What does it mean to be one of America's heaviest drinkers? Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post reports on the numbers presented in Philip J. Cook's book Paying the Tab, and they may surprise you: The top 10% of adult US drinkers consume an average of 74 alcoholic beverages per week—that's more than 10 drinks a day each. How many such drinkers are there? Some 24 million of them. "I agree that it's hard to imagine consuming 10 drinks a day," Cook tells Ingraham, but "there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six-packs a day, or a pint of whiskey." More than half of the alcohol consumed in a year is thanks to this top 10%. As for the rest of America, 30% of adults don't drink, and another 30% drink an average of less than one drink each week. If you drink one glass of wine a day, you're in the top 30% of US drinkers; two glasses a day and you're in the top 20%.
And as for why you consume the amount of alcohol you do, a new study out of Penn State finds that genetic factors play a role. Evolution has wired us to find sweeter tastes more pleasant than bitter ones, and prior studies have found that some people find alcohol more bitter than others. The Penn State study is the first "to show that the sensations from sampled alcohol vary as a function of genetics," finding that a person's perception of alcohol was related to which variant of a "bitter receptor" gene that person has. "Prior work suggests greater bitterness and less sweetness each influence the liking of alcohol beverages, which influences intake," says the lead researcher; her adviser notes that genetic variation could be a risk factor in terms of who is more likely to become a heavy drinker upon early exposure to alcohol. (You can also blame your genes for that nasty hangover.)