Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance in the United States. It’s important to approach alcohol carefully and responsibly, and avoid it if you’re prone to misuse or substance use problems. But one particular type of alcohol can be so dangerous that even the companies that make it encourage you not to drink it by itself. Grain alcohol isn’t a popular beverage when compared to other options, but its strength has made it notorious in drinking culture. Many alcoholic drinks are made from grains, so what makes grain alcohol so dangerous? Is it different from other liquors?
What Is Grain Alcohol?
Grain alcohol is a name commonly used for a highly purified form of drinking alcohol. Alcohol is the name commonly used for ethanol, a member of the alcohol class of chemicals that humans can drink. If you associate ethanol with fuel, your right. Ethanol is also used in fuel mixtures along with gasoline.
Different alcoholic products have different concentrations of ethanol, which are measured by “proof” or alcohol by volume. Proof is still widely used in the United States. It’s defined as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume, but liquor manufacturers are required to print ABV on the label, whether or not the proof is there. Typical liquors like whiskey, vodka, and gin are 40% ABV or 80 proof. Grain alcohol can be found in concentrations as high as 190 proof or 95% alcohol, more than double the average liquor.
How Is Grain Alcohol Different from Other Drinks?
Grain alcohol, like many spirits, is made from corn, which is a grain. Different liquors use different recipes that may mix in other grains during the process. The grains are mixed with water and cooked, creating a mixture called a mash. All alcoholic beverages are made by introducing yeast to break down the sugars in grains, fruit, or vegetables. The process of yeast breaking down sugar is called fermentation, and it produces ethanol.
During the fermentation process, the yeast produces carbon dioxide and ethanol as byproducts. The CO2 is allowed to escape the container, and the ethanol remains. Beer and wine become alcoholic through fermentation, and then they’re filtered and prepared for aging or bottling. Spirits go through the additional step of distillation for the purpose of getting a higher alcohol content in the final product.
Separating liquids isn’t easy, but the boiling points of ethanol and water make it possible. Ethanol has a lower boiling point than water. When the fermented liquid is heated, the alcohol will convert to gas first. Then it’s collected through condensation. However, some water comes with it, which is why distillation doesn’t produce 100% alcohol on the first try. However, very high ABV beverages are distilled multiple times, eliminating more water each time.
Doing this enough produces ethanol that is pure enough to have no obvious color or flavor, which is called a neutral spirit or rectified spirit. Grain alcohol is a neutral spirit with a particularly high ABV, so that it is mostly undiluted alcohol.
Why Is Grain Alcohol Dangerous?
Ethanol is the only alcohol that’s relatively safe for humans to drink. This may be because we’ve developed the ability to drink alcohol over time in order to eat fruit and vegetation that has begun to ferment. When you consume something that your body doesn’t have the ability to process, it can be toxic. Humans have developed the ability to process alcohol by filtering it out of the blood and breaking it down in the liver. However, excessive drinking can be too much for your body to handle, leading to intoxication. Alcohol also produces harmful chemicals when it breaks down alcohol. In moderation, these chemicals aren’t enough to cause lasting damage.
However, in very high doses, or heavy drinking over time, your liver and other organs can be damaged by the excess of alcohol and its chemical byproducts. High proof grain alcohol is powerful enough to cause intoxication, even in small amounts. It can be twice as strong as other liquors. Because it’s so concentrated, you may be able to drink more than you can handle before you even feel the effects. Once you do, you experience severe intoxication and risk alcohol poisoning.
Drinking too much grain alcohol means the ethanol can easily get past your liver and reach your brain. Too much ethanol affecting the brain can start to depress your central nervous system to the point where vital functions start to shut down. Alcohol poisoning can slow your breathing and heart rate, which can lead to fatal complications. Alcohol in high concentrations can also damage your liver, brain, and other organs.
Complications from alcohol poisoning include asphyxiation of vomit, heart failure, dehydration, hypothermia, and accidents and injuries.
Is Grain Alcohol Legal?
Different states in the U.S. have different laws that are related to the buying and selling of alcohol. In fact, alcohol laws can vary from county to county. When it comes to the strength of alcohol, many states and counties have laws about ABV or proof alcohol is sold in. They may also have laws about where these drinks can be sold. For instance, it may be legal for a grocery store to sell beer and wine but not liquor in some places.
In some states, it’s illegal to sell alcohol that’s over a certain ABV. For that reason, 190 proof grain alcohol is illegal in some states. Companies like Everclear also sell 151 proof varieties of their product, which are legal in most states.
How Is Grain Alcohol Used?
When it comes to various substances, power has a distinct advantage. You can buy cleaners and detergents in highly concentrated form, but they’re meant to be diluted before use. Otherwise, they may damage your skin or the objects you’re trying to clear. Even orange juice is sometimes dehydrated and frozen in a concentrated form and then diluted later.
Concentrating on substances increases their power and allows manufacturers to ship them in smaller, more efficient packages. In many cases, consumers can take advantage of those savings. Relatively cheap concentrated detergent can last you a long time.
Grain alcohol has a similar advantage, but like orange juice, it’s meant to be diluted before consumption.
Grain alcohol is probably not on the menu at your local steakhouse. If it’s at your local store, they probably don’t have to restock very often. Grain alcohol isn’t your typical social, sipping alcoholic beverage. It’s often odorless, colorless, and it’s specifically designed to have no taste. In many cases, grain alcohol is used as an ingredient, not a drink on its own. Grain alcohol may be used in the production of blended whiskey, bitters, and other alcohol-containing mixtures.
In fact, the popular grain alcohol brand Everclear is marketed as an ingredient in mixed drinks and not meant to be used as a beverage on its own. The idea behind the very high proof is to remove all impurities that may change the flavor of a mixed alcoholic beverage. The higher potency also allows more room for other flavor adding ingredients in mixed drinks.
However, with great power comes high abuse potential. Grain alcohol’s power may attract people looking to prove their drinking prowess or are seeking an intense alcohol binge. For that reason, even though grain alcohol is marketed as an ingredient like vanilla extract, it’s used for its ability to get you very drunk very quickly.