Alcohol By Volume (ABV or ALC. BY VOL.) and “Proof” Explained

Understanding the term, "Alcohol By Volume (ABV)," can help a person better stay within "low-risk" drinking limits.

Understanding the term, “Alcohol By Volume (ABV),” can help a person better stay within “low-risk” drinking limits.

Alcohol By Volume (ABV) can be very difficult to determine. (Another term you often here related to ABV is “proof.”) But it’s an important concept to understand in order to stay in control of one’s drinking. Why?

One of the most common reasons people find themselves inadvertently drinking more than they’d intended is the confusion that surrounds the idea of “A” (one) drink. Confounding that understanding is the confusion about how much alcohol is in a particular type of alcoholic beverage (in other words, the alcohol by volume).

Before you continue reading, it is important to know that one standard drink is defined as: 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (e.g., vodka, whiskey), 8-9 ounces of malt liquors or 3.3 ounces of champagne.

Alcohol By Volume (ABV) and “Proof” Explained

As you probably know, alcohol is one of the ingredients in beverages with names like beer, wine, tequila, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and champagne. Alcohol is the ingredient that gets you drunk.  But alcohol is not something that grows on a tree or in the ground. It is something that is created by a process called fermentation.

The scientific term for alcohol is ethanol. To get ethanol (alcohol), people mix yeast (you may know of yeast because it is used in baking) and sugar – the kind of sugar that is naturally found in fruits and vegetables.

When mixed together over time, the yeast breaks down the sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process is called fermentation. As the fermentation process continues, the carbon dioxide gas bubbles out, and all that is left is the ethanol and water.

Different sugar sources make different kinds of alcohol. The sugar from crushed grapes, for example, is used to make wine. The sugars from grain, potatoes, beets and other plants are used to make vodka.

Alcoholic beverages like vodka, rum, gin and whiskey go through another process called distilling. Distilling is the process that removes the water from the ethanol. This is why you hear of vodka, rum, gin, whiskey and the like being called, “distilled spirits.”

So what are you supposed to do with this information?

If you look at a label on a bottle of wine, you will see – usually in very tiny letters – something like ABV 14% or ALC. BY VOL. 14%. This is saying that in that particular bottle, 14% of the liquid is alcohol. In other words, the alcohol by volume (ABV) is 14%.

Distilled spirits are labeled differently. If you look on a bottle of distilled spirits, you will see another number and word – also in very tiny letters – that will read “80- proof.” Proof is a number equal to twice the ABV. So in a bottle of 80-proof vodka, for example, the ABV (alcohol by volume) is 40%, which explains why you would get drunk on 10 ounces of vodka but maybe not get drunk on 10 ounces of wine. In other words, both are 10 ounces, but the vodka contains a lot more alcohol by volume than does the wine (40% vs 14%). This also explains why a 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof vodka and 5 ounces of wine are both equal to “A” (one) drink. Though very different in size (1.5 ounces vs 5 ounces), each one contains the same amount of alcohol, therefore both are considered to be a standard drink.

Where’s the Standard Drink Label When You Need It?

After all that, the question still remains, “So how does ABV or proof tell a person how much alcohol is in “A” (one) drink?” Answer: It doesn’t.

This is where having a standard drink label that informs you of how many drinks are in a particular cocktail or in particular can or bottle would really help. Take a bottle of table wine, for example, a standard drink label would tell you how many “drinks” (standard drinks) of wine there were in that particular bottle. The label could be very simple. It could be something along the lines of: SD = 5. [SD = standard drinks.]

Since there is no such thing as a standard drink label, the next best thing is to take a look at the following picture and realize that each glass contains “A,” drink; in other words, one standard drink.

alcohol
And then browse through the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoh0lism (NIAAA) two online calculators for specifics on types of alcohol or cocktails served: Drink Size Calculator and the Cocktail Content Calculator.

For similar information, you may want to check out my latest book – an eBook – titled: Crossing the Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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  1. Please can you answer this is 3% beer half as strong as 6% beer, or just 3% point stronger?
    Sorry but can’t get my head round it

    Ian

    • It’s very confusing (which is why it’d be great if the beverage label also included a # of standard drinks in that particular container).
      The idea is that it takes the liver ABOUT one hour to process (rid the body) of one standard drink. In America, they measure standard drinks by the % of pure alcohol by volume (ABV). It doesn’t matter if it’s beer or wine or spirits — it’s alcohol by volume.
      So the following all equal one standard drink:
      12% (typical of table wines) = 5 ounces
      5% (typical of “regular” beer) = 12 ounces
      40% (typical of 80-proof hard liquor, such as vodka, scotch) = 1.5 ounces.

      To your question:
      with 3% beer, you could have 20 ounces — that would be one standard drink of 3% beer.
      with 6% beer, you could have 10 ounces

      This is a link to a great calculator that can help with standard drink measurements in the U.S., http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/ToolsResources/DrinkSizeCalculator.asp, and this one can help with standard drink measurements in the U.K., http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-and-you/health/guide-to-alcohol-units-and-measures .

      Hope this helps.

  2. This article sounds extremely stupid. I am not a seven year old. Thank you Google once again for answering my question.