Fundamental Friday – ABV Explained

Last week I explained the basic difference between fermentation and distillation. This week, I want to explain more about the substance that we’re all concerned about — alcohol. So what is up with that little number that appears on the bottles of all alcoholic beverages? Who cares if something has 6% or 60% alcohol–it’s alcoholic and that’s all that matters, right? To the indiscriminating drinker, this may be true, but for the responsible drinker, this is severely false. The percentage of alcohol stated on the container indicates the spirit’s Alcohol By Volume and is a measurement of the units of alcohol as a percentage of the total volume in the container. So, a beer that is 8% alcohol literally contains 8% of its liquid volume as alcohol; the other 92% of the volume is the stuff that makes the alcohol taste good (or bad, depending).

While ABV is a measurement that is used worldwide, proof is not. In fact, the United States is currently the only country still quoting proof as anything significant.  Even though it’s not, really. Printing and quoting a spirit’s proof is just a historical nod these days, as the measurement doesn’t have any applicable use anymore. The history is interesting, though, so you should read about it.

For a casual consumer, it’s important to note that as a general rule, most “hard” liquors are going to contain around 40% ABV. Spirits range in ABV from very low, as in the case of beers, to very high, as in the case of Everclear and the like. Bartenders need to know the ABV of spirits in order to create a balanced and pleasing drink.

Explaining ABV presents a great opportunity to explain BAC, or Blood Alcohol Content, which I will cover in next week’s Fundamental Friday. Cheers!