College Week

The 21-Year-Old's Definitive Guide to College Drinking (After Turning 21)

alcohol sign
<a href="" target="_blank">Flickr/Roman Boed</a>&nbsp;(edited) / <a href="" target="_blank">Flickr/Seth Anderson</a> (edited)

College & drinking go hand-in-hand, which is also the intensely romantic situation college students find themselves in after a few drinks. But there's more to this time-honored rite of booze passage than meets the eye/lips, and you only have a limited time to get it right. In service of your scholastic self-sousing, here's the how, when, where, and why of college drinking, as told to you by Thrillist's own editorial staff, some of whom actually graduated from a college.

Note: Obviously, we're only referring to 21+ year-old students in this guide, as those are the only people who drink in college. Alright, now that that's out of the way: drink it in, my brothers/sisters in arms.

As a 21-year-old college student, you will drink cheap beer. You will buy it at the same rate that a laundromat buys detergent, and, oftentimes, you will think of it as your finest friend. When it comes to choosing your beer, there are just three questions to answer:

  1. Is it cold? Before you were 21, your father explained to you, in a tender paternalistic moment, the merits of ice-cold beer. Now that you are 21, you are going to want your beer to be cold. But, sometimes, you will be in a hurry, and the store will only have warm cases, which brings us to question no. 2...
  2. Can I drink it warm? Evaluate the motivation of your group. If they are not girls and are serious about having a good time, they may be willing to drink a few room-temperature brews while the others chill down in the freezer. If they are girls and serious about having a good time, the same rules still apply.
  3. How many games of [insert drinking game here] will this last for? Beer is the lifeblood of drinking games of all types. We'll get into specifics in a minute, but remember when you're buying beer to consider the impending competition when calculating quantities.

When: Pretty much anytime during the day; the penultimate round at the bar; after your morning classes (just kidding, 21-year-olds are too smart to enroll in morning classes)
Where: The shower; the tailgate; the golf course; your frat house; other frat houses that aren't yours
Why: Convenience; tradition; preference; competitive spirit; nothing better to do; sadness; happiness; ambivalence

Usual suspects: There are too many beers favored by 21+ college students to name 'em all. But a few all-time classic light lagers stand out.

  • Beer 30
  • Icehouse
  • Milwaukee's Best
  • Natural Light
  • Busch Light
  • Keystone Light

As a 21-year-old college student, you will drink booze. It will not be good booze, because you are poor. Despair not! You have the rest of your life to pretend-enjoy expensive hooch, but, here at school, finding the perfect liquor is a matter of fulfilling three questions:

  1. Can you afford it? Yes, of course (no).
  2. Do you have the right mixers? Because 21-year-olds never binge drink, you'll want another, non-alcoholic liquid to mix your booze with. You will invariably be fresh out of whatever you need (club soda, cola... milk?), which brings us to your third question:
  3. Are you willing to shoot it? No (yes, of course).

When: Evenings; late nights; random afternoons when most of your friends are at class and Shawshank Redemption is on TNT back-to-back
Where: The bar; the sorority mixer; the football game (just kidding! 21-year-olds never violate NCAA policy by smuggling booze into the stadium)
Why: Machismo; insecurity; wanting to waste money on 12 shots only to discover most of your buddies just left the bar

Usual suspects: Every booze category has its venerable bottom-shelf go-to. They vary by region & availability, but these are some familiar faces to any college student who is definitely over 21.

  • Vodka: Popov, Wódka
  • Whiskey: Rebel Yell, Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad
  • Rum: El Dorado
  • Gin: Duggan's, Laird's

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

As a 21-year-old college student, you will drink wine & Champagne. It may give you searing headaches, because it is sugary and acidic and mass-produced, but you'll call it "champers" and "vino" and "grape juice," and it'll make you feel fancy, so you'll drink it anyway. When selecting a wine or Champagne, here are three questions to ask yourself:

  1. Can I afford it? Of course you can. You're not getting the good stuff, are you?
  2. Are there enough people to share this bottle with so that it doesn't go to waste? Hahahahaha. Wait, really?
  3. Will people notice me looking cool & sophisticated? Surprisingly, the answer is often yes.

Laura Hayes/Thrillist

When: Early morning; mid-morning; late morning; noon; classy holiday dinners; any time there are sundresses within eyesight
Where: Breakfast & brunch; wedding receptions for alumni you sorta-knew when they were at school; gluten-free pregames; parents' formals
Why: Worldliness; attention; feeling like more of a "grown-up" (even though you're definitely over 21 so you're legally an adult anyway)

Usual suspects: When it comes to 'pagnes, these are your bottles. When it comes to wine, your moves include, but are not limited to: 

As a 21-year-old college student, you will drink malt liquor. At first, it will be a novelty, but eventually, you will grow to sorta-enjoy it. This will alarm you ever so slightly, which is natural. When selecting malt liquors, you have three questions to consider:

  1. Does it come in a funny vessel? Visual hilarity is crucial to the malt experience, so make sure whichever type you select comes complete with an outlandish label & bottle.
  2. How many can I drink while still remaining responsible? As a 21-year-old college student, you're probably concerned about maintaining a level of control over your behavior. Malt liquor has a higher ABV than beer, so remember to take that into account.
  3. Which subculture/celebrity is associated with this particular beverage? The answer is always Billy Dee Williams. Always.

When: During the day; during the pregame
Where: Outdoors, preferably on a stoop or porch; any place you can throw the empty bottle without getting in trouble
Why: Amusement; uniqueness; innovative spirit

Usual suspects: University-enrolled students who are over 21 have slugged plenty of malt beverages. These are some favorites.

Drinking Situations for 21+ college students

As a 21-year-old college student, you will play drinking games. Most of them suck, but you will participate anyway, because the alternative is having conversations with your peers, and that's tedious. When approached to play a drinking game, there are but three questions every 21-or-over college student should ask him/herself:

  1. What are the house rules? This shifty code changes campus-by-campus, house-by-house. Beer pong is notorious for its rule variations, but no matter the game, you should sorta-maybe-know some guidelines before beginning.
  2. How long will this game take? You don't want to get stuck in an ever-renewing game of flip cup. Well, maybe you do, but you shouldn't.
  3. Would it be better to just party without the forced assistance of a game? The answer is usually yes, which means the answer is usually no.

As a 21-year-old college student, you will drink at a bar. It might be one of these bars, or it might be a Bennigan's on the side of Route 17 in Freehold. Three decision-making questions to assist your college bar-going:

  1. How far is it from where I am currently? If it's more than a few minutes away, it probably isn't worth it. However, the stakes change once you answer #2...
  2. Is food served? A bar with a kitchen -- especially one that's open late -- is a huge draw for 21-year-old college students who have been drinking alcohol and have realized they are not going to successfully tongue kiss anyone that night.
  3. Do they accept credit cards? Unlike the frat/house party, you will have to pay for drinks at the bar. You inevitably won't have cash on you, and will be forced to use the credit card your parents gave you for "emergencies." This is an emergency.

As a 21-year-old college student, you will attend frat parties. You may be a brother or know a GDI who knows a brother or be dating a brother. Perhaps you're at a school without Greek organizations, in which case everyone is a GDI, and these are called house parties. Anyway, three questions:

  1. How many house residents do you know? If you can't name them and call them to come get you at the door, you're going to have a difficult experience. Though more often than not, there is a Chad.
  2. Will you be able to get beer? The answer is usually no. There's no second half of this line-item.
  3. Does this party offer an opportunity for consensual hook-ups? Did you throw this party? If the answer is no, then the answer is no.

As a 21-year-old college student, you will drink outdoors. It will be glorious. You will take it for granted at the time, because youth is wasted on the young. There are no questions to help you decide whether to drink outside, but there are answers:

  1. You should drink outside.
  2. You should drink outside.
  3. Damn you, 21-year-old! Listen to reason and drink outside!


As a 21-year-old college student who's just read this extremely informative guide to college drinking for 21-year-old college students, you are now equipped to go forth and dominate at alcohol-consuming. Remember: it is your duty, and your sacred honor. Make us proud.

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Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist food & drink, and had his first alcoholic beverage on July 16th, 2009, when he became a 21-year-old college student. Follow him on Twitter: @dinfontay.