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Alcohol by Volume: Beer, Wine, & Liquor

Drinks with friends, a drink while eating dinner out, enjoying a late-night beverage after a concert, and having a drink or two at home after a long day at work – these are all normal forms of moderate drinking, and they are generally socially acceptable in the United States. However, few people may understand what constitutes a “drink.” They may order a mixed drink at a bar or get a craft beer at a new local brewery, but is the serving given at the bar or restaurant the same as a standard serving? How much alcohol is in a glass of wine compared to a fancy cocktail?

The standardized measurements, according to government organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) are likely smaller than the average drink consumed by the average American adult. Pints of beer or large pours of wine can add up quickly, leading to intoxication faster than one might expect.

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Ounces, alcohol by volume, and proof are all measurements for understanding how much alcohol is in a standard serving.

  • Beer: The CDC states that one serving of beer is 12 ounces, which is about the size of a bottle of beer. In comparison, a pint of beer at a brewery is 15 ounces, which is larger than the average serving. Drinking a pint of beer is more than the liver can process in one hour while a bottle of beer is about as much as the liver can process in one hour. However, this measurement is for beers which have 4-5% alcohol content, or ABV. Many new, popular craft beers have 6-8% ABV, and some even approach 12-14%. A high ABV beer at 12 ounces will be more than twice the serving of alcohol compared to a 5% beer, and it will therefore take the liver twice as long to process.
  • Wine: The CDC’s standard serving of wine is five ounces, for a wine which is about 12% ABV. As with beer, however, this generalization breaks down when examining different kinds of wine and disregards generous pours in large glasses at bars or restaurants; these can approach nine ounces, depending on the size of the wine glass, close to twice the standard serving.For example, white wine generally is on average 10% ABV; however, it can range from as little as 5% to as much as 14%. Moscato white wines have less alcohol, at 5-7% percent, while pinot grigio wines may contain 12-13% alcohol, and chardonnay may have 13-14.5%.Red wine has more alcohol, ranging from 12% to 15%. Pinot noirs and red bourdeauxs contain 13-14% ABV; Malbec wines contain 13.5-15%; and some Californian zinfandels and Australian shiraz wines can have ABVs as high as 16-18%. A five-ounce pour of pinot grigio is likely to be about one actual serving, but the same pour of a California zinfandel can approach a serving and a half.
  • Liquor: There are several kinds of spirits or hard liquor, like gin, bourbon, whiskey, vodka, liqueurs, and absinthe. These forms of alcohol are distilled so they have a higher concentration of alcohol by volume; as a result, the standard serving size is very small. A serving of distilled spirits is about 1.5 ounces, which is the size of a shot glass. This standard applies to liquors which are 40% ABV.Again, like wine and beer, liquors have different ABVs. Fruit liquors typically range from 28% to 32%; gin ranges from 35% to 40%; vodka ranges from 35% to 46%; whiskey and rum are 40-46%; and cask strength whiskey is 55-60%.Mixed drinks, shots, and straight liquors should not contain more than one shot, although many people may request a “double,” or two to three “fingers” as measurements for ordering liquor in bars. This means that they consume more alcohol than a standard serving, so their liver needs more time to metabolize the alcohol. They are more likely to raise their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% – where it is legally unsafe to drive – much faster.
  • Fortified wine: These are legally classified as wine, but their ABV approaches hard liquor. Sherry, port, madeira, sake, and shochu are all forms of high-proof wine, and they should be served in much smaller servings. Most fortified wines and sake range from 17% to 21% ABV while shochu is around 22-34%. NIAAA recommends serving fortified wines in 3-4 fluid ounce pours.
  • Malt liquor: Although the word liquor is in the name, these beverages are closer in alcohol content to beer than distilled spirits. NIAAA recommends servings of 8-9 ounces, as malt liquors are typically about 7% alcohol.
  • Kombucha: This drink is sold as a healthy, probiotic beverage, but it may contain a small amount of alcohol. Kombucha is make from mixing a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) – a colony of microbes that break down sugar – into tea with sugar added. The SCOBY breaks down the added sugar into fermented products, one of which will be ethanol.

A survey conducted by the University of Maine found that different kombucha brands contained different ABVs, but found them to range from 0.5% to 2.5% on average. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requires any substance with more than a 0.5% ABV to be regulated, and some states like Colorado are introducing legislation to regulate how much alcohol kombucha can contain and how the beverages are taxed.

It is important to know that kombucha, a fermented health food, contains small amounts of alcohol because people with a history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) or drug abuse may be accidentally triggered to relapse if they consume enough kombucha. Additionally, in the US, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to consume any amount of alcohol, so kombucha puts minors at legal risk. Regulating the percentage and serving size of this beverage will likely become a point of debate for lawmakers in the future.

The current Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 list different standard drink equivalents, which can hopefully make conversion easier when considering the ABV of different types of alcohol.

  • About 12 ounces of 4.2% ABV beer is 80% of a standard drink; 7% ABV beer is 1.4 standard drinks, at 12 ounces; and the same size of 9% ABV beer is nearly two servings
  • Five ounces of 12% ABV wine is the standard, or “reference,” serving size for wine; nine fluid ounces, which is a common restaurant or home pour, is nearly two servings of wine; 15% ABV wine at five ounces is 1.3 servings; and 17% ABV wine in a five-ounce pour is 1.4 servings.
  • Mixed drinks, either made at home or ordered at bars or restaurants, may contain more than one shot of hard liquor.

Ordering one drink with dinner, or having one or two drinks while out with friends, is likely to be moderate alcohol consumption even if the pours are larger than standard or the alcohol has a higher ABV than the standard. However, drinking more than one or two drinks in an evening is likely to approach binge drinking; and consuming more than two drinks per day is over the CDC’s guidelines on heavy drinking. These problematic patterns of drinking can cause serious health issues, like liver damage and heart disease, and may trigger alcohol use disorder (AUD).

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