Friday, March 25, 2016

Drinking Alcohol 101

I wrote in the introduction to Bourbon, Straight that alcohol is a lot like sex, in that most of what we learn about it growing up comes from informal sources and most of what we think we know is wrong. In both cases the process of separating fact from fiction can be long and arduous.

It is in that spirit that I present the following alcohol basics as a public service.

All alcoholic beverages are either fermented or distilled. Your fermented beverages are beer, wine, and cider. Your distilled beverages are vodka, whiskey, rum, liqueurs, etc.

All alcoholic beverages are a solution of alcohol and water. Distilled beverages are fermented beverages that have been concentrated, they have a higher concentration of alcohol. This is accomplished by separating and removing some of the water from the alcohol and water solution.

The alcohol concentration of any beverage is expressed as the percentage of alcohol by volume (% alc./vol. or ABV). While beers are usually around 5% ABV and wines are about 12%, spirits are mostly around 40%. The exception is liqueurs, which can be as low as 20%. If you want to be the boss of your alcohol consumption (and you should), this is crucial information.

Where does alcohol come from? Yeast! They are living organisms that eat sugar and excrete alcohol. We call that fermentation. Their limitation is that they die if the alcohol concentration gets much above 10 percent. That’s why we need distillation.

Distillation uses heat to separate alcohol from water in the fermented brew. Traditionally, this process was repeated two or three times until the alcohol reached a desirable concentration. Modern stills can do it in one pass.

Beyond that, alcohol is alcohol. The potency of any drink (i. e., its capacity to intoxicate) is just a matter of its alcohol concentration. Intoxication is a matter of how much you drink, how fast you drink it, and the way your particular metabolism processes alcohol. Nothing else matters.

The alcohol concentration is always printed on the label, except on beer in some states.

Obviously, mixing your alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic beverage (water, juice, soft drinks, etc.) dilutes it, i.e., it lowers the alcohol concentration of the drink. This is a simple relationship. Add one ounce of water to one ounce of a 50% ABV spirit and the ABV of the drink drops to 25%. Simple!

The type of alcohol in every alcoholic beverage is ethanol. It is all the same, regardless of the type of beverage. Chemically, the alcohol (i.e., ethanol) in tequila is exactly the same as the alcohol in white wine. When people think different types of alcohol affect them differently, that is called 'imagination.'

Among distilled spirits, there are straight spirits and flavored spirits. Among the straight spirits you have two categories: Clear or 'white' (vodka, gin, white rum, white tequila, etc.) and aged or 'brown' (whiskey, brandy, anejo rum, anejo tequila, etc.).

White spirits have little or no flavor on their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something. The most popular mixers are fruit juices and soft drinks. Some drink recipes call for a mixer, a straight spirit and a liqueur. Others mix several liqueurs together. The combinations are endless. Brown spirits typically have a complex and distinctive flavor of their own and are consumed with nothing added (‘neat’), or with only ice (‘on the rocks’), water, or the simplest mixers (e.g., club soda).

Neutral spirits are distilled spirits that leave the still at more than 95% ABV. Any fermented beverage can be used to make neutral spirits. ‘Vodka’ is what we call a neutral spirit sold as a beverage. After distillation, filtration (usually through charcoal) is often used to remove any residual taste, color, or aroma. Then the alcohol is diluted with water to 40% ABV. Whether the vodka costs $10 a bottle or $1,000, that's all it is.

Neutral spirits, usually made from grain, are the basis for many other beverages. Gin is a flavored neutral spirit in which juniper berries are the principal flavor. Akavit is a flavored neutral spirit in which caraway seeds are the principal flavor. Both are, essentially, flavored vodkas of which there are many.

Liqueurs (e.g., Kahlua, Baileys, Jagermeister, Cointreau, Gran Marnier, amaretto, schnapps) are like mixed drinks in a bottle. They combine neutral spirits with flavorings and, usually, lots of sugar. They come in a wide variety of flavors and alcohol concentrations.

Some final words about potency: A mixed drink with a little liquor and a lot of mixer will have an alcohol content about the same as a typical drink of beer or wine. However, straight spirits served without mixers have a much higher alcohol concentration and should be savored, i. e., sipped slowly, possibly accompanied by a chaser (i.e., water, sparkling water, beer, or some other no- or low-alcohol beverage).

There is a difference between drinking and dosing.

So what should YOU drink? In bars, especially those frequented by young adults, there usually are all kinds of fad drinks. They come and go. They are fun while they are happening but quickly forgotten. My personal bias is for that pinnacle of the beverage alcohol art, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. If it seems too strong straight, dilute it with water or ice. Adjust to taste. Practice makes perfect. By learning to appreciate bourbon at the beginning of your drinking career you will save time and never feel the shame of catching a glimpse of yourself in a bar mirror with a big, pink drink in your hand.


Unknown said...

Chuck, was light whiskey light in terms of calories? And if not, has anyone ever tried that? There's a surprising number of calories in bourbon!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Light whiskey had a lighter taste. It was not lower in calories. Unfortunately, the only way to lower calories in booze is to lower the alcohol and nobody wants that.

Anonymous said...

Sadly Chuck there is one that I know of that does just that. Mount Royal Light Canadian Whisky. It's 54 proof.

Unknown said...

"White spirits have little or no flavor on their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something."

The folks that are making eau de vie - most of Europe, and more and more in the US - would strongly disagree.

-Jeff Harner

Whiskeyman said...


"This is a simple relationship. Add one ounce of water to one ounce of a 50% ABV spirit and the ABV of the drink drops to 25%. Simple!"

Not exactly!

That one ounce of 50% ABV spirit and one ounce of water contract when added together, resulting in a net volume of 1.9925 ounces at 25.095% ABV.

At the ounce level, these differences are trivial. But when you're blending production quantities, it's a more serious matter.

Anonymous said...

"When people think different types of alcohol affect them differently, that is called 'imagination.'" - My favorite line from this post!

Anonymous said...

Different types of alcohol don't affect people differently but the non-alcohol extras that are in different types of alcohol affect people differently.


Anonymous said...

To the question about alcohol calories. It's kind of a complicated subject. You can read about how the body metabolizes ethanol differently (in the liver rather than gut) on wikipedia or in this post:

If you are skeptical of the chemical explanation (that some ethanol is not metabolized but is instead passed on as acetic acid) then you can look at it from the pure observational perspective through glycemic index. People are given 50 grams of carbohydrates in lots of forms from bread to bourbon and then their blood sugar is tested to see how much and how quickly it is metabolized. Ethanol doesn't raise blood sugar very much at all. Google actually provides the glycemic index of any food you search for:

Anonymous said...

White spirits have little or no flavor on their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something.
Chuck--I know you are stuck on bourbon, but this is one of the silliest things you have ever written. There is an entire world of complex and diverse flavors in tequila, rum, and eau de vies.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That is true of sugar. Name another.

Anonymous said...

Congeners for example.

Whatever they use in place of agave in non 100% agave Tequila.

Whatever is in the water that they dilute with.


Tommy tom said...

Thanks for skipping the white dog in the w/m jar.
Tommy tom

Jason said...

All alcoholic beverages fermented and some are eventually distilled.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

First, I want to say how much I am enjoy, and learn, from this blog. I only found it recently, but have worked my way through most of the archives in a very short time. And, while I hate to sound like a suck-up, I tend to agree with most of your opinions and proposals. That's unusual for me, I assure you.

With that said, I have a minor quibble with one thing stated in this article: "When people think different types of alcohol affect them differently, that is called 'imagination.'" It is certainly true that all alcohol affects our blood alcohol level the same (given equal amounts of volume and proof), but is that all there is? From what I see, there is a dearth of serious/quality research in this area.

I would agree that the different effect some feel from a particular type of alcohol may be subjective or psychologically based, I wouldn't use the term "imagination", as it is a bit loaded--like "psychosomatic". (But I sort of suspect that is why you used it.)

Maybe it's because I was a researcher (quantitative and qualitative), educated in phenomenology (not exclusively though), for many years. Or maybe it is because I spent many years as a bartender, and had a chance to observe the behavior of many drinkers. It also may have something to do with the fact that, despite the many claims (and what little scientific evidence there is) pointing to the contrary, I experience different (qualitative) highs from certain alcoholic beverages--and my behavior can be impacted.

There is a possibility that carbonation, and perhaps sugar, have an impact on how alcohol affects the subjective experience---but I'm not talking just about that, necessarily. Certainly the differences in how I (or others) feel is subjective. But if others observe a consistent behavioral change, based on the beverage consumed, and have formed a shared consensus, it certainly isn't "imaginary".

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Just another quick comment, I forgot to include earlier. Alcohol consumption seems to impact the glycemic index to a greater degree in some people when compared to others. When I was on Atkins some time ago, I continued to drink (although it isn't recommended as it tends to increase the glycemic index in most people). Yet it never seemed to interfere with mine. I only drank straight booze, or mixed with water/ice. Maybe the occasional glass of dry wine, but that had more of an impact.

Similarly, the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages is discouraged, for the same reason. At that time, I was drinking a lot of iced tea, and switched to "diet" iced tea. Once again, no real impact for me.

On another front, I know a couple people who have reverse effects from stimulants and depressants. They sleep on speed and get wired on medication that is supposed to make one sleepy.

"Individual differences" is a confounding factor in many areas, and sometimes conflicts with general findings.

Chuck Cowdery said...

If you've studied human behavior, you're familiar with the concept of 'set and setting.' That is certainly a factor. People behave differently when drinking tequila than they do when drinking wine, for example and correcting for alcohol content, because they believe they will. That's all I mean by 'imaginary.' Tequila is the best example because many people believe it contains psychoactive substances other than alcohol. (It does not.) Another expression you may find more appropriate is 'the power of suggestion.'

Chuck Cowdery said...

Perhaps I should have said "mostly imaginary."

Joshua said...

Mark, the good thing is though that calories don't make your fat, sugar and carbs do, and while all alcohol has those two ingredients, beer has more than whiskey, so drink whiskey is my rule. Cheers!

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Chuck, I understand "set and setting" effects, and completely understand that is likely a big part of what some experience. But I don't think that's all there is to it. There are other factors at play here, IMO.

Alcohol isn't the only ingredient in whiskey, wine, tequila, gin, etc. Couldn't the combination of the other ingredients, combined with the alcohol, be responsible, at least in part, for the different experiences some claim? For example, my sister (like many) seems to get a little unpleasant after drinking red wine. Everyone notices it. Now, she finds out, she had a slight allergy to sulfites. Perhaps this allergy, as minor as it is, might just effect her enough to sway her mood, and her behavior. Gin is something I love (especially traditionally heavily juniper based gin). But while I handle most alcohol very well, I get a tad "squirrelly" when drinking gin--just a tad :#) . Could it be due to the juniper, or some other botanical?

I mentioned to my friend, a life long saloon keeper, that Cognac seems to actually wake me up, after a long day of drinking (my friends--even my doctor/longtime friend-- have noticed the same impact on me). He claims it is common knowledge among barkeeps that brandy acts as a stimulant for some. Dunno if I buy that, but it has been used as a stimulant in the past. Of course, a lot of things were used in the past for various ailments and have since been debunked--so I'm not calling this strong evidence.

My point is, while the alcohol effect remains the same, whisky is not gin, nor wine, nor tequila. They all have some chemical differences. Couldn't those small differences, perhaps in combination with the alcohol and our own unique biologies, be responsible for some of the effects people claim? As I said earlier, precious little quality research has been conducted.

I promise to make this my last post on the matter, as it we don't need to beat this horse any deader than it already is.

Now it's time to drink, and read about, whiskey!

Chuck Cowdery said...

I was primarily referring to the psychoactive effect, not all possible effects, though I still think suggestion plays a large role there too. What you expect to happen usually does. I think Budweiser gives me a headache. Does it really? If I drank a Budweiser and didn't know it, would I still get a headache?

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Funny stuff, Chuck (as expected). And since you asked me a direct question, I will answer.

We know the water, minor adjustments in ingredients, temperature and even placement in the warehouse (and grain of the wood used in the barrels?), has an impact on the flavor of a relatively simple thing, like whiskey. Is it that odd to believe larger difference in the composition of an alcoholic beverage might impact the relatively complicated biology (and yes, psychology) of a human? Food for thought, anyway.

And, as for your Bud question, the simplest of experiments can be conducted on yourself. You could have someone disguise Bud, and some equally insipid beer over time, and judge the impact it has on your headache. That is, if you can think you can whether the process. Not sure I'd want to go through that.

Well, before I hit the sack, I will have one more whiskey---and then, perhaps, one more. Have a great evening.

AaronWF said...

I can drink whiskey all night and remain upright, but give me 3 gins and I'm on the floor talking like a fish. Is it not possible that compounds created by the distillation of fermented material can affect your efficient absorption of ethanol? Context and company go a long way in contributing to the effects of drinking alcohol, but don't the chemicals present in an alcoholic beverage vary based on many, many factors including the source of the sugar, the type of yeast used in fermentation, the shape and chemical make up of the still, water content, wood and/or glass aging, etc etc?

It's not just the ethanol that intoxicates you - flavor also intoxicates. You know this, or you'd be drinking vodka.

Unknown said...

Great thread here, though I confess I've come to realize that I should have paid more attention in chemistry. Between glycemic index, set and setting, Atkins and all the rest, I need a drink.
Joshua, thanks for the calories, sugar and carbs in beer v whiskey. I'm 52 tomorrow and this seems like an added reason to raise a rocks glass.

Patrick Dacy said...

Hi Chuck -

The comment "white spirits have little or no flavor on their own..." nearly compels me to send you bottles of Mezcal or Sotol or Bacanora or Raicilla.

On that note, wouldn't it be fantastic if The U.S. implemented a NOM type system for whiskey producers? Imagine all the labels that would share the same Registered Distillery Identification Numbers?

I look forward to your thoughts and let me know if you'd like a proper bottle of "white" agave spirit.


Chuck Cowdery said...

The main problem with trying to write a short, general guide to something that will meet the needs of 99 percent of readers is constantly getting called out by the 1 percent.

Keith said...

As a person who runs a large spirits store I have absolutely surrendered on trying to convince people that; the one time in college they had tequila and stripped naked, sang the national, and proposed to an oak tree was not because it was tequila. So many people walking around with "booze scars" blaming it on various types of spirits instead of their inexperience with alcohol at the time.

Unknown said...

"...the pinnacle of alcoholic beverage art..." Perfect!