Thursday, March 4, 2010

Is It Time To Retire ‘Proof’?

I have long been accustomed, when writing about distilled spirits, to state alcohol concentrations in degrees of proof, e.g., 80° proof. The alternative is to state the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV). Often I state both.

But I’m starting to change.

The proof system serves no actual purpose that I can identify, except it is traditional and in the world of drinks and drinking, we like tradition. If there is anything else to it, I don’t know what it is. Most of the world doesn’t use it and they don’t seem to think they’re missing out on anything important.

Part of my sentimental attachment has to do with the concept of proof itself, with proof—a corruption of ‘proved’—being considered the correct alcohol concentration for a distilled beverage. This idea that a 50 percent alcohol, 50 percent water solution is ideal for drinking also suggests a balanced approach to alcohol consumption itself, the ability to enjoy its pleasures while guarding against its risks.

It also has the feel of a secret language, understood only by initiates, though a lame one since the code can be broken by anyone able to divide by two.

Sadly, the reality today is that very few distilled spirits are even sold at proof and the term is rarely used that way. Instead, proof is just an archaic way to state alcohol concentration. Because it is archaic and much of the world doesn’t use it, most of us who do feel compelled to state the ABV as well. Increasingly, that redundancy seems ridiculous.

There is another archaic notion which holds that the alcohol content of various drinks is better left unstated, lest people use that information to pursue intoxication. In most states, brewers are prohibited from printing alcohol content on their labels, yet vintners and distillers are required to.

Does this assume some fundamental difference, in basic literacy perhaps, between beer drinkers and drinkers of other alcoholic beverages? If that is the case, and if it was ever accurate, it surely is outdated by now.

Perhaps proof was viewed as just obscure enough to prevent those same people from fully grasping its meaning. Again, that seems irrelevant today, since almost nowhere is proof used exclusively. The only place where it is used, on the labels of American distilled spirits products, you always see the ABV too.

The advantage of the ABV system, of course, is that it is easy to understand. Even if you don’t fully grasp the idea of alcohol concentration, or the difference between fermented and distilled beverages, most people can understand that 20 percent alcohol is twice as much as 10 percent alcohol, or that 3 percent alcohol isn’t very much but 72 percent is.

The problem with hiding this is that the information you need to pursue intoxication is exactly the same information you need to avoid intoxication. Perhaps there was a time when it was inconceivable that anyone would choose to drink, and enjoy drinking, while also trying to avoid intoxication, or let’s say excessive intoxication, but that is what many drinkers do today.

I have encountered a few idiots who claim they drink for flavor only and wish they could avoid the alcohol effect altogether, but such delusions are easily dismissed. Of course we enjoy the alcohol effect, but that’s not the same as getting drunk. Many, possibly even most drinkers today want to enjoy some effect short of intoxication. To modulate your drinking along those lines, you need to understand alcohol content.

ABV is the best system for that and proof just muddies the water.

So what am I going to do? Rather than adopt a policy, I’m just going to see what happens, but I am leaning in favor of retiring proof altogether. What do you think?


frederic said...

Perhaps it should be done when/if we retire ounces, tsp, tbsp, and pints for the metric equivalents like the rest of the world?

sku said...

I would say yes, retire proof. As you note, it's archaic, most people have no idea what it means, and it's redundant with abv also listed.

dg said...

agree completely
its confusing to explain it history, then explain how this refers to it strength.
so go for it, lets change the vocabulary

dakini_painter said...

Proof usually avoids fractions. 101 proof is a whole number whereas 50.5% alc/vol is not.

oliver said...

I am 100% with you regarding the proof vs. ABV discussion. And don't forget the confusion that can be created by comparing US proof (50%) to UK proof (57%).

But I do think it's a bit cheap to label those whisky drinkers as idiots who don't strive to pursue the path of reaching just the right level of intoxication that makes you feel good instead of pissed.

Can you ever enjoy your first dram of the day with that kind of approach?

More often than not I refrained from pouring another dram because I felt I had enough alcohol and wouldn't really be able to enjoy it anymore. Which basically means that I wished away the alcohol effect. Is this idiocy?