A go-to drink isn’t necessarily a reflection of character, but as with most predilections, it’s definitely a part of someone—one of the infinite threads that makes up the fabric of a person. When it comes to creating TV characters, a signature drink can make for convenient shorthand. Raylan Givens loved bourbon, neat. The normally stoic Ron Swanson was moved to giddiness by Lagavulin scotch. Lucille Bluth ran on martini fumes. We know exactly who they are by what they imbibe.
Today, no showrunner gives greater thought to what her characters would drink than Shonda Rhimes. The four cornerstones of Rhimes’ TV empire—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and The Catch—all take place in different cities, different workplaces, and play by different rules, yet they’re united by soapy storytelling and complex women. And booze overflows in all of them—and in Shondaland, you really are what you drink.
Rhimes’ use of alcohol as a character-defining trait dates back to her first show, Grey’s Anatomy, the medical drama that’s seen countless deaths, impossible surgeries, and workplace hookups throughout its 11 years—and through it all, tequila has always been there to take the edge off. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) first meets and sleeps with Derek Shepherd, a.k.a. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey), after a tequila-infused night at Joe’s, Seattle Grace Hospital’s local watering hole. It’s tequila that gives rise to the show’s central love story, but it also becomes an indelible part of Meredith’s bond with Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), a friendship far more compelling than any of Seattle Grace’s many romances. When they need a release, Meredith and Cristina dance it out, or drank tequila—or more often, both.
In one of her many voice-overs, Meredith explained:
I have an aunt who, whenever she poured anything for you, she would say, “Say when.” My aunt would say, “Say when,” and of course, we never did. We don’t say “when,” because there’s something about the possibility of more. More tequila, more love. More anything. More is better.
Grey’s Anatomy has similarly never been afraid of more, for better or worse. The show, wild and lawless, indulgently tests the limits of what believably goes down behind the walls of a major hospital. Rhimes can kill off her leading man or do a musical episode so bizarre it feels like it can’t possibly be real, yet it all makes sense in its delirious, tequila-soaked world of hot doctors. Here in the non-hot-doctor real world, tequila is associated with bad decisions and brutal hangovers, but it’s similarly so easy to say yes to more. (Personally, I’ve said yes to more tequila enough times to be blessed with the moniker “Tekayla.”) In many ways, Grey’s Anatomy is tequila. It’s absurdly fun, even though it can make you cry unexpectedly, and it’s also tempting to consume a lot at once, even when you know you shouldn’t. Watching the show for over 10 years of my life feels like one long night of tequila sodas: It’s been simultaneously wonderful and terrible, and I regret none of it.
With Scandal, Rhimes traded in tequila for red wine. Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) long-stemmed, always-brimming wine glasses are practically an extension of her wardrobe full of elegant, understated creams and grays. As The New York Times noted in 2014, Olivia is part of the “powerful women who enjoy red wine” TV trend, putting her in good company with The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, House Of Cards’ Claire Underwood, and pretty much everyone on Cougar Town. That connection between wine and strength was made especially explicit in The Good Wife’s final season, when Alicia switches her drink of choice from red wine to margaritas, then to straight tequila, something she previously reserved for “special occasion” shots. It’s a progression that reflects Alicia’s descent into recklessness.
Olivia—for now, anyway—has far too much self-control for that. She sips her red wine on her all-white couch in her neutral-colored clothing, never fearing that she might spill. After all, this is television; no one spills anything unless it’s narratively significant. And in fact, the one time Olivia does spill her wine is when she’s kidnapped, at the start of the show’s intense hostage storyline. It’s the subsequent dark red stain that provides a clue to her on-and-off lover that something horrible has happened. It then becomes a symbol of her trauma, forcing Olivia to replace her couch so she can move on with her life.
Scandal has a second signature drink in moonshine. Though perhaps not nearly as prominent, the moonshine sipped by First Lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), stored in jars and consumed in generous gulps, is nonetheless just as character-defining. Whenever Mellie has her moonshine—or hooch, as she calls it—in hand, you know a wicked monologue is coming. Just look at the way Mellie punctuates her words with her hooch in one of her finest drunken soliloquies:
Mellie and Olivia’s disparate alcohol preferences also reflect the tension within their relationship. At first, Mellie and Olivia are enemies with the worst kind of shared connection: a lame-ass dude. Mellie resents Olivia. Olivia undervalues Mellie. A sophisticated glass of red wine could never pair with a mason jar full of moonshine, right? Yet both drinks are bold and complex, in their own ways. When Mellie and Olivia eventually realize this about each other, they discover they’re at their best when they work together. (Before we get too carried away with this metaphor, let’s be clear: Mixing red wine and moonshine is not recommended.)
Rhimes’ darkest series yet, How To Get Away With Murder wasted no time in introducing its protagonist’s destructive drink of choice: vodka, typically swigged straight out the bottle by commanding legal warrior Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). Annalise knocks vodka back like water, and the deeper she spirals in her professional and personal life, the more she gulps. That sloppiness is reflected in the show’s story structure, too: Watching it often feels like taking three consecutive shots of vodka, then trying to solve a crime. But while the show often struggles with the more macro parts of its narrative, muddling its chronology and failing to make sense of long-term character arcs and emotional motives, it’s typically brilliant with details. And here, even Annalise’s vodka bottle means something.
Whereas Olivia and Meredith suck down legal department-friendly, nondescript labels of their respective alcohols, Annalise guzzles a very specific type of vodka: Kashchey, a fictitious brand that, as with most of the show’s finer points, has deeper meaning. It’s a reference to a Russian one-act opera—sometimes translated as Kashchey The Deathless, sometimes as Kashchey The Immortal—based on a Slavic fairytale about Kashchey, an old, evil wizard with a penchant for preying on young women. Kashchey gains immortality by hiding his death in the unshed tears of his emotionless daughter, Kashcheyevna. Eventually, Kashcheyevna’s cold heart is warmed by a charming prince, leading to her father’s death.
Those themes resonate in How To Get Away With Murder, which is similarly full of death, emotional manipulation, and fucked-up relationships. It would be a stretch to say that Annalise is Kashchey herself. In fact, her husband, Sam, has more in common with the old, evil wizard, seeing as 1) he’s an old, evil, and tried to control younger women; and 2) he’s dead. But even that seems like an overly simplistic interpretation. How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t have just one Kashchey—it has several. Arrogance and power corrupt most of the show’s main players, just as they eventually lead to Kashchey’s undoing. And Kashchey vodka is a very literal poison that represents the ill effects of these characters’ self-interested pursuits.
With only one 10-episode season under its belt, The Catch is still the least-developed entry in Rhimes’ collection. Splashy and flashy, The Catch skews far lighter than its emotionally tumultuous Shondaland sisters. Its first season wavered as the show tried to figure out exactly how its game is played, though the often-gauche script was buoyed by charming performances from Mireille Enos, Peter Krause, and Rose Rollins. And while the show is still figuring itself out tonally, at least it knows what it likes to drink: bourbon.
Bourbon is the perfect after-dinner drink, and The Catch is similarly an after-dinner show. It launched midseason, sliding into How To Get Away With Murder’s former place at the tail end of ABC’s “TGIT” lineup, and it came at a time when Grey’s was at its most dour and Scandal at its most violent. The Catch offered a sweet, unfussy treat at the end of it all—like a glass of bourbon neat, the way most of its characters prefer to drink it.
Rhimes, as always, currently has a lot of projects in the works, though the only one to get an official pickup so far is Still Star-Crossed, based on a young-adult novel “sequel” to Romeo And Juliet that concerns the ongoing tensions between the Montagues and Capulets. As a period drama, Star-Crossed represents a whole new type of show for Shondaland. But will it carry on her empire’s tradition? What drink best exemplifies ill-fated romance? Absinthe?
Nevertheless, the fact that alcohol will inevitably play into its production seems like a given, considering Rhimes’ works are, by their nature, meticulously observed when it comes to their characters—how they talk, what they wear, how they love, and especially what they drink. It’s what makes it so jarring when anyone in Shondaland makes even the slightest decision that seems inconsistent with who we know them to be (a huge part of why Scandal’s most recent season wavered). Rhimes and her myriad teams understand the intricacies of shaping them as genuine people with complex, specific identities—down to the last drop.