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Percentages of Different Alcohols: How to Know

Alcohol content varies in different types of alcohol.

Beers are usually four to 14 percent alcohol, though most average five percent. Wines range from five to 20 percent, with 12 percent alcohol content as the average. Liquors are 35 to 60 percent, with an average of 40 percent alcohol content.

Many organizations list the metrics for what is considered to be a “standard alcoholic drink.” When you drink alcohol, you are probably consuming far more alcohol than these definitions outline.

Consuming more than two standard drinks per day will qualify as heavy drinking by most standards.

The Standard Drink

The classic definition of what constitutes a standard drink is defined by organizations like the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA). It is used to offer a common measure of the amount of alcohol in specific types of beverages.

This classic definition defines:

  • A standard beer as 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually considered to be about five percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
  • A standard glass of wine is about five ounces of wine with a roughly 12 percent ABV.
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor or distilled spirits, which is about 40 percent ABV.

The standard drink definition is based on what amount of an alcoholic beverage contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol (14 g of pure alcohol). Ethyl alcohol, the alcohol used in alcoholic drinks, is essentially the same alcohol from beverage to beverage.

Although this measure is used across numerous contexts, it does not necessarily reflect the amount of alcohol you are consuming when you drink alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol Content Ranges

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NIAAA understand that the standard drink definitions are probably not reflective of what people drink in the real world. Let’s examine the above definitions and how they compare to what you are probably drinking.

  • Even though one serving of beer is 12 ounces according to the standard drink definition, a pint of beer in a brewery is more likely to be about 15 ounces. Moreover, different beers have different alcoholic content
  • Light beers may have a little less alcohol (about 4.5 percent ABV), whereas many craft beers or imported beers can range from five to 14 percent ABV (or maybe even more). A 12-ounce glass of a craft beer with 10 percent ABV has twice the alcohol as the standard drink defined by NIAAA and other organizations
  • Malt liquors, which many people consider to be a beer-like beverage, typically have an ABV of about seven percent
  • Like beer, wine can vary in its ABV content. Some white wines may contain up to 15 percent alcohol or higher; many red wines regularly contain higher amounts than 12 percent ABV, and some imported wines may be closer to 20 percent ABV.
  • Very few establishments serve wine in 5-ounce servings. You are more likely to get nine to 10 ounces of wine when you purchase a glass of wine at your local watering hole.
  • Fortified wines can have an extremely high ABV ranging from 17 to 34 percent. NIAAA recommends serving fortified wines in smaller amounts of 4 ounces or less
  • Liquor or distilled spirits will vary considerably in ABV. The standard drink applies to liquors that are 40 percent ABV. Many types of liquors can have ABVs that are close to 60 percent or even higher. When you mix drinks, you are often mixing beverages that have different ABVs, resulting in a higher ABV overall.

How Can I Tell the Alcohol Content?

When you purchase an alcoholic beverage in most states, it is a requirement that the percentage of alcohol in the beverage or the proof of the alcohol is stated on the label.

Proof in Liquor 

Many times, distilled spirits or liquor will report the alcohol content in terms of its proof.

If liquor does this, you can determine the percentage of alcohol in the liquor by dividing the proof in half. For instance, liquor that is labeled as 80 proof is 40 percent alcohol ABV.

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Figuring It Out

If you know the proof of the liquor you are drinking or the ABV of the alcoholic beverage, you can figure out how much alcohol you are consuming.

If you are drinking a 10-ounce glass of wine that is 14 percent ABV, you are consuming about 1.4 ounces of pure ethyl alcohol (10 oz x 0.12 ABV). If you are drinking a pint (16 oz) of 12 percent ABV beer, you are consuming about 1.92 ounces of pure alcohol.

What Your Liver Can Metabolize

As a general rule, your liver can metabolize (breakdown and eliminate) about one pure ounce of alcohol per hour. Thus, in the above scenario where you have consumed 16 ounces of 12 percent ABV beer, your liver will have metabolized and eliminated the alcohol in that beer after about two hours on average. 

The liver metabolizes alcohol before metabolizing any other substances in your system. In general, drinking a lot of water and eating food will not speed up the process significantly. Every ounce of pure alcohol that you drink raises your blood alcohol content about 0.015 percent.

BAC: How Much Alcohol Will Make Me Legally Intoxicated?

Your blood alcohol content (BAC) is a measure of the percentage of alcohol in your system. It is generally accepted that having a BAC of 0.08 percent defines legal intoxication in the United States, although some municipalities may have lowered this level.

Your personal BAC after drinking a certain volume of alcohol will depend on many individual variables, including your age, weight, sex, metabolism, and other variables.

Tables provided online can give you a general idea of how much alcohol, given your sex and weight, will result in a specific BAC level. However, the actual measurement can vary due to numerous circumstances. The Cleveland Clinic outlines potential BAC levels here.

Heavy Drinking and Binge Drinking 

In general, the definitions of moderate drinking, heavy drinking, and binge drinking can be a bit hazy.

The CDC and NIAAA define moderate alcohol use as two or less alcoholic drinks a day for men and one or fewer drinks per day for women.

Heavy drinking is often defined as five or more drinks at one time or 15 or more drinks over one week for men, and four or more drinks on one occasion or eight or more drinks over one week for women and anyone over the age of 65. 

Binge drinking refers to drinking a similar amount of alcohol in a much shorter time (an increase of your BAC to 0.08 percent or higher within two hours of drinking).  Some definitions of heavy drinking consist of one or more instances of binge drinking per week.

In all of these cases, the above definitions of the “standard drink” are used. When you compare yourself to these standards, remember that you are probably drinking more alcohol per drink than the standards define.

Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers are far more likely to develop problems with alcohol abuse (alcohol use disorders) than those who engage in moderate use of alcohol.

Sources

Drinking Levels Defined. The National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink

(January 2018) Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

(March 2019) Alcohol Content in Wine and Other Drinks (Infographic). Wine Folly. from http://winefolly.com/tutorial/alcohol-content-in-wine/

(November 2017) How the Body Processes Alcohol. Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319942.php

(2019) What is BAC? Stanford University. from https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/what-bac

Calculate Your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). Cleveland Clinic. from https://www.clevelandclinic.org/health/interactive/alcohol_calculator.asp

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