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Is There a Reason I Always Shudder After Doing a Shot?

It’s only your brain telling your body that you’ve just swallowed poison

Booze is weird, huh? Most people who drink do so because it makes them feel good and have fun, but sometimes it makes even the most hardcore enthusiast feel really, really bad. There are hangovers, vomiting and alcohol poisoning, as well as all the indirect ways in which it can harm you — drunk-driving, shitty decision-making and the like. 

But there’s also a way it can harm you when it’s hardly even inside your body. The booze shudder, where you take a shot and involuntarily grimace — sometimes accompanied by a bit of a twist of the head or a raised shoulder — either while swallowing spirits or immediately after doing so, is a fairly established phenomenon. Principal Skinner demonstrates it beautifully at the 2:10 moment in the “Do the Bartman” video. 

This isn’t to be confused with a tremor, which makes you shake uncontrollably and can be a symptom of alcohol abuse, or the shakes that can accompanying alcohol withdrawal after a dependence has been built up. It’s a one-off immediate reaction — a shot and a jerk. It’s more than just not liking the taste; there’s more power to it, occasionally verging on violent.

The world of science has sadly never dived into the specifics of what makes some people shudder after a shot. The few academic institutions that responded to me said they weren’t aware of any research looking into it. This means, among other things, it doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name — first-sip grimace, tequila shiver, the after-shot shiver and the gulp-and-shudder all show up various places online. 

But what’s actually happening? The question comes up on Reddit every so often, greeted with semi-jokey answers (“to inform me of the terrible decision I’ve made”) or abuse (“It’s just from being a pussy; drink more”), but the most frequent suggestion is that your body recognizes what it’s been given as poison so it’s reacting appropriately, letting you know not to drink any more of it.

Scott Stevens, aka “The Alcohologist,” agrees with this hypothesis. “The shudder is an autonomic response to putting poison in your mouth,” he says. “Autonomic responses are the body’s way of keeping us alive. Downing a toxin isn’t a recipe for longevity, and the brain is just letting its host know it. No judgment, it’s just neurology.”

He suggests that when masked by flavors, particularly sweet ones, alcohol can slip past your body’s radar, but in undisguised form your natural defenses are all over it — at the beginning of the night, anyway. “If you’ve already had enough central nervous system depressant — i.e., alcohol — to sedate the cranial nerve responsible for the autonomic response, then drink lots of water and call an Uber,” he advises.

What about if you enjoy drinking but don’t enjoy making stupid faces whenever spirits pass your lips? 

Well, for starters, you probably want to avoid doing shots. “Sniffing and sipping something above 40 percent alcohol by volume that’s sat in a wooden barrel for a long time is a pretty strange activity,” says Sam Simmons, head of whisky at Atom Brands. “It’s strong! Sip it like hot tea. Or add water, and don’t be afraid to add ice or mix. And if something about it just isn’t for you, then don’t worry at all.” 

The whole point of drinking is to enjoy yourself. If you aren’t enjoying yourself — which may or may not involve regularly making disgusted grimaces — don’t do it. So while we might not know exactly why the after-shot shiver occurs, the antidote is a simple case of restraint.