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Alcohol Proof

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What Does Proof Mean in Alcohol?

Alcohol proof measures the percentage of alcohol in spirits (hard alcohol or hard liquor). 

Proof is calculated by doubling the percentage of alcohol 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 higher the alcohol proof, the higher the alcohol strength.

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Why is Alcohol Measured by Proof?

Measuring alcohol strength by proof has British origins. 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. 

The “gunpowder test” was a crude method developed to see how much ethyl alcohol was in different batches of rum. Government officials would soak gunpowder with the spirits being measured and try to ignite it afterward. 

If it caught fire, that indicated proof that the spirit contained more than 57% alcohol. This is the minimum amount that is flammable. 

The term "proof" stuck from this initial methodology. However, 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 the modern proof system is simply the doubling of ABV for any spirit. 

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

The reason beer and wine are not measured by proof stems from the term's origin. 

When spirits were created in 16th Century England, proof was created for tax purposes. Only high-alcohol beverages were subject to tax levies. Since spirits had high alcohol content, they were subjected to “proofing.”

On the other hand, beer and wine 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 modern terminology was adopted, it excluded beer and wine from this form of hard alcohol measurement. 

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Alcohol Proof Examples

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, spirits begin to approach flammability. 

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 because they are legally allowed to be produced.

70-Proof

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, which are typically below 15% ABV. 

80-Proof

80-proof alcohol is equal to 40% ABV. It’s the most common proof measurement for spirits. Most rums, tequilas, gins, whiskeys, vodkas, and cognacs are 80-proof. The U.S. law requires these spirits to be 80 proof. 

In addition, 80-proof alcohol also has historical significance. English men only tolerated alcohol 30 degrees underproof by weight in the past. This equates to around 39% ABV, which is around 80 proof.

Bottling alcohol at 80-proof also provides economic benefits. It’s cheaper to bottle 80-proof alcohol since it requires less tax. This is because bottles with higher proof will be taxed higher.

100-Proof

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. 

100-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. 

Popular options are legally available, anywhere from 151 to 190 proof. This is on the extreme high-end of the scale.  

Does 200-Proof Alcohol Exist?

No, there is a physical limit to how pure alcohol can be distilled, especially in 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. Drinking 190-proof alcohol is already extremely dangerous and is not legal in some states. 

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Is it Safe to Drink High Proof Spirits?

Drinking high-proof spirits come with dangers and side effects. You need to be aware of them before drinking high-proof spirits. Remember to limit your alcohol intake to avoid these dangers and side effects.

Dangers of Drinking High-Proof Spirits

The dangers of high-proof spirits are similar to the risks of drinking too much alcohol. 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 other related health problems, seek medical help immediately. Additionally, if you think you have developed Alcohol Use Disorder, contact a healthcare professional to explore treatment options/resources.

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 spirits or hard liquor tend to have average or typical proof measurements. 

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

  • Rum: Typical modern rum beverages range between 70-100 proof (35-50% ABV), with the most common being 80-proof.
  • Cachaça: Cachaça is typically between 70-100 proof, though it tends to be on the lower end of this range. 
  • Tequila: Typical tequila bottles will have between 80-100 proof on their label (40-50% ABV), with few exceptions to this range. 
  • Mezcal: Mezcal is much smokier than regular tequila, but the alcoholic content is very similar. It stays in the 80-100 proof range. 
  • Gin: Gin is usually made with 70-100 proof (35-50% ABV).
  • Whiskey: There are many forms of whiskey, including scotch, rye, and bourbon. Each related subtype is typically between 70-100 proof (35-50% ABV).
  • Vodka: Each bottle of vodka also varies the most in proof, with different types being anywhere from 80-190 proof (40-95% ABV). 
  • Cognac: Almost all types of cognac are 80-proof (40% ABV), regardless of which distiller or distillery made them.
  • Liqueur: Most 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

Summary

Alcohol proof measures alcohol percentage in spirits. Different spirits have different alcohol proof. Although it’s okay to drink high-proof spirits, it’s best to limit your alcohol intake. This will help you prevent any dangers, such as alcohol poisoning. 

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Updated on September 16, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. National Institutes of Health (US), Information about Alcohol. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, NIH, 2007. 
  2. Mostofsky, E., Mukamal, K. J., Giovannucci, E. L., Stampfer, M. J., & Rimm, E. B. . “Key Findings on Alcohol Consumption and a Variety of Health Outcomes From the Nurses' Health Study.” American journal of public health, 2016. 
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol's Effects on the Body.” NIAAA. 
  4. National Health Services. “The Risks of Drinking Too Much.” NHS. 
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What is a Standard Drink?” NIAAA.
  6. Rethinking Drinking. “Cocktail Content Calculator.” NIAAA.

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