Standard drinks – alcohol by volume. What do these terms mean and why do they matter?
“I only had a couple of drinks,” or “We each had a drink and then split a bottle of wine.” These kinds of statements are common when someone gets into trouble as a result of how much they’ve had to drink. Sometimes the speaker is absolutely baffled at being pulled over for a DUI or having a hangover in the morning because they are sure they’d only had a few.
One of the contributing factors to these situations is the lack of awareness of what’s in “a” drink. Each of the following quantities equals 1 standard drink:
- 5 ounces of wine
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 1.5 ounces (a shot) of “hard liquor,” such as 80-proof scotch, gin, vodka or bourbon
- 8-9 ounces of malt liquor (typically ale or lager beers)
Why the varied amounts? Because each liquid quantity contains the same amount of alcohol. This is where the term “standard drink” comes from — a standard measurement of ethyl alcohol by volume of alcohol type.
Why is this so important to understand? Because ethyl alcohol is not processed like other foods and liquids. It is metabolized (processed) by enzymes in the liver. It takes the liver about one hour (often up to two depending on other variables, such as weight, gender, having eaten, stage of brain development or medications) to metabolize the ethyl alcohol chemicals in one standard drink. So if a person consumes 3-4 drinks, it’ll be roughly 3-4 hours before their body is clear of all alcohol. While alcohol waits its turn to be processed by the liver, it is “sitting” in body organs, like the brain. It’s this sitting in the brain that changes how a person thinks and behaves because the ethyl alcohol chemicals interrupt neural networks and therefore normal brain functioning.
Often common drinks or beverage containers people serve and/or consume at parties or restaurants contain more than one standard drink as listed below. Not understanding this can cause a person to drink more than they’d planned.
- a margarita = 2-3 standard drinks
- a martini = 1.5-2 standard drinks
- a “stiff” scotch on the rocks = 2-3 standard drinks
- a bottle of table wine = 5 standard drinks.
Awareness is half the battle.
Try measuring the above quantities in your favorite shaped drink glass or common-shaped restaurant glasses to get the visual of what “a” drink looks like (5 ounces of wine is a lot smaller than you may think). When you’re at a banquet or party, decline refills of your glass until you’ve finished so that you know how much you are really drinking.
Understanding what’s in “a” drink can help you avoid the consequences of over-drinking and know when to decline a ride from someone who’s “only had a couple.”
To find out how much alcohol is in your favorite drink, check out NIAAA’s Cocktail Content Calculator.