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What is Alcohol?

The type of alcohol in an alcoholic drink is a chemical called ethanol. To make alcohol, you need to put grains, fruits or vegetables through a process called fermentation. Wine and cider are made by fermenting fruit, while fermented cereals such as barley and rye form the basis of beer and spirits. A drink's alcohol content is affected by how long it's left to ferment. Spirits go through a process called distillation, a proportion of the water is removed, leaving a stronger concentration of alcohol and flavour.

Understanding Volume of Alcohol

One unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol. It takes the average adult around an hour to process one unit.

Alcohol content is also expressed as a percentage of the whole drink. Look on a bottle of wine or a can of lager and you'll see either a percentage, followed by the abbreviation "ABV" (alcohol by volume) , or sometimes just the word "vol". Wine that says "13 ABV" on its label contains 13% pure alcohol.

The alcoholic content in similar types of drinks varies a lot. Some ales are 3.5%. But stronger continental lagers can be 5% ABV, or even 6%. Same goes for wine where the ABV of stronger 'new world' wines from South America, South Africa and Australia can exceed 14% ABV compared to the 13% ABV average of European wines.

This means that just one pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine can contain more than three units of alcohol - the upper daily unit guideline limit if you are woman.

Measures and glass sizes

Spirits used to be served in 25ml measures, which are one unit of alcohol, many pubs and bars now serve 35ml or 50ml measures.

A large wine glass holds 250ml, which is one third of a bottle (nearly three units or more in just one glass). So if you have just two or three drinks, you could consume a whole bottle of wine, almost three times the government's daily alcohol unit guidelines. Smaller glasses are 175ml and some pubs serve 125ml.

Try these online calculators to check the units you drink.

Drink Aware - Unit Calculator

NHS - Alcohol Units

One You Drink Tracker App

Calories in Alcohol

Being high in sugar means alcohol is very high in calories, you would think twice about eating a hot dog, then a burger followed by a doughnut but you would consume the same calories by having four pints of Cider. The calories in alcohol are 'empty calories' with no nutritional value and drinking alcohol also reduces the amount of fat your body burns.

If you want to know how many calories you are consuming in your alcoholic drink try this useful calculator.

You can read more about the health effects of Alcohol here.


If you would like further information, please consult the 'helpful links' section on this page.

Fact Zone

In 2010 alcohol use was the third leading risk factor contributing to the global burden of disease after high blood pressure and tobacco smoking
Alcohol is 45% more affordable than it was in 1980
An estimated 9990 people were casualties of drink-driving accidents in the UK in 2011 including 280 who were killed and 1290 who suffered serious injury
Alcohol misuse costs England approximately £21bn per year in healthcare, crime and lost productivity costs
More than 36,200 people were admitted to hospital because of the toxic effect of alcohol in England in 2011/13, that’s nearly 700 every week.


Helpful Links