$ Many of the non alcoholic drinks are made out of the alcoholic versions. Non alcoholic versions of drinks are mostly the low alcohol drinks, nobody expects a alcohol free brandy or other drink which is usually 35% or over. $\endgroup$
    – Willeke
    Mar 17 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Willeke I think there is a lab that produces hard liqour (not mixed drinks) that tastes like the real thing without the alcohol through chemistry. Alcohol-free vodka, for example. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 18 at 4:27
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No

There is multiple reasons people will reduce their alcohol consumption a LOT.

  1. It's toxic to us. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs consumed today . It is proven to be toxic for our brain. It literally kills our brain cells. For comparison this also true for crystal meth and MDMA(bit fuzzy) but not for nicotine, THC, LSD, Psilocybin and many others. Consuming alcohol just for the taste is therefore way too damaging to our health.
  2. Most of alcohol consumed today is consumed by people that have some level of dependency on alcohol(like myself). They consume alcohol mainly for the effects of relaxation and social connection. This won't be there. Its impossible to say how many people REALLY like the taste of alcohol and how many seek the effects but I would confidently bet most people will stop drinking most of the alcohol that has some taste (beer, wine, whiskey) let alone these that have almost none(vodka, spirits).
  3. Young won't start drinking anymore as there is no reason to. So the consumption will go down in long term. Not sure this is relevant to your question.
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It is also worth noting that a big part of beers initiall success was to do with the fact that it was a safe drink to drink. Boiling water removes a lot of harmful pathogens. This was true in the 17th century beer was one of the first drinks to be boiled. The Germanic people realised regular water could be a bit hit or miss safety wise but beer was generally safe. Hence it's widespread adoption.

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Yes, if you're drinking for the taste

People who are drinking alcoholic drinks because they like the taste, and not just to get hammered, will continue to drink their preferred beverages.

Alcohol has a flavor

Alcohol itself has a flavor and bite.

In the real world many people like "mocktails", non-alcoholic mixed-drinks which can have recipes similar to their alcoholic counterparts. In the real world, people drink mocktails to avoid being intoxicated, or because they don't like the taste of alcohol.

But those who do like the taste of alcohol will continue to enjoy the full cocktail.

Good cocktails are chemistry, and alcohol is a solvent

More complex cocktails are more than just dumping booze into sugar water. They're chemistry. Water and alcohol are both solvents, but they are different solvents. Some cocktails will not work without alcohol.

Alcohol is an essential part of the production process

Many of the complex flavors of aged, dark hard alcohol are aromatic compounds slowly dissolved by alcohol from the wood barrels they are stored in. When you're drinking whiskey and rum, you're drinking dissolved wood. Bourbon whiskey is stored in charred barrels, you're drinking dissolved burnt wood. Yum!

When a liquor is "aged in a sherry cask" that means it was aged in a barrel where grapes have been aged into sherry wine. The alcohol in the the sherry has caused it to leech into the wood. When fresh hard alcohol is stored in the same cask, it leeches that sherry back out to flavor the new liquor.

Beer gets its fizz and flavor from yeasts which eat sugar and poop alcohol. While low-alcohol beer has existed for some time, and has gotten much better in recent years, it still lacks the complexity and variety of alcoholic beer.

And while one could drink grape juice, fermentation is essential for the taste of wine.

People who want a buzz will move to alternatives

Currently, where it is legal, people will often add CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana, to beverages; it gives a non-intoxicating pleasant feeling. THC (the intoxicating part of marijuana), LSD (acid), Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)... without alcohol these will all gain traction as alternatives to get a buzz. And they are much, much, much safer than alcohol.

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