What is a Standard Drink?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

The taste may change but the alcohol stays the same.

What is a Standard Drink?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Only one kind of alcohol, ethanol, is drinkable. Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is made from fermenting a liquid made from fruit, grains or similar vegetative products. Sometimes this chemical is called grain alcohol. While chemically similar, all the types of alcohol other than Ethanol can do significant harm, including cause blindness or death, when consumed. From here on, when I say alcohol, I am talking exclusively about the ethanol type.

The folk-lore of drinking contains lots of myths about what to drink and how to drink it. People may think that if they only drink beer or wine then they can’t become alcoholics. Some people give up “the hard stuff” thinking this will prevent them having a problem with alcohol. Most of this belief that one alcoholic drink is better or worse than another is based on misconceptions about the content of alcoholic drinks.

No matter what we call an alcoholic beverage, what it is made from or what flavorings and additives are included, the pure alcohol part of alcoholic beverages is the same. All drinkable alcoholic beverages contain ethanol. Ethanol is the component that gets you drunk and withdrawal from ethanol, no matter the source, is what causes a hangover.

In order to compare the amount of pure alcohol contained in various beverages we use a concept called a “standard drink.” That standard drink is the amount of a beverage that contains one-half an ounce of pure ethanol.

In some places, alcohol content is calculated by weight and in other places, it is calculated by volume. Depending on whether the alcohol is measured by weight or by volume and depending on who does the measuring we can get slightly different numbers here. Either way, the results of alcohol are pretty much the same.

Beer has the smallest percentage of alcohol.

Beers can vary between three and seven percent alcohol. Most of the major commercial beers in the U. S. are at the low end, close to 3 % and a twelve-ounce beer is considered a standard drink. Many people believe that because beer has a lower alcohol content it is safer and less likely to lead to problems. Unfortunately, that turns out to not be true. Because beer has a lower alcohol content per standard drink most people just drink more volume of beer than they would if drinking another alcoholic beverage. More than half the pure alcohol consumed every year here in the U. S. comes from beer.

Wine is a little stronger and can vary more.

Typical wines come in at eight to fourteen percent alcohol. The various textbooks I consulted gave between four and five oz. of wine as a standard drink. A wine can be fortified by adding alcohol distilled from some other alcoholic beverage. By fortifying a wine it can be pushed up to as much as twenty-two percent ethyl alcohol.

Spirits or Hard Liquor are the result of distillation.

As the fermentation progresses the alcohol begins to prevent the yeast from working so the process of fermentation stops. To get stronger alcoholic beverages some manipulation is required. If the liquid is heated, the alcohol evaporates faster than the water and other components. Catch this steam which is largely alcohol, condense it, and you get a beverage with a higher concentration of alcohol. We call this product with the concentrated levels of alcohol, spirits or hard liquor.

A standard drink containing spirits is about one “shot” of an 86 proof liquor. Proof numbers are twice the percentage numbers so this shot contains about half an ounce of pure alcohol.

Glass size and proof matter.

In trying to compare the amount of alcohol in one drink with another it is important to keep in mind that a glass of wine is defined as a 4 to 5-ounce glass size.  Pouring the wine into a 32-ounce tumbler does not mean a tumbler full is still one standard drink.

When the “proof” changes so should the size of the drink. Stronger spirits should be served in smaller glasses. In practice, people still pour more than one standard drink into their glass resulting in some drinks that contain way more than “one standard drink.” Even beer can become deceptively intoxicating if served in a mug that holds more than 12 ounces.

The problem with counting standard drinks.

The whole idea of standard drinks was to predict the effects of drinking a glass of a particular alcoholic beverage. In practice, most people are taking in more alcohol than they realize and the heavy or binge drinkers are drinking way more drinks than they planned.

If you are having a problem with controlling your drinking the answer is not in measuring standard drinks. If when you drink you consume more than intended or bad things happen to you, there is a good chance that you have an Alcohol Use Disorder. Stop trying to find a way to beat the game and drink more but not get drunk and get some help from a support group like A. A. or a professional counselor.

For more on this topic see:  Alcoholism       Drug Use, Abuse, and Addiction

Terms and their meaning can differ with the profession using them. The literature from the Rehab or AOD (Alcohol and Other Drug) field may be very different from that in the mental health field. There is still a large gap between recovery programs and AOD professionals and the terms and descriptions used in the DSM.

FYI These “What is” sometimes “What are” posts are my efforts to explain terms commonly used in Mental Health, Clinical Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Psychology, Life Coaching, and related disciplines in a plain language way. Many are based on the new DSM-5; some of the older posts were based on the DSM-IV-TR, both published by the APA. For the more technical versions please consult the DSM or other appropriate references.

See Recommended Books.     More “What is” posts will be found at “What is.”

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Three David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

SasquatchWandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive? The guests had come to Meditation Mountain to find themselves. Trapped in the Menhirs during a sudden desert storm, two guests move through a porthole in time and encounter long extinct monsters. They want to get back to their own time, but the Sasquatch intends to kill them.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Books are now available on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and many other online stores.

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

3 thoughts on “What is a Standard Drink?

  1. Pingback: Why Pharmacokinetics matters. | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: Why do drugs affect people differently? | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Dangers of Binge Drinking | counselorssoapbox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.