Drinking is pervasive in our society. Every significant adult occasion tends to have alcohol at the center of the festivities. While most of us imbibe in moderation and have no difficulties doing so, there are others who run into trouble. Part of this arises from a lack of understanding with regards to the amount of alcohol in a given volume, or drink.

Understanding how to measure one's alcohol intake is vital to enjoying a drink or two. This means that understanding alcohol by volume can be the key to healthy, non-harmful drinking. With a bit of insight, you can make wise choices that help you regulate the actual level of alcohol you intake.

What Does Alcohol by Volume Mean?

Alcohol by volume is a term used to describe how much alcohol is in a given measure of any alcoholic beverage. Sometimes this comes under the heading Proof, but increasingly the acronym ABV is used, especially in the beer market. Essentially, when you know ABV, you know a drink's potency. Higher alcohol to volume indicates a stronger drink.

When brewers, distillers, or vintners make their drinks, they use a hydrometer to measure something called the “gravity” of the original batch. This refers to the density of the liquid. As alcohol is less dense than water or fruit juice, as the “gravity” changes, the brewer can make estimates about the alcohol content based on this number. Once the fermentation process is complete, they measure the final gravity. The difference of the two numbers is the basis for the ABV.

The formula for this is:

ABV = (OG – FG)/.75

Since different classes of drink have different alcohol content, they are generally served in different volumes. Lower alcohol drinks, such as beer, are served in 12-16oz glasses, wine glasses are generally 5 ounces, and liquor is served in 1.5 ounce measures. Note that these servings each have approximately the same alcoholic content. More differences have arisen with the varying strength of many new craft beers, and wines often come in different strengths. You can also check out our Blood Alcohol Concentration Calculator to get an idea on how the alcohols proof and body weight are factors in the amount of alcohol present in your bloodstream.

What is the Proof?

Proof is an interesting term. It does reflect alcohol by volume, but proof is a number derived by doubling a drink's alcohol percent. The reasons for this are obscure and relate to antiquated means for proving a liquor's potency. Essentially, in the United States, the baseline for alcohol content was 50 percent, which was then considered 100 proof.

Since proof is a term generally applied to liquors, beer and wine have traditionally used ABV on their packaging. In fact, until the recent deregulation of alcohol content, most beer and wine never exceeded certain maximums, and nobody thought much about the strength of those drinks. However, with the importation of high ABV beers from Europe, and the burgeoning domestic craft beer market, ABV is featured more prominently on menus and labels.

Typical Alcohol by Volume Percentages

Each type of beverage has its standards and its outliers. Often the standards are the result of post-prohibition laws that sought to contain alcohol abuse. These laws were the most restrictive on the beer market, as certain varieties have a higher ABV by their very nature. These days most states have eased, if not eliminated, their ABV regulations. Thus, no matter what you are drinking, make sure that you're aware of its ABV, because not all drinks are made the same. The most common alcoholic beverages are listed below, along with guidelines for understanding the ABV range of each.

  • Beer:
    Standard ABV for beers is usually 5% and under. However, craft beers such as IPAs, Porters, and Pale Ales can have an ABV as high as 10% or more. Belgian beers frequently exceed 10%.
  • Liquor:
    A typical bottle of liquor has an ABV of 40%. Some bottles can have a higher percent, some as high as 90% and higher. Don't mistake proof for ABV; you can halve a proof number to derive ABV.
  • Liqueur:
    Sweetened liquor comes in a variety of strengths, but a typical ABV is around 20%.
  • Wine:
    Though some wine can have an ABV as low as 7%, most hover somewhere closer to 15%.
  • Fortified Wine:
    These drinks are far stronger than standard wine and are thus served in small portions. Some fortified wines, such as Sochu, have up to 35% ABV. Other examples include port, sherry, vermouth, and sake.
  • Non-Alcoholic Beer:
    Though some beers that are sold under the non-alcoholic label have zero alcohol, most have a small percentage of alcohol, but rarely does the ABV exceed 0.5%.
  • Non-Alcoholic Wine:
    Non-alcoholic wine has often had all of the alcohol removed, resulting in 0 ABV. However, always check the label if you are concerned.
  • Malt Liquor:
    This drink used to be a way to have a beer-like beverage with more alcohol than the laws allowed for beer. Malt Liquor's ABV is around 7%.
  • Mead:
    This honey-based beverage can be quite strong with an ABV around 10-15%.
  • Kombucha:
    Though not typically considered an alcoholic drink, Kombucha nevertheless does contain alcohol, but not much. Kombucha's ABV is usually .5% or less but be careful when home-brewing the drink. It can easily become quite alcoholic.

A Standard “Drink”

When discussing a drink of alcohol, healthcare professionals refer to a standard basis of comparison between the three most common types off alcoholic beverage: beer, wine, and liquor. They take each beverage's ABV into account and consider it a reliable guideline to equate one 5oz glass of wine with a 12 oz beer and a 1.5 ounce drink of hard liquor.

Since the ABV among different beers, wines, liquors, and liqueurs varies widely, use this as a rough basis of comparison. For instance, if your height, weight, and gender indicate that you are safe drinking 3 beers in a sitting, make sure you compensate when you are drink a 14% ABV Belgian variety rather than a 5% American Lager. The Belgian drink is nearly three times the alcohol of a standard beer. The standard-makers generally base their numbers on the lager, so one drink of the Belgian will likely rule out driving until you've had three to four hours to sober up.

Why is a Standard Drink Important?

It's important to keep ABV standards in mind when imbibing alcoholic beverages. You need a way to gauge your alcohol intake apart from the volume of fluid you've imbibed. Thus, two double liquor drinks plus one standard beer is five total drinks. This is vital information especially if you are thinking of driving. Tracking alcohol intake is also important when making a health assessment.

Though different beers and wines have different alcoholic content, you can still keep track of your drinking using the standard guidelines. For instance, if you are drinking beer with a 10% ABV, you can gauge your impairment based on a standard 5% beer. Thus, your two 10% beers are equal to four standard drinks. Unless you are a very tall, heavy man you should probably not think about driving for a few hours.

What Can Affect This “One Drink” Average?

The standards for a single drink should be viewed as guidelines for your drinking, but not absolutes. That is, the standard drink is often correlated with varying levels of intoxication. Thus, three standard drinks might put a man of average height and weight over the limit for driving. However, women typically reach intoxication faster. Further, one's relative food intake is a factor, as is tolerance, mood, and other factors.

It can also be difficult to gauge the number of standard drinks you've had if you are imbibing cocktails. For instance, a Martini and a Manhattan both include two sorts of liquor. Likewise, certain recipes for Sangria include liqueur and/or liquor.

You must also be aware that different brands of liquor and different styles of beer/wine correlate with different ABV. Not every vodka is 40%, some are 45% or higher. Certain beers are 15%, though you can find some as low as 3.5%. It's thus imperative to be informed of what you're drinking. Don't make any assumptions and ask to check the label on an unfamiliar bottle.

How Long Does 1 Drink Count?

While every person is different, most will metabolize a standard drink in an hour. There is no way around it. No amount of caffeine, food, or exercise can help burn the booze away any faster than your body can process it. In fact, it's likely that any change in metabolism is likely to be for the worse. Thus, to be safe, leave an hour and a half for every drink. If you are concerned about driving, you should seek out a non-alcoholic beverage, including a beer or wine, rather than any standard drinks.

How Can You Tell if You’re Drunk?

Drunkenness looks and feels a little bit different for everyone. If you have a very high tolerance, it's possible that you will be able to drink well beyond the threshold for legal drunkenness and nobody will be any the wiser. Those with lower tolerance may start laughing a bit louder and dancing with more gusto after a single drink. Your mood and how much you've had to eat are also big factors in how a drink affects you.

To sort through all this information , a scientific approach is the most reliable method for determining if you've had too much. Most regular drinkers could easily track their intake with a calculator or chart that can provide a reliable estimate of your Blood Alcohol Content. These rely on the standard drink measure and gauge it against your body weight. There are websites which carry these charts. There are also apps that will help you calculate your blood alcohol content. In fact, there are apps that allow you to connect a tube so that you can self-administer a breathalyzer. These apps can even provide an estimate for when you will return to legal sobriety. If you’re worried about imbibing too much, or if you’ve ever had problems with driving when you shouldn’t before, this might be a good idea for you. After all, no one expects to be good at math after they are several drinks into the night.

Final Thoughts

Alcohol is a dangerous, toxic substance that is pervasive in our culture. However, it's also a huge part of how we celebrate events and socialize in our free time. Many people drink daily to unwind from work or to help with sleep. Thus, it's important to understand Alcohol by Volume. It's important to understand that a cocktail is likely to have the same impact as a beer or glass of wine. However, some beverages have a higher alcoholic content based on how they're made or an added ingredient. When you know what’s going into your system, you’ll have a better idea of what actions you should, or shouldn’t, take.