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What Is the Proof of My Cocktail?
It’s easy to tell how strong liquor is because you simply need to read the bottle’s label and look for its proof or alcohol by volume (ABV). This will tell you whether the whiskey or vodka you’re pouring is the standard 80 proof, or
a little higher or lower. Yet, have you ever wondered about the proof of your cocktail?
Things can get complicated when you start combining different liquors with nonalcoholic mixers, shaking it with ice and adding water, and everything else that is required to create great drinks. Unless you are willing to carry a test kit filled with scientific gadgets to the bar, there is no straight answer as to how strong the drink in front of you is in reality.
There is, however, a simple formula that can help you estimate the alcohol content of your mixed drinks. It can also help you decrease or increase a drink’s potency if you know a few basic facts.
Measuring Alcohol Content
There are two numbers on liquor bottles that indicate exactly how strong the distilled spirit is: alcohol by volume and proof. The two can easily be converted back and forth, though they have different purposes.
- Alcohol by volume often reads as alc/vol or ABV on the label. It is given as a percentage and measures the amount of alcohol that is in a bottle compared to the total volume of liquid. During the distillation process, the distiller will produce a very strong distillate that comes directly out of the still. This is then watered down to the bottling strength, or the alcohol by volume indicated on the label. ABV is required on every alcoholic beverage sold on the legal market worldwide, including all liquor, wine, and beer.
- The proof is a number that is primarily used in the United States to denote the taxes a distiller needs to pay on a certain amount of liquor. American drinkers tend to use proof to describe the potency of liquor as well. (It is easier than saying alcohol by volume or alcohol content.) Proof is only used on distilled spirits; you will not it on beer and wine labels.
The Average ABV
The alcohol content for most alcoholic beverages falls into a certain range:
- Brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey are typically 40 percent ABV or 80 proof. Some high-proof liquors—primarily whiskeys and rums—reach over 50 percent ABV (100 proof). You will also notice that many flavored vodkas and similar liquors are bottled at 35 percent ABV (75 proof).
- Liqueurs tend to range from 15 percent to 30 percent ABV or 30 to 60 proof. Some are 40 percent ABV (80 proof).
- Beer can range from 3.0 percent to 13.0 percent ABV, though most fall somewhere between 4.0 percent and 7.0 percent. The decimal point is almost always included (e.g., 4.2 percent) because brewers indicate the exact percentage of each brew.
- Wines tend to range from 8 percent to 14 percent ABV.
If you do some quick math, you’ll notice the easy formula used to switch between ABV and proof:
ABV x 2 = Proof. For example:
- 40 percent ABV is 80 proof
- 15 percent ABV is 30 proof
Estimating the Alcohol Content of Mixed Drinks
Why did you get drunk off just two vodka martinis last night when the other day you felt fine after three whiskey highballs?
The more you look at the alcohol content of cocktails, the more you’ll realize that some may be all short and fancy, but they’re surprisingly potent!
More drinkers are becoming concerned about how strong their mixed drinks and some bars are even adding ABV to their cocktail menus. The reputation of certain styles of drinks or the liquor that goes into them can also cause you to perceive that a cocktail is stronger or lighter. When you learn how to estimate a drink’s true alcohol content, you can have greater control when making decisions about what to drink when.
These calculations can only be an estimate of a drink’s strength because of a few factors. One of the biggest unknowns is how the drink is mixed. Every professional and home bartender mixes drinks a little differently:
- Some shake harder, causing more ice to dilute the drink.
- Some will pour a 2-ounce shot of liquor while others prefer 1 1/2 ounces.
- Some fill a highball drink with 6 ounces of ginger ale while others only use 4 ounces.
The size of the glass, particularly when building drinks, is also going to play a role. If you are using a 7-ounce collins glass, for instance, you will have a stronger drink than if you make the same drink in a 10-ounce highball glass and fill it with soda.
The Cocktail Proof Formula
While you cannot know the exact alcohol content of any particular mixed drink, there is a basic formula that’s used to estimate a drink’s strength:
(Alcohol Content x Liquor Volume / Total Drink Volume) x 100 = % Alcohol by Volume
It’s a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s relatively simple.
A Martini Is Stronger Than You Think
The classic gin martini recipe is a perfect example. To estimate its strength, begin by breaking down each of the alcoholic ingredients; multiply the volume of each by their individual strength. You must also factor in dilution because this adds to the drink’s total volume. To keep things simple, 1/2 ounce dilution allowance is used for all cold mixed drinks.
Tall Drinks Are Lighter
Not all mixed drinks are that strong. Many popular casual-sipping drinks include juices, sodas, and other nonalcoholic mixers at high volumes (2 to 6 ounces) that significantly reduce the impact of the alcohol.
For a simple highball drink, the Tom Collins is a good example. Since gin is the lone liquor, it is the only ingredient that requires the initial alcohol content calculation. The other ingredients are simply factored into the drink’s total volume.
Frozen Cocktails Are Tricky
Whenever you mix a drink in the blender, ice plays a more significant role. It becomes part of the drink, not simply a means to cool or dilute. That means estimating the strength of frozen cocktails is even less exact. Yet, there is a guideline that can help out.
Most frozen drink recipes suggest adding 1 cup of ice to the blender; about 5 or 6 average-sized ice cubes makes 1 heaping cup. When those are blended on their own, the result is about 4 ounces (or 1/2 cup) of shaved ice. That number can then be inserted into the cocktail proof formula.
Alcohol Content and Liqueurs
Liqueurs are one of the biggest variables in this equation. While you can generally assume that gin, vodka, whiskey, and other base spirits are 80 proof (and the bottle will clearly state otherwise), liqueurs are not so easy. Different liqueurs will have different alcohol content, varying from one brand to another, even between liqueurs of the same style or flavor.
If you would like to know the proof of a particular cocktail without doing the math yourself, you can use an online tool. The Cocktail Content Calculator on the National Institutes of Health’s Rethinking Drinking website is a good one.