Consuming alcohol is legal in the majority of the U.S. for adults ages 21 and older. Alcohol is a beverage made from fermented grains or fruit, and it has been part of human civilization for at least 10,000 years. There are many kinds of alcohol from many cultures across the globe, although the types of alcohol are standardized to beer, wine, and liquor in the United States to help structure laws around drinking.
There are several subcategories to beer, wine, and liquor, and these subcategories help to define and regulate the production of specific beverages. Understanding the specifics of alcohol types and content helps manufacturers, retail salespeople, bartenders, and consumers determine how much alcohol is in one serving, and therefore how much is consumed.
Alcohol Percentage Content
- Vodka | ABV: 40-95%
- Gin | ABV: 36-50%
- Rum | ABV: 36-50%
- Whiskey | ABV: 36-50%
- Tequila | ABV: 50-51%
- Liqueurs | ABV: 15%
- Fortified Wine | ABV: 16-24%
- Unfortified Wine | ABV: 14-16%
- Beer | ABV: 4-8%
- Malt Beverage | ABV: 15%
How Alcohol Servings Are Measured
The type of alcohol consumed in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, typically produced by yeast during the fermentation process. While there are other types of alcohol – such as isopropyl or butyl alcohol – these are not safe for human consumption.
The amount of alcohol found in beer, wine, and spirits can vary a little based on how high the proof is, which is measured in the U.S. with alcohol by volume (ABV) percentages. Proof for alcohol is generally twice the percentage of alcohol listed. Serving sizes have been standardized for legal reasons to contain roughly 0.6 ounces of alcohol per serving.
Serving measurements include:
- 5 ounces of wine per glass, 24 proof or 12 percent ABV
- 12 ounces of beer per serving, 10 proof or 5 percent ABV
- 1.5 ounces of liquor or spirits per shot, 80 proof or 40 percent ABV
Mixed drinks, cocktails, wine coolers, punch, and other types of combined alcoholic beverages are measured in legal terms using the above servings, although servers themselves may not be as careful about pouring.
For brewing purposes, beer is generally between 3 percent and 7 percent ABV; wine ranges between 9 percent and 14 percent ABV, unless it is fortified; and spirits begin at around 20 percent ABV, but some states allow up to 95 percent ABV.
Types of Alcohol
Although the broad legal categories for alcohol are beer, wine, and spirits, there are many subcategories, and the ABV of each can vary. A few examples of types of alcohol, along with their ABV, are listed below.
Liquor or Spirits
- Vodka: Made from the same fermentation process as beer or wine, with the added step of distilling to increase the strength of the drink, vodka is typically made from grains like wheat, sorghum, and corn, although Russian vodka is allegedly made from potatoes. Vodka has an ABV starting around 40 percent, but it can range as high as 95 percent.
- Gin: This liquor starts with a neutral distilled spirit, to which juniper berries and other aromatic botanicals are added. It is clear and has an ABV of 36-50 percent.
- Rum: Rum is fermented sugarcane, molasses, beet sugar, or other type of non-fruit sugar. It is then distilled to remove any sediment. It legally has 36-50 percent ABV.
- Whiskey: Subdivided into scotch, bourbon, and Irish and Canadian whiskeys, these types of whiskey are aged in oak barrels that give them a unique caramel color. ABV can range from 36 percent to 50 percent ABV, depending on how long it has aged.
- Tequila: Tequila is a Central and South American beverage made from fermented agave, which originally had some hallucinogenic properties in addition to being alcoholic. Tequila sold in the US is not allowed to have any additional drugs in it besides alcohol. The ABV is typically around 50-51 percent.
- Liqueurs: These beverages are distilled spirits combined with fruit, cream, sugar, or herbs to create a potent but flavorful beverage. Liqueurs include triple sec, amaretto, schnapps, and Sambuca. They may not have more than 15 percent ABV, on average.
- Fortified wine: This is a type of fruit and/or honey alcohol that, either due to the addition of brandy or because it has been fermented long enough, has an ABV of 16-24 percent.
- Unfortified wine: This is a standard fruit or honey alcohol, such as mead or ice wine, with 16 percent or less ABV. The average ABV for wine is around 14 percent, although some, such as port, may be a little stronger. States may have individual mandates on how much sugar wine may contain as well.
- Beer: This includes lagers, pilsners, flavored beers, and ale. The ABV on beers ranges greatly, depending on the brewing process. Generally, the ABV is between 4 percent and 8 percent, with 5-6 percent being the standard for most beers in the United States. Some craft beers nowadays are as high as 12 percent.
- Malt beverage: While this category can include some types of beer, the ABV can range up to 15 percent, so it includes beers with additional alcohol added.
Do You Want to Stop Drinking?
It is important for alcohol percentages to be understood by those who sell and consume alcohol. Problem drinking, a broad category that includes alcohol use disorders, is a major problem in the United States.
Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States
The term alcohol use disorder has replaced the term alcoholism, reflecting how the medical and psychological understanding of addiction is changing. People who have problems related to alcohol may feel helpless or unable to stop drinking when they attempt to. They may also experience problems involving alcohol on a regular basis, such as injuries, social difficulty, being late to work, or feeling the need to drink in order to relax.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six American adults binge drinks about four times per month; binge drinking is defined as consuming more than five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours for men and four or more for women. While binge drinking can quickly lead to alcohol poisoning, hospitalization, car accidents, and other injuries, other types of problem drinking include heavy drinking, which is 15 alcoholic beverages for men and 8 alcoholic beverages for women per week. To avoid problematic drinking, the average adult who is at least 21 years old in the United States, is recommended to drink no more than seven drinks per week, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
According to NIAAA, in 2012, about 7.2 percent of American adults (17 million individuals) reported struggling with alcohol use disorder. This serious condition can lead to both short-term and long-term health problems, including memory loss, financial instability, reduced quality of life, worsening mental health, liver damage, cancer, alcohol poisoning, and death.
It is important to get help as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is to safely detox with medical supervision and enter a rehabilitation program. A physician may help ease withdrawal with small doses of prescription medications, while therapy at a rehabilitation program will help to rebuild family relationships, understand the root causes of addiction, and develop better coping mechanisms for stress. If a person struggling with alcohol use disorder has a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, that led to the substance abuse problem, treatment for all co-occurring disorders is required.