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Alcoholic beverage

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Bottles of cachaça, a Brazilian alcoholic beverage.

An alcoholic beverage is a drink containing ethanol. It is a drug, and depressant, and most societies regulate or restrict the sale and use of alcohol.


Main article: ethanol

Ethanol (CH3CH2OH), the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, is almost always produced by fermentation - the metabolism of carbohydrates by certain species of yeast in the absence of oxygen. The process of culturing yeast under alcohol-producing conditions is referred to as brewing.

It has been suggested that alcoholic impurities (congeners) are the cause of hangovers. However, it is more likely that they are caused by ethanal a toxic breakdown intermediate naturally produced by the liver as the alcohol is metabolised.

Alcoholic beverages with a concentration of more than 50%vol (100 proof) ethanol or greater are flammable liquids and easily ignited. Some exotic beverages gain their distinctive flavors through intentional ignition of the drink, such as the Flaming Dr. Pepper or the Fiery Blue Mustang.

It should be noted that in chemistry, alcohol is a general term for any organic compound in which a hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom, which in turn is bound to other carbon atoms and further hydrogens. Other alcohols such as propylene glycol and the sugar alcohols may appear in food or beverages regularly, but these alcohols do not make them "alcoholic".

Alcoholic content

The concentration of alcohol in an alcoholic beverage may be specified in percent alcohol by volume (ABV), in percentage by weight (sometimes abbreviated w/w for weight for weight), or in proof. The 'proof' measurement roughly corresponds in a 2:1 ratio to percent alcoholic content by volume (e.g. 80 proof ≈ 40% ABV). Common distillation cannot exceed 192 proof because at that point ethanol is an azeotrope with water. Alcohols of this purity are commonly referred to as grain alcohol and are not meant for human consumption, with the notable exception of neutral grain spirits.

Most yeasts cannot grow when the concentration of alcohol is higher than about 18% by volume, so that is a practical limit for the strength of fermented beverages such as wine, beer, and sake. Strains of yeast have been developed that can survive in solutions of up to 25% alcohol by volume, but these were bred for ethanol fuel production, not beverage production. Spirits are produced by distillation of a fermented product, concentrating the alcohol and eliminating some of the by-products. Many wines are fortified wines with additional grain alcohol to achieve higher ABV than is easily reached using fermentation alone.

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Ethanol is a moderately good solvent for many "fatty" substances and essential "oils", and thus facilitates the inclusion of several coloring, flavoring, and aromatic compounds to alcoholic beverages, especially to distilled ones. These flavoring ingredients may be naturally present in the starting material, or may be added before fermentation, before distillation, or before bottling the distilled product. Sometimes the flavour is obtained by allowing the beverage to stand for months or years in barrels made of special wood, or in bottles where scented twigs or fruits — or even insects — have been inserted.


Main article: History of alcohol

Alcoholic beverages have been widely consumed since prehistoric times by people around the world, seeing use as a component of the standard diet, for hygienic or medical reasons, for their relaxant and euphoric effects, for recreational purposes, for artistic inspiration, as aphrodisiacs, and for other reasons. Some have been invested with symbolic or religious significance suggesting the mystical use of alcohol, e.g. by Greco-Roman religion in the ecstatic rituals of Dionysus (also called Bacchus), god of drink and revelry; in the Christian Eucharist; and at the Jewish Passover.

Fermented beverages

Chemical analyses of organics absorbed and preserved in pottery jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in Henan province, Northern China, have revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago. This is approximately the same time that barley beer and grape wine were beginning to be made in the Middle East. Recipes have been found on clay tablets and art in Mesopotamia that show individuals using straws to drink beer from large vats and pots.

Wine was consumed in Classical Greece at breakfast or at symposia, and in the 1st century BC it was part of the diet of most Roman citizens. However, both Greeks and Romans generally consumed their wine watered (from 1 parts of wine to 1 part of water, to 1 part of wine to 4 parts of water). The transformation of water into wine at a wedding feast is one of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, and his use of wine in the Last Supper led to it becoming an essential part of the Eucharist rite in most Christian traditions.

The ambiguity of the Qur'anic ban on alcoholic beverages, meant that wine (usually sold by Christian tavern-keepers) remained fairly popular in Islamic lands over the centuries, as revealed in the verses of Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyám (1040–1131):

"Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow." [1]

In Europe during the Middle Ages, beer was consumed by the whole family, thanks to a triple fermentation process — the men had the strongest, then women, then children. A document of the times mentions nuns having an allowance of six pints of ale a day. Cider and pomace wine were also widely available, while grape wine was the prerogative of the higher classes. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, wine production in Europe appears to have been sustained chiefly by monasteries.

By the time the Europeans reached the Americas in the 15th century, several native civilizations had developed alcoholic beverages. According to a post-Conquest Aztec document, consumption of the local "wine" (pulque) was generally restricted to religious ceremonies, but freely allowed to those over 70 years old (possibly the all-time record for legal drinking age). The natives of South America manufactured a beer-like product from cassava or maize (cauim, chicha), which had to be chewed before fermentation in order to turn the starch into sugars. (Curiously, the same technique was used in ancient Japan to make sake from rice and other starchy crops.)

The medicinal use of alcoholic beverages was mentioned in Sumerian and Egyptian texts dated from 2100 BC or earlier. The Hebrew Bible recommends giving alcoholic drinks to those who are dying or depressed, so that they can forget their misery.

Distilled beverages

Main article: Distilled beverages

Beer and wine are typically limited to a maximum 15 percent alcohol, although brewers have reached 25% alcohol. Beyond this limit yeast is adversely affected and cannot ferment. Since the fourth millennium BC in Babylonia, higher levels of alcohol have been obtained in a number of ways. It was not until the still was invented by Islamic alchemists in the 8th or 9th centuries that the history of distilled beverages began. Distilled alcohol appeared first in Europe in the mid 12th century and by the early 14th century it had spread throughout Europe. It also spread eastward, mainly by the Mongols, and was practiced in China by the 14th century. However, recent archeological evidence has supported the idea that China has had wines and distilled beverages dating back to 5000 BC. Paracelsus gave alcohol its modern name, taking it from the Arabic word which means "finely divided", a reference to distillation...


In many countries, alcoholic beverages are commonly consumed at the major daily meals (lunch and dinner). Most early beers were in fact highly nutritional and served as a means of calorie distribution. Beer can be stored longer than grain or bread without fear of pest infestation or rotting, and drinking beer avoided the tooth-destroying grit that was present in hand-ground or early mill-ground flours.

In places and eras with poor public sanitation, such as Medieval Europe, consumption of alcoholic beverages (particularly weak or "small" beer) was one method of avoiding water-borne diseases such as the cholera. Though strong alcohol kills bacteria, the low concentration in beer or even wine will have only a limited effect. Probably the boiling of water, which is required for the brewing of beer, and the growth of yeast, which would tend to crowd out other micro-organisms, were more important than the alcohol itself. In any case, the ethanol (and possibly other ingredients) of alcoholic beverages allows them to be stored for months or years in simple wood or clay containers without spoiling, which was certainly a major factor in their popularity.

A recent study indicated that ethanol has been found to stimulate the virulence of Acinetobacter baumannii. Tests on infected nematode worms that were dosed with ethanol found that the worms laid fewer eggs and their life spans were only 80% of worms infected with a version of A. baumannii that didn't respond to ethanol. This study suggests that the common misconception that drinking alcohol kills infections is false and drinking alcohol may actually help the infection to grow.^ 

In colder climates, strong alcoholic beverages such as vodka are popularly seen as a way to "warm up" the body, possibly because ethanol is a quickly absorbed source of food energy and dilates peripheral blood vessels (Peripherovascular dilation). This however is a dangerous myth, and people experiencing hypothermia should avoid alcohol. Although a drunk may feel warmer, the body loses heat and body temperature decreases, which may cause hypothermia, and eventually death. This is because of the dilation of blood vessels not in the core of the body; because of this increased bloodflow, the body loses its heat out of its less protected outer extremities.

In many cultures, both contemporary and historical, alcoholic beverages — mostly because of their neurological effects — have also played an important role in various kinds of social interaction, providing a form of "liquid courage" (those who consume it "gain" confidence and lose discretion) While other psychoactive drugs (such as opium, coca, khat, cannabis, kava-kava, etc.) also have millennial traditions of social use, only coffee, tea and tobacco have been as universally used and accepted as ethanol is today.

Alcohol consumption and health

Main article: Alcohol consumption and health

Moderate consumption

Moderate consumption of alcohol is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as no more than two drinks for men and one drink for women per day (the UK equivalent is 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units for women). This amount is possibly beneficial for the heart and circulatory system but might have already other negative effects on overall health. Moderate consumers statistically have somewhat lower blood pressure and fewer heart attacks and strokes.

Excess consumption

Excess consumption is detrimental to one's health. The neurological effects of alcohol use are often a factor in deadly motor vehicle accidents and fights. People under the influence of alcohol sometimes find themselves in dangerous or compromising situations where they would not be had they remained sober. Operating a motor vehicle or heavy machinery under the influence of alcohol is a serious crime in almost all developed nations.

Some people are prone to developing a chemical dependency to alcohol, alcoholism. The results of alcoholism are considered a major health problem in many nations.

Legal considerations


Alcohol restriction in Victoria, Australia.

Most countries have rules forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages to children. For example, in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, one has to be 16 to buy beer or wine and 18 to buy distilled alcoholic beverages. However, possession of alcoholic beverages is not illegal for minors in Germany. Law there is directed at the potential sellers of alcoholic beverages and not at the minors. German law puts control concerning the consumption of alcoholic beverage into the hands of custodial persons and persons with parental power. See [2].

In most European countries, eg. Poland, one has be 18 to legally buy, drink or possess alcoholic beverages. In Iceland one has to be 20 to legally buy or possess alcoholic beverages, although one could drink them from the age of 18. In most countries of central, eastern, and southern Europe it is also forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages in public places, such as streets and parks.

In law, sometimes the term "intoxicating agent" is used for a category of substances, which includes alcoholic beverages and some other drugs. Giving any of these substances to a person to create an abnormal condition of the mind (such as drunkenness), in order to facilitate committing a crime, may be an additional crime.

Some countries may forbid the commerce, consumption or advertising of alcoholic beverages, or restrict them in various ways. During the period known as Prohibition, from 1919 to 1933, it was illegal to manufacture, transport, import, export, or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. Many Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, continue to prohibit alcohol for religious reasons. In the United States there are still communities with bans on alcohol sales.

Most countries have laws against drunk driving, driving with a certain concentration of ethanol in the blood. The legal threshold of blood alcohol content ranges from 0.0% to 0.05% or 0.08%, according to local law.

Most countries also specify a legal drinking age, below which the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. In the U.S., the legal age for purchase or possession (but not necessarily consumption) in every state has been 21 since the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which tied federal highway funds to states' raising their minimum drinking age to 21. Many states specifically permit consumption under the age of 21 for religious or health reasons or with parental approval. Most European countries however, have a legal drinking age of 18. In Canada the legal drinking age is 18 in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, and 19 in all other provinces.

In many countries, production of alcoholic beverages requires a license, and alcohol production is taxed. In the U.S., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (formerly one organization known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) enforce federal laws and regulations related to alcohol, though most regulations regarding serving and selling alcoholic beverages are made by the individual states. There also exist intrastate regulatory differences, as between Montgomery County, Maryland and the rest of the state. In the UK the Customs and Excise department issues distilling licences.

Common state regulations in the United States are:

  • Many U.S. states require that distilled liquor be sold only in dedicated liquor stores. For example: In Washington, liquor stores are run by the state. In Oklahoma, liquor stores may not refrigerate any beverages. Often, liquor sales are prohibited on Sunday by a Blue law. Other laws, governing a variety of issues, vary regionally.
  • Most U.S. states follow a Three-tier (alcohol distribution) system where producers cannot sell directly to retailer but must instead sell to distributors who in turn sell to retailers.
  • Most U.S. states do not allow open containers of alcohol inside of moving vehicles.
  • Some U.S. states offer relaxed rules for beer at or below 3.2% alcohol.
  • Many cities and counties ban drinking alcoholic beverages in public; that is, on the street or sidewalk.
  • Often bars serving distilled liquor are exempted from Smoking bans.

In New Zealand it is legal to produce any form of alcohol for personal use including spirits. This has made the sale and use of home distillation equipment popular.

Some religions—most notably Islam, Sikhism, the Bahá'í Faith, Latter-day Saints, the Nikaya and most Mahayana schools of Buddhism and some Protestant sects of Fundamentalist Christianity—forbid or discourage the consumption of alcoholic beverages for these and other reasons. See also:Teetotalism, Temperance movement.

Types of alcoholic beverages

Main article: List of alcoholic beverages

Alcoholic beverages include low-alcohol-content beverages produced by fermentation of sugar- or starch-containing products, and high-alcohol-content beverages produced by distillation of the low-alcohol-content beverages. Sometimes, the alcohol content of low-alcohol-content beverages is increased by adding distilled products, particularly in the case of wines. Such fortified wines include Port wine and Sherry.

The process involved (as well as the resulting alcohol content) defines the finished product. Beer involves a relatively short (incomplete) fermentation process and an equally short aging process (a week or two) resulting in an alcohol content generally between 3-8%, as well as natural carbonation. Wine involves a longer (complete) fermentation process, and a relatively long aging process (months or years -- sometimes decades) resulting in an alcohol content between 7-18%. Sparkling wine is generally made by adding a small amount of sugar before bottling, which causes a secondary fermentation to continue in the bottle. Distilled products are generally not made from a "beer" that would normally be palatable as fermentation is normally completed, but no aging is involved until after distillation. Most are 30% or greater alcohol by volume. Liqueurs are characterized by the way in which their flavors are infused and typically have high sugar content. Spirits typically contain 37.5% alcohol or greater and are not infused with flavors during the distilling process, however some modern spirits are infused with flavors after distilling (the Swedish vodka Absolut, for instance).

Standard drinks of alcoholic beverages in the United States all contain equivalent amounts of alcohol, about 0.6 fl. oz. (American) each (17.75ml). A U.S. standard drink is a 12 ounce can or bottle of beer, a five ounce glass of dinner wine, or a 1.5 ounce drink of 40% distilled spirits (either straight or in a mixed drink).

In the UK alcohol content is measured in units. One unit equates to 10ml of pure ethanol (approx. 1/3 fl. oz. American). A typical pint of beer or large glass of containing approx 2 units. A shot (25ml) of 40% spirit contains exactly 1 unit.

The names of some beverages are determined by the source of the material fermented:

Source Name of fermented beverage Name of distilled beverage
barley beer, ale Scotch whisky
rye rye beer Rye whisky
corn corn beer Bourbon whiskey
wheat wheat beer Wheat whisky, Korn (Germany)
rice sake, sonti, makkoli shochu (Japan), soju (Korea)
juice of fruits, other than apples or pears wine (most commonly from grapes) brandy, Cognac (France), Branntwein (Germany), Pisco (Peru/Chile)
juice of apples ("hard") cider, apfelwein applejack (or apple brandy), Calvados, cider, lambig
juice of pears perry, or pear cider pear brandy
juice of sugarcane, or molasses basi, betsa-betsa (regional) rum, cachaça, aguardiente, guaro
juice of agave pulque tequila, mezcal
juice of plums plum wine slivovitz, tzuica, palinca
pomace pomace wine grappa (Italy), Trester (Germany), marc (France)
honey mead distilled mead ("mead brandy" or "honey brandy")
potato and/or grain potato beer vodka: potato mostly used in Ukraine, otherwise grain. Brennivín (Iceland) is made from potato.
Milk Kumis Araka

Note that in common speech, wine or brandy is made from grapes unless the fruit is specified: "plum wine" or "cherry brandy" for example, although in some cases grape-derived alcohol is added.

In the USA and Canada, cider often means unfermented apple juice (see the article on cider), while fermented cider is called hard cider. Unfermented cider is sometimes called sweet cider. Also, applejack was originally made by a freezing process described in the article on cider which was equivalent to distillation but more easily done in the cold climate of New England. In the UK, cider is always alcoholic, and in Australia it can be either.

Beer is generally made from barley, but can sometimes contain a mix of other grains. Whisky is sometimes made from a blend of different grains, especially Irish whiskey which may contain several different grains. The style of whisky (Scotch, Rye, Bourbon) generally determines the primary grain used, with additional grains usually added to the blend (most often barley, and sometimes oats).

Two common distilled beverages are vodka and gin. Vodka can be distilled from any source (grain and potatoes being the most common) but the main characteristic of vodka is that it is so thoroughly distilled as to exhibit none of the flavors derived from its source material. Gin is a similar distillate which has been flavored by contact with herbs and other plant products, especially juniper berries. The name comes from the Dutch liquor genever, which in turn takes its name from the Dutch word for juniper.

See also


  1. ^  Smith, M.G., and M. Snyder (2005). "Ethanol-induced virulence of Acinetobacter baumannii". American Society for Microbiology meeting, Atlanta. 

External links

da:Alkohol de:Alkohol es:Bebida alcohólica eo:Alkoholaĵo fa:نوشیدنی‌های الکلی fr:Boisson alcoolisée ko:술 id:Minuman beralkohol is:Áfengi he:משקה חריף ka:ალკოჰოლური სასმისი lt:Alkoholinis gėrimas ms:Arak nl:Alcoholische drankpt:Bebida alcoólica ro:Băutură alcoolică ru:Алкогольные напитки fi:Alkoholijuoma sv:Sprit th:เหล้า vi:Các loại đồ uống có chứa cồn uk:Спиртні напої zh:酒

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