Alcoholic drink

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A selection of alcoholic drinks. From left to right: red wine, malt whisky, lager, sparkling wine, lager, cherry liqueur and red wine
A liquor store in the United States. Global sales of alcoholic drinks exceeded $1 trillion in 2014.

An alcoholic drink, or alcoholic beverage, is a drink that contains a substantial amount of ethanol (informally called alcohol), a depressant which in low doses causes euphoria, reduced anxiety, and sociability and in higher doses causes intoxication (drunkenness), stupor and unconsciousness. Long-term use can lead to alcohol abuse, physical dependence, and alcoholism.

Drinking alcohol plays an important social role in many cultures. Most countries have laws regulating their production, sale, and consumption;[1] some countries ban such activities entirely. However, alcoholic drinks are legal in most parts of the world. The global alcoholic drink industry exceeded $1 trillion in 2014.[2]

Alcohol is one of the most widely used recreational drugs in the world. In the United States 89% of adults have consumed alcohol at some point in time, 70% have drunk it in the last year and 56% in the last month.[3] Alcoholic drinks are typically divided into three classes—beers, wines, and spirits—and typically contain between 3% and 40% alcohol by volume.

Discovery of late Stone Age jugs suggest that intentionally fermented drinks existed at least as early as the Neolithic period (cir. 10,000 BC).[4] Many nonhuman animals also consume alcohol when given the opportunity and are affected in much the same way as humans, although humans are the only species known to produce alcoholic drinks intentionally.[5]

Fermented drinks[edit]


See also: Wine and health

Wine is a fermented beverage produced from grapes. Wine involves a longer fermentation process than beer and also a long aging process (months or years), resulting in an alcohol content of 9%–16% ABV. Sparkling wine can be made by means of a secondary fermentation.

"Fruit wines" are made from fruits other than grapes, such as plums, cherries, or apples. Sake is a popular example of "rice wine".


Beer is a beverage fermented from grain mash. It is made from barley or a blend of several grains. If the fermented mash is distilled, then the drink is a spirit. Beer is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world.[6]


Cider or cyder (/ˈsdər/ SY-dər) is a fermented alcoholic drink made from any fruit juice; apple juice (traditional and most common), peaches, pears ("Perry" cider) or other fruit. Cider alcohol content varies from 1.2% ABV to 8.5% or more in traditional English ciders. In some regions, cider may be called "apple wine".[7]


Mead (/ˈmd/) is an alcoholic drink created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains, or hops. The alcoholic content of mead may range from about 8% ABV to more than 20%. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the drink's fermentable sugar is derived from honey.

Distilled drinks[edit]

Main article: Distilled beverage
These flaming cocktails illustrate that high-proof alcohol will readily catch fire and burn.

A distilled drink or liquor is an alcoholic drink produced by distilling (i.e., concentrating by distillation) ethanol produced by means of fermenting grain, fruit, or vegetables.[8] Unsweetened, distilled, alcoholic drinks that have an alcohol content of at least 20% ABV are called spirits.[9] For the most common distilled drinks, such as whiskey and vodka, the alcohol content is around 40%. The term hard liquor is used in North America to distinguish distilled drinks from undistilled ones (implicitly weaker). Vodka, gin, baijiu, tequila, whiskey, brandy, and soju are examples of distilled drinks. Distilling concentrates the alcohol and eliminates some of the congeners. Freeze distillation concentrates ethanol along with methanol and fusel alcohols (fermentation by-products partially removed by distillation) in applejack.

Fortified wine is wine, such as port or sherry, to which a distilled beverage (usually brandy) has been added.[10] Fortified wine is distinguished from spirits made from wine in that spirits are produced by means of distillation, while fortified wine is simply wine that has had a spirit added to it. Many different styles of fortified wine have been developed, including port, sherry, madeira, marsala, commandaria, and the aromatized wine vermouth.[11]

Rectified spirit[edit]

Rectified spirit, also called "neutral grain spirit," is alcohol which has been purified by means of "rectification" (i.e., repeated distillation). The term "neutral" refers to the spirit's lacking the flavor that would have been present if the mash ingredients had been distilled to a lower level of alcoholic purity. Rectified spirit also lacks any flavoring added to it after distillation (as is done, for example, with gin). Other kinds of spirits, such as whiskey, are distilled to a lower alcohol percentage in order to preserve the flavor of the mash.

Rectified spirit is a clear, colorless, flammable liquid that may contain as much as 95% ABV. It is often used for medicinal purposes. It may be a grain spirit or it may be made from other plants. It is used in mixed drinks, liqueurs, and tinctures, but also as a household solvent.

Health effects[edit]

Main article: Alcohol and health
Results of the 2010 ISCD study ranking the levels of damage caused by drugs, in the opinion of drug-harm experts. When harm to self and others is summed, alcohol was the most harmful of all drugs considered, scoring 72%.

Alcoholic drinks are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans). IARC classifies alcoholic drink consumption as a cause of female breast, colorectum, larynx, liver, esophagus, oral cavity, and pharynx cancers; and as a probable cause of pancreatic cancer.[12] Alcohol in carbonated drinks is absorbed faster than alcohol in non-carbonated drinks.[13]

Short-term effects[edit]

Wine, beer, distilled spirits and other alcoholic drinks contain ethyl alcohol and alcohol consumption has short-term psychological and physiological effects on the user. Different concentrations of alcohol in the human body have different effects on a person. The effects of alcohol depend on the amount an individual has drunk, the percentage of alcohol in the wine, beer or spirits and the timespan that the consumption took place, the amount of food eaten and whether an individual has taken other prescription, over-the-counter or street drugs, among other factors. Drinking enough to cause a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.03%-0.12% typically causes an overall improvement in mood and possible euphoria, increased self-confidence and sociability, decreased anxiety, a flushed, red appearance in the face and impaired judgment and fine muscle coordination. A BAC of 0.09% to 0.25% causes lethargy, sedation, balance problems and blurred vision. A BAC from 0.18% to 0.30% causes profound confusion, impaired speech (e.g., slurred speech), staggering, dizziness and vomiting. A BAC from 0.25% to 0.40% causes stupor, unconsciousness, anterograde amnesia, vomiting (death may occur due to inhalation of vomit (pulmonary aspiration) while unconscious) and respiratory depression (potentially life-threatening). A BAC from 0.35% to 0.80% causes a coma (unconsciousness), life-threatening respiratory depression and possibly fatal alcohol poisoning. As with all alcoholic drinks, drinking while driving, operating an aircraft or heavy machinery increases the risk of an accident; many countries have penalties against drunk driving.

Long-term effects[edit]

Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic red wine may boost heart health.[14]

The main active ingredient of wine, beer and distilled spirits is alcohol. Drinking small quantities of alcohol (less than one drink in women and two in men per day) is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, and early death.[15] Drinking more than this amount, however, increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and stroke.[15] The risk is greater in younger people due to binge drinking which may result in violence or accidents.[15] About 3.3 million deaths (5.9% of all deaths) are believed to be due to alcohol each year.[16] Alcoholism reduces a person's life expectancy by around ten years[17] and alcohol use is the third leading cause of early death in the United States.[15] No professional medical association recommends that people who are nondrinkers should start drinking wine.[15][18] Another long-term effect of alcohol usage, when also used with tobacco products, is alcohol acting as a solvent, which allows harmful chemicals in tobacco to get inside the cells that line the digestive tract. Alcohol slows these cells' healing ability to repair the damage to their DNA caused by the harmful chemicals in tobacco. Alcohol contributes to cancer through this process.[19]

While lower quality evidence suggest a cardioprotective effect, no controlled studies have been completed on the effect of alcohol on the risk of developing heart disease or stroke. Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause liver cirrhosis and alcoholism.[20] The American Heart Association "cautions people NOT to start drinking ... if they do not already drink alcohol. Consult your doctor on the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation."[21]


Apéritifs and digestifs[edit]

An apéritif is any alcoholic beverage usually served before a meal to stimulate the appetite,[22] while a digestif is any alcoholic beverage served after a meal for the purpose of improving digestion. Fortified wine, liqueurs, and dry champagne are common apéritifs. Because apéritifs are served before dining, they are usually dry rather than sweet.


Pure ethanol tastes bitter to humans; some people also describe it as sweet.[23] However, ethanol is also a moderately good solvent for many fatty substances and essential oils. This facilitates the use of flavoring and coloring compounds in alcoholic drinks as a taste mask, especially in distilled drinks. Some flavors may be naturally present in the beverage's raw material. Beer and wine may also be flavored before fermentation, and spirits may be flavored before, during, or after distillation. Sometimes flavor is obtained by allowing the beverage to stand for months or years in oak barrels, usually made of American or French oak. A few brands of spirits may also have fruit or herbs inserted into the bottle at the time of bottling.


In the alcoholic drinks industry, congeners are substances produced during fermentation. These substances include small amounts of chemicals such as occasionally desired other alcohols, like propanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol, but also compounds that are never desired such as acetone, acetaldehyde and glycols. Congeners are responsible for most of the taste and aroma of distilled alcoholic drinks, and contribute to the taste of non-distilled drinks.[24] It has been suggested that these substances contribute to the symptoms of a hangover.[25] Tannins are congeners found in wine in the presence of phenolic compounds. Wine tannins add bitterness, have a drying sensation, taste herbaceous and are often described as astringent. Wine tannins adds balance, complexity, structure and makes a wine last longer, so they play an important role in the aging of wine.[26]

Food energy[edit]

Alcoholic drinks are a source of food energy. The USDA uses a figure of 6.93 kilocalories (29.0 kJ) per gram of alcohol (5.47 kcal (22.9 kJ) per ml) for calculating food energy.[27] In addition to alcohol, many alcoholic drinks contain carbohydrates. For example, beer usually contains 10–15 g of carbohydrates (40–60 kcal or 170–250 kJ) per 350 ml (12 US fl oz) which may contribute to an increase in body weight and beer belly. In addition to the direct effect of its caloric content, alcohol is also known to potentiate the insulin response of the human body to glucose, which, in essence, "instructs" the body to convert consumed carbohydrates into fat and to suppress carbohydrate and fat oxidation.[28][29]

Alcohol measurement[edit]

Alcohol concentration[edit]

Typical ABV ranges[30]
Beers typically 5% (range is from 3–15%)
Wines typically 13.5% (range is from 8%–17%)
Fortified wines 15–22%
Spirits typically 30%-40% (range is from 15% to, in some rare cases, up to 98%)
Fruit juices < 0.1%
Cider, wine coolers 4%–8%
Main article: Alcohol by volume

The concentration of alcohol in a beverage is usually stated as the percentage of alcohol by volume  (ABV, the number of milliliters (ml) of pure ethanol in 100 ml of beverage) or as proof. In the United States, proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (e.g. 80 proof = 40% ABV). Degrees proof were formerly used in the United Kingdom, where 100 degrees proof was equivalent to 57.1% ABV. Historically, this was the most dilute spirit that would sustain the combustion of gunpowder.

Ordinary distillation cannot produce alcohol of more than 95.6% ABV (191.2 proof) because at that point alcohol is an azeotrope with water. A spirit which contains a very high level of alcohol and does not contain any added flavoring is commonly called a neutral spirit. Generally, any distilled alcoholic beverage of 170 US proof or higher is considered to be a neutral spirit.[31]

Most yeasts cannot reproduce when the concentration of alcohol is higher than about 18%, so that is the practical limit for the strength of fermented drinks such as wine, beer, and sake. However, some strains of yeast have been developed that can reproduce in solutions of up to 25% ABV.[citation needed]

Serving measures[edit]

Shot sizes[edit]

Shot sizes vary significantly from country to country. In the United Kingdom, serving size in licensed premises is regulated under the Weights and Measures Act (1985). A single serving size of spirits (gin, whisky, rum, and vodka) are sold in 25 ml or 35 ml quantities or multiples thereof.[32] Beer is typically served in pints (568 ml), but is also served in half-pints or third-pints. In Israel, a single serving size of spirits is about twice as much, 50 or 60 mL.

The shape of a glass can have a significant effect on how much one pours. A Cornell University study of students and bartenders' pouring showed both groups pour more into short, wide glasses than into tall, slender glasses.[33] Aiming to pour one shot of alcohol (1.5 ounces or 44.3 ml), students on average poured 45.5 ml & 59.6 ml (30% more) respectively into the tall and short glasses. The bartenders scored similarly, on average pouring 20.5% more into the short glasses. More experienced bartenders were more accurate, pouring 10.3% less alcohol than less experienced bartenders. Practice reduced the tendency of both groups to over pour for tall, slender glasses but not for short, wide glasses. These misperceptions are attributed to two perceptual biases: (1) Estimating that tall, slender glasses have more volume than shorter, wider glasses; and (2) Over focusing on the height of the liquid and disregarding the width.

Standard drinks[edit]

A "standard drink" of hard liquor does not necessarily reflect a typical serving size, such as seen here

A standard drink is a notional drink that contains a specified amount of pure alcohol. The standard drink is used in many countries to quantify alcohol intake. It is usually expressed as a measure of beer, wine, or spirits. One standard drink always contains the same amount of alcohol regardless of serving size or the type of alcoholic beverage. The standard drink varies significantly from country to country. For example, it is 7.62 ml (6 grams) of alcohol in Austria, but in Japan it is 25 ml (19.75 grams).

  • In the United Kingdom, there is a system of units of alcohol which serves as a guideline for alcohol consumption. A single unit of alcohol is defined as 10 ml. The number of units present in a typical drink is sometimes printed on bottles. The system is intended as an aid to people who are regulating the amount of alcohol they drink; it is not used to determine serving sizes.
  • In the United States, the standard drink contains 0.6 US fluid ounces (18 ml) of alcohol. This is approximately the amount of alcohol in a 12-US-fluid-ounce (350 ml) glass of beer, a 5-US-fluid-ounce (150 ml) glass of wine, or a 1.5-US-fluid-ounce (44 ml) glass of a 40% ABV (80 US proof) spirit.


Main article: Alcohol laws

Alcohol laws regulate the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic drinks. Such laws seek to reduce the health and social effects of their consumption. In particular, alcohol laws specify the legal drinking age, which usually varies between 16 and 25 years, sometimes depending upon the type of drink. Some countries do not have a legal drinking or purchasing age, but most set the minimum age at 18 years.[1] Such laws may take the form of permitting distribution only to licensed stores or monopoly stores, and they are often combined with taxation. These laws may also limit the hours or days (e.g., "blue laws") on which alcohol may be sold or served, as can also be seen in the "last call" ritual in US and Canadian bars, where bartenders and servers ask patrons to place their last orders for alcohol, due to serving hour cutoff laws. In some countries, alcohol cannot be sold to a person who is already intoxicated. Alcohol laws in many countries prohibit drunk driving.

In some jurisdictions, alcoholic drinks are totally prohibited for reasons of religion (e.g., Islamic countries with sharia law) or for reasons of public health and morals (e.g., Prohibition in the United States from 1920 to 1933). In jurisdictions which enforce sharia law, the consumption of alcoholic drinks is an illegal offense,[34] although such laws may exempt non-Muslims.[35]


Members of a German Student Corps (Duchy of Brunswick) shown drinking in a picture from 1837.
  • 10,000–5,000 BC: Discovery of late Stone Age jugs suggests that intentionally fermented drinks existed at least as early as the Neolithic period.[36]
  • 7000–5600 BC: Examination and analysis of ancient pottery jars from the neolithic village of Jiahu in the Henan province of northern China revealed residue left behind by the alcoholic drinks they had once contained. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, chemical analysis of the residue confirmed that a fermented drink made of grape and hawthorn fruit wine, honey mead and rice beer was being produced in 7000–5600 BC (McGovern et al., 2005; McGovern 2009).[37][38] The results of this analysis were published in December 2004.[39]
  • 12th century: Distilled alcoholic drinks were first recorded in Europe in the mid-12th century. By the early 14th century, they had spread throughout the European continent.[40]

See also[edit]

Beverage-related articles[edit]

Social and health[edit]


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  12. ^ Cogliano, VJ; Baan, R; Straif, K; Grosse, Y; Lauby-Secretan, B; El Ghissassi, F; Bouvard, V; Benbrahim-Tallaa, L; Guha, N; Freeman, C; Galichet, L; Wild, CP (Dec 21, 2011). "Preventable exposures associated with human cancers.". Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 103 (24): 1827–39. doi:10.1093/jnci/djr483. PMID 22158127. 
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  14. ^ "Non-Alcoholic Red Wine May Boost Heart Health". Retrieved 6 May 2015. 
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  24. ^ Understanding Congeners in Wine, Wines & Vines. Accessed 2011-4-20
  25. ^ Whisky hangover 'worse than vodka, a study suggests', BBC News. Accessed 2009-12-19
  26. ^ "The 5 Basic Wine Characteristics - Wine Folly". Wine Folly. Retrieved 6 May 2015. 
  27. ^ "Composition of Foods Raw, Processed, Prepared USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26 Documentation and User Guide" (PDF). USDA. Aug 2013. p. 14. 
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  29. ^ "Ethanol Causes Acute Inhibition of Carbohydrate, Fat, and Protein Oxidation and Insulin Resistance" (PDF). J.Clin.Invest. 81 (4): 1137–45. 1988. doi:10.1172/JCI113428. PMC 329642free to read. PMID 3280601. 
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  32. ^ "fifedirect - Licensing & Regulations - Calling Time on Short Measures!". 2008-07-29. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
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  38. ^ McGovern, P. E.; Zhang, J.; Tang, J.; Zhang, Z.; Hall, G. R.; Moreau, R. A.; Nunez, A.; Butrym, E. D.; Richards, M. P.; Wang, C. -S.; Cheng, G.; Zhao, Z.; Wang, C. (2004). "Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 101 (51): 17593–17598. doi:10.1073/pnas.0407921102. PMC 539767free to read. PMID 15590771. 
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  40. ^ Forbes, Robert James (1970). A Short History of the Art of Distillation: From the Beginnings up to the Death of Cellier Blumenthal. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-00617-1. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 

External links[edit]