Types of Alcohol
Anyone who has ever visited a grocery store knows that there are many different types of alcohol. Through the process of distillation, some alcoholic drinks contain more alcohol than others and may be more dangerous.
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What Are the Types of Alcohol?
Humans have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. Alcohol is both a chemical and a psychoactive drug. In chemistry, an alcohol exists when a hydroxy group, a pair of oxygen and hydrogen atoms, replaces the hydrogen atom in a hydrocarbon. Alcohols bind with other atoms to create secondary alcohols. These secondary alcohols are the three types of alcohol that humans use every day: methanol, isopropanol, and ethanol.
The Three Types of Alcohol
The only type of alcohol that humans can safely drink is ethanol. We use the other two types of alcohol for cleaning and manufacturing, not for making drinks. For example, methanol (or methyl alcohol) is a component in fuel for cars and boats. It’s also used to manufacture antifreeze, paint remover, windshield wiper fluid, and many other products. Isopropanol (or isopropyl alcohol) is the chemical name for rubbing alcohol, which we use for cleaning and disinfecting. Both methanol and isopropanol are poisonous to humans because our bodies metabolize them as toxic substances which cause liver failure. Drinking even a small amount of methanol or rubbing alcohol can be fatal.
Ethanol (or ethyl alcohol) is the type of alcohol that over two billion people drink every day. This type of alcohol is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches. For centuries, people have consumed ethanol-based drinks, such as beer and wine, to change the way that they feel. Ethanol can relax the mind and allow some individuals to participate more easily in social situations. However, ethanol also has harmful effects on the body. The human liver can metabolize ethanol, but only in limited quantities.
Ethanol is toxic, so it damages the liver, the brain, and other organs over time. Ethanol also inhibits the central nervous system, which distorts a person’s coordination and judgment. Additionally, ethanol may exacerbate psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, while chronic, long-term consumption of ethanol-based drinks can cause a person to develop debilitating alcohol addiction.
The Difference Between Distilled and Undistilled Alcohol
There are two categories of alcoholic beverages: distilled and undistilled. Undistilled drinks are also called fermented drinks. Fermentation is the process of using bacteria or yeast to chemically convert sugar into alcohol (or ethanol, to be more specific). Wine and beer are both fermented, undistilled alcoholic beverages. Wineries ferment grapes to make wine and breweries ferment barley, wheat, and other grains to make beer.
Distillation is a process which follows fermentation. It converts a fermented substance into one with an even higher concentration of alcohol. Distillation concentrates alcohol by separating it from the water and other components of a fermented substance. Liquors and spirits are distilled alcoholic beverages. They contain more alcohol by volume than undistilled drinks. In general, a distilled alcoholic beverage will have a higher alcohol proof.
Alcohol by volume (ABV) and alcohol proof are two measures of alcohol content, or the concentration of alcohol in a drink. Alcohol by volume is the number of milliliters of ethanol per 100 milliliters (or 3.4 fl.oz.) of a beverage, while alcohol proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. For example, a drink which has 50% ABV will be 100 proof.
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Different Types of Alcoholic Drinks By Alcohol Content
There are many different kinds of alcoholic drinks, and some of them contain more alcohol than others. All alcoholic beverages carry the risk of causing health problems and addiction, but drinks with higher concentrations of alcohol are able to cause drunkenness and alcohol poisoning more quickly and in smaller doses.
Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage worldwide. In fact, after water and tea, beer is the most commonly-consumed drink in the world. Beer is also most likely the oldest alcoholic drink in history. A standard beer, whether it be a lager or an ale, has between 4% to 6% ABV, although some beers have higher or lower concentrations of alcohol. For example, “light beers” only have between 2% to 4% ABV while “malt liquors” have between 6% to 8%.
Wine is another popular and ancient alcoholic beverage. Standard wine has less than 14% ABV. Champagne, the most well-known sparkling wine, has an alcohol concentration of about 10% to 12%. Some wines are “fortified” with distilled alcohol. Port, Madeira, Marsala, Vermouth, and Sherry are examples of fortified wines. They usually have about 20% ABV.
Hard cider is fermented apple juice. It usually has about 5% ABV.
Mead, a blend of water and fermented honey, has between 10% to 14% ABV.
Saké, a well-known Japanese drink made from fermented rice, has an alcohol concentration of about 16% ABV.
Distilled Drinks (Liquors and Spirits)
Gin is a spirit made from juniper berries. It can have anywhere from 35% to 55% ABV.
Brandy is a distilled wine. The concentration of alcohol in brandy ranges from 35% to 60%. For example, one famous brandy, Cognac, has 40% ABV.
Whiskey is a spirit made from distilled, fermented grain. The ABV of whiskey ranges from 40% to 50%.
Rum, a distilled drink made from fermented sugarcane or molasses, has a typically alcohol concentration of 40% ABV. Some rum is “overproof,” meaning that it has an alcohol concentration of at least 57.5% ABV. Most overproof rum exceeds this minimum, usually reaching 75.5% ABV, which is equivalent to 151 proof.
Tequila is another popular spirit. Its main ingredient is the Mexican agave plant, and its alcohol concentration is usually about 40% ABV.
Vodka, a liquor usually made from fermented grains and potatoes, has a standard alcohol concentration of 40% ABV in the United States.
Absinthe is a spirit made from a variety of leaves and herbs. There is no evidence that absinthe is a hallucinogen, but it has a high concentration of alcohol. Some forms of absinthe have about 40% ABV, but others have ABV as high as 90%.
Everclear, a grain-based spirit, is another drink with a heavy alcohol concentration. The minimum ABV of Everclear is 60%, but Everclear can also have 75.5% and 95% ABV.
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Any type of alcoholic beverage can be the source of an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol is legal and widely available, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe or that alcohol dependence isn’t a serious problem. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism, please contact a dedicated treatment professional to learn more about recovery and find the treatment center that’s right for you.
Indiana Prevention Resource Center. (n.d). Types of Alcohol. Retrieved on July 17, 2019, from https://iprc.indiana.edu/training/courses/alcohol/a_01_02_01.html
Nutrients Review.com. (n.d.). Alcoholic Beverages: Beers, Wines, Spirits, Liqueurs. Retrieved on July 17, 2019, from http://www.nutrientsreview.com/alcohol/alcoholic-beverages-abv-calories.html
Shiel, W. (n.d.). Medical Definition of Alcohol. MedicineNet. Retrieved on July 17, 2019, from https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=20078
Thibodeaux, W. (2018). Main Types of Alcohol. Sciencing.com. Retrieved on July 17, 2019, from https://sciencing.com/main-types-alcohol-7230415.html
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