ABV Explained (Alcohol by Volume)


You might have heard the saying that wine drinking in moderation can lead to some health benefits, but one thing that never seems to clearly defined is what ‘moderation’ implies. A second advantage of drinking in moderation is avoiding alcohol dependence from wreaking havoc in your life. Drinking more than a certain amount a day or per week can have ruinous consequences for individuals in their personal and professional lives. Estimating how much alcohol you are consuming is still easier with wines and beers that mention them on their label. But things can start becoming tricky if you regularly consume cocktails when dining out that contain a mixture of different alcohols. All of this points towards the need for understanding how much alcohol is in every type of drink, and in this article, we’ll explore exactly that. In the following sections, we’ll define and discuss all the conventional terms that frequently appear in related discussions such as ABV, standard drinks, and proof.

Alcohol by Volume

Alcohol by volume (ABV) is the unit to measure how much pure ethanol (alcohol) is in 100 units of the liquid. ABV, often expressed as alc/vol, is denoted in percentage form. This unit depends on the way sugar is fermented in the production of various alcohols, such as beer, wine, hard liquors, and others. Still, wines tend to have a range between 8-14% ABV, while fortified wines are defined by an ABV of more than 14%. The range for beers is even wider at 3-13% ABV, while hard liquors can be anywhere between 15-60% ABV. Though this is usually mentioned on the specific bottle you’re consuming, knowing the ABV of your drink isn’t enough to know how much is actually being ingested.

What is a “Standard” Drink?

The key to controlling your alcohol intake in any given situation is to know how much liquid is being poured into your glass. The US Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 have defined the amount that must be served in one ‘standard drink’ for individuals to be able to consume alcohol in moderation. For men, two standard drinks a day are acceptable, while only one per day is recommended for women. Drinking more than this on average could indicate signs of dependence while depriving you of any potential health benefits to be had from drinking.

So how much is a standard drink? The golden rule of thumb to remember here is: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 oz of distilled spirits that are 80-proof. However, the important thing to know here is that these amounts presume a certain ABV on your bottle. For beer, the assumed ABV is 5%, for wine its 12%, and for hard liquor its 40%. However, as mentioned earlier, different alcohols and different brands within these categories all contain different ABVs, and they may not align with these numbers. Consequently, the amount of liquid served per drink needs to be adjusted based on this ABV. More alcohol means less liquid and vice versa.


Hard liquors like vodka and whiskey often have their alcohol volumes defined not by ABV, but by a unit called proof. This way of measuring alcohol content goes back all the way back to England at the start of the 16th century. Per Food Network, the proof was measured by soaking a gun pellet in alcohol and shooting it at gunpowder to see if it would ignite, and if it did, it was taxed higher than other alcohols. Though things have evolved since then, proof continues to be used in labels. In the UK and US, the proof suggested is usually double the ABV of the alcohol. This means that an 80-proof distilled spirit is equivalent to 40% ABV.

Calculating Alcohol Content of Cocktails

Calculating the amount of alcohol in any given cocktail can be a confusing task at first, but some simple calculations can help you keep your drinking in check. Alternatively, you can refer to one of the many online calculators designed to fulfill this purpose. Getting an exact figure is impossible since the ABV depends on several factors one has no way of knowing, such as how hard the cocktail was shaken, the liquid in the shot of liquor, etc. But one can get fairly close with this simple equation.

(Amount of pure alcohol x volume of specific alcohol/the total volume of the drink) x 100

To apply this equation, you’ll need the ABV and volume of each alcohol used. You also need to account for the increase in volume due to the ice added to the drink. Say you have alcohol A with 50% ABV and 3 ounces volume, alcohol B with 20% ABV and 2 ounces of volume, and the standard half an ounce additional volume for ice, here’s how to calculate the ABV.

Alcohol A: 0.50 x 3 = 1.5

Alcohol B: 0.2 x 2 = 0.4

Total volume: 3 + 2 + 0.5 = 5.5 ounces

Add the A and B calculations to get 1.9/5.5 x 100, which amounts to 34.5%. Though these numbers were purely illustrative, this method is a good way to calculate the ABV of your cocktail. Once you have all the data, the calculations will soon come naturally to you, and you’ll be able to finish the entire process in just a few minutes.

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