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What Does Proof Mean in Alcohol (Definition)?

Alcohol proof is a measure of alcohol percentage used for spirits, otherwise known as “hard alcohol” or “hard liquor.” Proof is calculated by doubling the ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, content by volume found in respective spirits. 

For example, a spirit that is 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV percentage) is classified as being 80 proof. 

The term “proof” dates back to 16th Century England, where it was implemented as a crude measure of alcohol content for rum and eventually other spirits.

Why is Alcohol Measured by Proof?

Alcohol is measured by proof due to British origins for determining the amount of alcohol in spirits. As far back as the 1500s, England taxed spirits, mainly rum, based on the amount of alcohol in it. However, there were no simple ways to measure this amount. 

A crude method of measurement, known as the “gunpowder test,” was developed to see how much alcohol was in different batches of rum.  Government officials would soak gunpowder with the spirits being measured and try to ignite it afterwards. If it caught fire, that indicated proof that the spirit contained more than 57% alcohol, the minimum amount that is flammable. 

The term "proof" stuck from this initial methodology, but the modern standard is not based on gunpowder in any way. In the mid-19th Century United States, 50% ABV was deemed a baseline for labeling spirits as “100 proof.” This is why, in modern terms, proof is simply the doubling of ABV for any given spirit. 

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Why are Beer and Wine not Measured by “Proof?”

The reason why beer and wine are not measured by proof stems from the origin of the term itself. When spirits were created in 16th Century England, proof was created for tax purposes, with only high-alcohol beverages subject to tax levies. Since spirits had high alcohol content, they were subjected to “proofing.”

Beer and wine, on the other hand, were not subject to proof measurements. Even the strongest beers and wines were well below the 57% ABV standard that designated the proof requirement. And when the modern terminology was adopted, it similarly excluded beer and wine from this form of hard alcohol measurement. 

Alcohol Proof by Type of Liquor

Each type of spirit varies in proof values due to several factors, such as unique brand recipes. However, different kinds of spirits or hard liquor tend to have average or typical proof measurements. 

Below are typical proof ranges for common forms of hard alcohol: 

Rum

Rum was the beverage that inspired the initial proof measurement system in 16th Century United Kingdom. Back then, it was common to find rum that was proved to be above 57% ABV. 

Typical modern rum beverages range between 70-100 proof (35-50% ABV), with the most common being 80 proof. 

Cachaça

Cachaça is a variant of rum that is very popular in Brazil and is the main component of the ubiquitous drink caipirinha. It is also typically between 70-100 proof, though it tends to be on the lower end of this range. 

Tequila

Tequila is a very popular spirit that originates from Mexico and is still the most popular hard alcohol beverage there today. Typical tequila bottles will have between 80-100 proof on their label (40-50% ABV), with few exceptions to this range. 

Mezcal

Mezcal is a type of tequila that is very traditionally Mexican, though it is growing in popularity in many other places. It is much smokier than regular tequila, but the alcoholic content is very similar, staying in the 80-100 proof range. 

Gin

Gin replaced rum as the alcohol of choice by the British as they expanded their empire. It is easier to make than the sugarcane-based rum, though it is usually made with a similarly typical 70-100 proof (35-50% ABV).

Whiskey

Whiskey is very popular all over the world, from Ireland to Brazil to Japan. There are many subforms of whiskey, including Scotch, Rye, and Bourbon, all of which have innate differences, according to their connoisseurs. However, each of these related subtypes is typically between 70-100 proof (35-50% ABV).

Vodka

Vodka is known to be popular in Eastern Europe, but it is also one of the most popular spirits in France, Canada, Guyana, and a host of other countries. Each bottle of vodka also varies the most in proof, with different types being anywhere from 80-190 proof (40-95% ABV). Certain types of vodka are by far the strongest possible alcohol that is fit for human consumption. 

Cognac

Cognac is known to be a high-end type of liquor, with exacting attention to detail in its creation. Because of this, almost all types of cognac are 80 proof (40% ABV), regardless of which distiller or distillery made them.

Liqueur

Liqueurs, such as Amaretto, Baileys, Kaluha, and others, are typically the lowest proof spirits. Almost all of the spirits in this category are between 30-60 proof (15-30%), and the majority are on the lower end.

Graph showing the ABV content in different types of alcohol

What is Considered a “Normal” Alcohol Proof?

“Normal” alcohol proof is less than the initial amount that sparked the term. Today, anything in the range of 40-100 proof is considered “normal.” Higher than that and spirits begin to approach flammability, which is dangerous for consumption and in case of fire. 

Each type of spirit has a “normal” or typical proof, as covered above. Rum, tequila, gin, vodka, and whiskey are typically 80 proof, though different batches can vary. While some liquors (mainly rums and vodkas) can seem abnormal due to their very high proofs, these are still normal in the sense that they are legally allowed to be produced.

What Does 70 Proof Mean?

70 proof simply means 35% ABV. It is most common for flavored spirits and some higher-proof liqueurs. 70 proof is on the lower end of the scale since proof only measured hard alcohol. This is because spirits are supposed to be higher than beer or wine, both of which are typically below 15% ABV. 

What Does 80 Proof Mean?

80 proof is equal to 40% ABV. It is the most common proof measurement for spirits. Most rums, tequilas, gins, whiskeys, vodkas, and cognacs are 80 proof, along with several other types of alcoholic beverages. 

What is Considered a High Alcohol Proof?

Anything above 100 proof is considered high. This is more than 50% ABV, which was deemed the baseline when the modern proof measurement system was introduced. There are popular options legally available that are anywhere from 151 proof all the way to 190 proof, which is on the extreme high-end of the scale.  

What Does 100 Proof Mean?

100 proof is 50% ABV. This was the initial starting point for the term proof in the United States. In terms of baselines, anything below 100 proof is considered normal. Anything above is considered high. 

Is There a 200 Proof Alcohol?

No, there is a physical limit to how pure alcohol can be distilled, especially in terms of creating a spirit. The highest proof that is available for purchase is Everclear at 190 proof. 

No alcohol that can safely (or legally) be ingested by human beings can reach 200 proof. In fact, drinking 190 proof alcohol is already extremely dangerous and is not legal in some states. 

Dangers of Drinking High Proof Spirits

The dangers of drinking high-proof spirits are similar to the risks of drinking too much alcohol in general. These include:

  • Stomach problems
  • Malnutrition
  • Memory problems
  • Concentration issues
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Mental health conditions
  • Suicide or suicidal thoughts
  • Brain damage
  • Mood or personality changes
  • Obesity (high-proof alcohol has 300% more calories than average-proof alcohol)
  • Heart damage
  • Harmful to unborn babies or breastfeeding babies

There is also a much higher chance of developing alcohol poisoning if you drink high-proof spirits. Signs to watch out for include: 

  • Pale skin
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Difficulty walking
  • Hypothermia
  • Stomach and intestinal bleeding
  • Stupor
  • Unsteadiness
  • Vomiting, particularly with blood

If you think somebody is experiencing alcohol poisoning or any other related health problem, seek medical help immediately.

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Resources

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National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US); 2007. Information about Alcohol. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20360/

Mostofsky, E., Mukamal, K. J., Giovannucci, E. L., Stampfer, M. J., & Rimm, E. B. (2016). Key Findings on Alcohol Consumption and a Variety of Health Outcomes From the Nurses' Health Study. American journal of public health, 106(9), 1586–1591. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303336

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol's Effects on the Body. NIAAA. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body

National Health Services. The Risks of Drinking Too Much. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a Standard Drink? NIAAA. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink

Rethinking Drinking. Cocktail Content Calculator. NIAAA. https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/tools/calculators/cocktail-calculator.aspx

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