What Is ABV?
Alcohol by volume (ABV) is a metric used to determine the alcohol content in an alcoholic beverage. The measurement shows what percentage of the beverage’s total volume is pure alcohol.
Knowing the ABV of an alcoholic beverage is important, especially if you’re just opening a new bar or are starting a new brewery and plan on making your own alcohol. Small differences in ABV affect factors such as taste and likelihood of intoxication, meaning that understanding ABV and how it affects drinks is key to keeping your patrons safe and happy.
Use these links to learn more about important aspects of ABV:
ABV in Different Types of Alcohol
ABV in alcoholic beverages varies wildly depending on what type of alcohol you’re using. Although there may also be variance in each type of alcohol, most forms of alcohol have standard ABV ranges that you can come to expect.
When it comes to ABV, beer is typically the alcoholic beverage with some of the lowest alcohol levels. That being said, ABV varies between different types of beer. Usually, beers have an ABV between 3.5% - 7%, but there are outliers with higher or lower ABVs. Some beers may have an ABV of less than 1%, while some IPAs might have an ABV well above 10%. Beers that have lower ABVs are typically much lighter and have many great food pairings, while beers with higher ABVs will have a much stronger and acquired taste.
Hard Cider ABV
Hard cider is often confused as a type of beer, but it is actually made from fermented fruit juice rather than malt. The ABV of hard cider is generally relatively similar to the ABV of beer, as you’ll commonly find hard ciders with an ABV between 4.5% - 7%. Unlike beers, hard ciders don’t have that much variance in their ABV levels, so most hard ciders you find will be in this range.
Although not quite as strong as some other types of alcohol, the ABV of wine is still relatively high. The average ABV of wine is around 12%, meaning on average wine has more alcohol content than beers and hard ciders. There are some outliers to these numbers, as sparkling wines and white wines tend to have a slightly lower ABV of around 10%, while red wines usually have a little more alcohol content than other wines with an ABV of around 14%.
The wines with the highest ABV are known as fortified wines. These wines have distilled grape spirits included in the fermentation process, boosting ABV to around 20%.
When discussing liquor, the measurement known as proof is usually brought up, but ABV levels are often still included on liquor labels. Liquor has some of the highest ABV levels of alcoholic beverages, with most liquors falling somewhere between 40% - 50% ABV. Compared to other alcoholic beverages like beer and wine, this is a stark contrast and is why liquor is notorious for its strong taste.
Due to the profound taste of liquor, it is sometimes matched with non-alcoholic beverages or muddled ingredients to create mixed drinks. In doing so, you’re diluting the strong taste of liquor as well as lessening the amount of alcohol you’re taking in. There are many different types of liquor and the ABV levels vary between each type. However, regardless of whether you’re serving vodka or a type of whiskey, make sure you consider liquor’s high ABV levels.
Alcohol Serving Size
When it comes to measuring how much alcohol is in a beverage, you'll need to multiply a drink’s ABV by the drink’s total volume. For example, a 12. oz beer with 5% ABV contains 0.6 oz. of alcohol. Conversely, a 5 oz. glass of 12% ABV wine also contains 0.6 oz. of alcohol. To figure out the total amount of alcohol in a standard alcoholic beverage like wine or beer the formula should read:
ABV Percentage * Total Volume of Beverage = Total Alcohol in Beverage
Since higher ABV beverages will have more alcohol in them, they are often drunk in smaller serving sizes. This is why glasses of wine are usually drunk in smaller 5 oz. servings, while liquor is typically taken in smaller shots of around 1.25 oz.
How to Calculate ABV
Although alcoholic beverages that you purchase are labeled with their ABV level, that isn’t the case when you’re making your own alcohol. In this scenario, the most common way to figure out ABV is by subtracting a drink’s original gravity from the final gravity and multiply your answer by 131.25. This means your ABV formula should read:
(Final gravity - Original gravity) X 131.25
The relationship between original gravity and final gravity isn’t completely linear, meaning it may not be precise when measuring higher ABV beverages. If you’re confused about how to find the numbers for this formula or what they mean, here's everything you need to know:
- Original Gravity: The hydrometer reading before yeast is pitched.
- Final Gravity: The hydrometer reading after the fermentation process is complete.
- 131.25: This number is the conversion factor for the relative density of alcohol and water, and is reached through the use of stoichiometry calculations.
For the more serious brewmasters that want a more precise measurement of their beverage’s ABV, there are plenty of third-party websites that offer ABV calculators. These calculators use more complex and precise formulas, yet all you need to do is plug in the information and let the application do the ABV calculations for you. A common formula these calculators use is:
ABV = (76.08 * (orignal gravity-final gravity) / (1.775 - original gravity)) * (final gravity / 0.794)
The formula may seem complex at first, but when plugging it into an ABV calculator the calculations should take no time at all. Although such a complex formula usually isn’t required, it does come in handy for those that are serious about brewing their own alcohol, especially if they are making potent alcoholic beverages.
Additional Alcohol Measurements
Although ABV may be one of the most common measurements for how much alcohol is in a beverage, it might not be the only alcohol measurement that you come across. There are several other measurements of alcohol that you’re likely to see on various beverage labels. Understanding how to recognize these different measurements and how they relate to ABV is key to preventing major mix-ups and creating quality alcoholic beverages.
Proof vs ABV
Other than ABV, proof is likely one of the most common alcohol measurements you will see. In the United States, the difference between proof and ABV is simple to grasp. Proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume, meaning that a beverage with 40% ABV would have a proof of 80.
Proof is primarily used to measure the alcohol content of liquor, and the name stems back from the early days of the American alcohol trade. Alcohol traders would water down their goods, so it was required for traders to mix their alcohol with gunpowder to prove it was legitimate. If the alcohol caught fire then it was a legitimate product with a high proof, and if it didn’t consumers could tell it had been watered down.
ABW vs ABV
Although ABV is what you’ll commonly find listed on labels in the United States, you may sometimes come across a beverage measured with alcohol by weight. In other parts of the world and select areas of the U.S, alcohol by weight is used, but if you find an unlabeled percentage listed on a U.S beverage, it's safe to assume it's the beverage’s ABV.
A drink’s ABW is lower than its ABV, meaning a drink with 5% ABW is a drink with a higher than 5% ABV. When purchasing alcoholic beverages for your bar, make sure you’re double-checking labels to see how the alcohol content is measured, just so you know exactly how much alcohol is in a particular drink.
Knowing the amount of alcohol in a particular drink is an important part of serving alcohol and creating mixed drinks. You need to know how much alcohol is in a particular drink to identify aspects such as taste and viscosity. Whether you’re buying alcohol from another source or making it yourself, always keep ABV and its effects in mind to create the best possible alcoholic beverages.