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What is Grain Alcohol & How is it Used in Spirits?

Grain alcohol is a distilled neutral spirit made from fermenting grain. It is the purified form of ethyl alcohol, which is also called ethanol, neutral grain spirit, or rectified spirit

Grain alcohol, a neutral spirit, can be made from corn, rye, wheat, grapes, grains, sugarcane, tubers, and beets. It is sold under different brand names, including Everclear, Alcohol-95, and Golden Grain.

Everclear

In its undiluted form, grain alcohol is harsh, so you don’t consume it straight. Instead, you should mix it with other drinks. Alcohol manufacturers often use it for making other alcoholic drinks like wine, vodka, homemade liqueurs, or cheap whiskey.

How is Grain Alcohol Made?

Grain alcohol is made from distilling fermented grain. Manufacturers produce it from a fermented mixture of corn, sugar, yeast, and water in places like North America. But, aside from corn, you can also use other grains like wheat and rye.

To produce grain alcohol, ethanol is first made by fermenting sugars in the grain using yeast. After this, the ethanol is repeatedly distilled to produce grain alcohol.

The term “grain alcohol” also describes alcohol that is pure and high proof. It is a clear liquid that has no additives or smell. Distillation enables the production of this pure alcohol from fermented grains.

Distilled alcoholic beverages or distilled spirits are considered “free of gluten protein” irrespective of the starting material for their production.2

In its neat form, grain alcohol contains a minimum of 95 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). This is equivalent to 190 proof. Grain alcohol that is up to 200 proof (100 percent ABV) is not for human consumption.

Asides from mixing it in drinks like gin, whisky, and rum, grain alcohol also has other uses. It has industrial applications. Grain alcohol (ethanol) is strong and can kill bacteria, so it is used as an antiseptic agent or disinfectant. It is also used as solvent and fuel. The U.S. produced the largest amount of fuel ethanol worldwide in 2020 (as much as 13.8 billion gallons).7

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Can You Drink Grain Alcohol?

You shouldn’t drink pure grain alcohol. Drinking grain alcohol can lead to alcohol intoxication. The high alcohol content of grain alcohol can cause a rapid spike in blood alcohol levels, even in small quantities. Alcohol poisoning can, in turn, lead to death.

Everclear, a popular grain alcohol brand name, noted that the liquid product has a “notorious reputation” because of its high alcohol content.

Most people who drink grain alcohol don’t take it straight in its pure form because even a few drops can be toxic. Rather, it is diluted and used in mixed drinks.

Also, grain alcohol leaves a burning aftertaste in your mouth, which is another reason why you might not want to take it undiluted. Most people mix it with a sweet substance to make a milder alcoholic beverage. 

Examples of Grain Alcohol

Grain alcohol is used to describe fine, purified ethanol in its undiluted form (190 proof). This means distilled neutral spirits with 95 percent alcohol content are categorized under grain alcohol. 

Alcoholic beverages are generally separated into three categories, including wine, beer, and distilled spirits. These classifications are not based on ethanol content, but rather on methods of production (e.g., distillation) and the type of raw material used. Ethanol content is approximately the same for a standard drink of wine, beer, and spirits.4 

Here are some examples of grain alcohol:

Everclear

The American company, Luxco produces Everclear. Everclear has a very high alcohol content and is actually illegal in some states in the United States. This alcohol comes in three versions- the 120-proof, 151-proof, and 190 proof.

Alcohol-95

Kittling Ridge Ltd. is a Canadian company that manufactures Alcohol-95. Just like other examples of grain alcohol, it contains 95 percent alcohol.

Golden Grain

The same company that produces Everclear manufactures Golden Grain. Golden Grain is also a 190 proof alcohol. However, unlike Everclear, it comes in the highly potent 95 percent alcohol variant. 

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Is Everclear Grain Alcohol Illegal?

Everclear is a 190 proof version of grain alcohol. It is a popular brand name for ethyl alcohol. It is 95 percent undiluted alcohol. Keep in mind that other liquor like rum, vodka, and gin typically have an alcohol content between 20 and 40 percent. 

Because Everclear is toxic, this 190 proof grain alcohol is considered illegal in many states in the United States, such as Florida, California, Iowa, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and North Carolina. 

According to an article in the New York Times, only the 120 proof variation of Everclear alcohol is legal in California. There was an increased demand for the drink in Utah. Thus, the state authorities were forced to limit the purchase of the liquor to one to two bottles at a time.1

In states like Maryland, the sale of grain is banned. However, it is not a crime to own neutral grain spirits. On the other hand, states like Wisconsin have recorded several failed attempts in banning the sale of grain alcohol.5

Dangers of Drinking Grain Alcohol 

The Food and Drug Administration has enlisted ethanol as ‘Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substances.3 But does this mean it is safe for drinking?

Because of its toxic nature, neutral grain spirits like the Everclear grain alcohol are not safe for consumption. Everclear manufacturers suggested that the drink be considered an “unfinished ingredient” and should not be consumed undiluted. 

Below are some of the dangers of drinking grain alcohol straight from the bottle without diluting:

  • It can cause loss of physical and mental control
  • You might experience confusion or delirium from taking just a few drops
  • You might pass out after taking a drink straight from the bottle
  • It can lead to an accident when driving
  • It predisposes one to liver disease
  • It can destroy or damage the nerve tissues 
  • It can cause brain damage as it is a nervous system depressant
  • It can cause alcohol poisoning
  • It can lead to death

According to some reports, this strong liquor is being used as a date rape drug because, when mixed with drinks, it is hard to detect pure alcohol as it has no pronounced taste or added flavor. This calls for concern, especially among youths.6 

Since this purified form of ethanol is much stronger than even hard drinks like vodka, its negative effects are worse than those of other common liquors. If you suspect that have developed a high tolerance for strong grain alcohol and have developed Alcohol Use Disorder, contact a healthcare provider for resources and options for treatment.

Resources

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(1) Alex Williams. “How Everclear Became A Pandemic Favourite.” The New York Times, 9 July 2020.

(2) Dennis, Melinda and Thompson, Tricia. “Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol on the Gluten-Free Diet.” National Celiac Association, 12 September 2018.

(3) FDA. “CFR-Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.” US Food and Drug Administration, 10 November 2020.

(4) IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. “Alcohol Drinking.” IARC Monographs On The Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, No. 44,2, International Agency for Research on Cancer (1988).

(5) “In Which State Is It Legal To Sell Everclear?” Reference, 28 March 2020.

(6) “JHU Expert Calls Grain Alcohol ‘Incredibly Dangerous’ as Md. Lawmakers Mull Ban.” Hub Johns Hopkin University, 6 February 2014.

(7) N., Sonnichsen. “Ethanol Fuel Production in Top Countries 2020.” Statista, 26 February 2021.

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